Sunday, August 18, 2013


An excerpt from Chapter 4 of God Of Our Silent Tears, now available from Cathedral Bookstore on line.

Any attempt to look upon suffering as caused directly or indirectly by God
            stands in danger of regarding him as sadistic.[i]
                                                                        Dorothee Soelle, Suffering

            Every human creature born
            Is born into the bright delusion
            Beauty and loving-kindness care for him.
            Suffering teaches! Suffering is good for us!
            Imagine men and women dying
            Still believing that the cuddling arms
            Enclosed them! . . .
            We learn to wish we’d never lived.[ii]
Archibald MacLeish, J. B. [Nickles speaking]

            “Affliction as punishment” does not carry much weight among today’s theologians. Saddling contemporary Christianity with that notion is truly not fair. But some of our best minds are inclined to interpret hardship as an opportunity for spiritual growth. Suffering can be understood as a test or an exercise. This approach is better because it attributes tough love, instead of vengeance, to God. But it is still problematic.            
            Let’s begin with the “test of faith” view before dealing with the closely related “spiritual exercise” theory. “Test of faith” regards affliction as a kind of trial or temptation to measure the degree of faith the sufferer has developed. The story of Job can be read this way, and I Peter 1:6–9 supports that view.[iii] The problem with “test of faith” is that it posits a seriously flawed view of God. Just ask: How do we feel about the cosmic proctor administering a moral midterm? Louise Glück protests against that kind of God in her poem “Matins (3)”:
                                    What is my heart to you
                                    that you must break it over and over
                                    like a plantsman testing
                                    his new species? [iv]                         
It is hard to worship and adore someone who would give us cancer to see how we handle it. Besides, this theory just doesn’t fit with the rest of what we believe about God. Does God test our characters with broken relationships, diseases, and social injustice? The notion is patently absurd. Scripture is quite clear that God knows us quite well already:
                        Lord you have searched me out and known me;
                                    you know my sitting down and my rising up;
                                    you discern my thoughts from afar.
                        You trace my journeys and my resting places
                                    and are acquainted with all my ways.
                        Indeed there is not a word on my lips
                                    but you O Lord know it altogether.
                                                                        – Psalm 139:1–4
One of the Church’s prayers begins, “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, from whom no secrets are hid.” God doesn’t need to administer tests. The tragedies that we are calling “tests” are the sorts of tests that might be dreamed up by Joseph Mengele. The God of Christianity does not afflict us out of curiosity to see how we’ll respond. Louise Glück protested against the God of the inhuman experiment, the God who “tests our faith.” Then she quickly saw that the God against whom she rebelled was a straw man, not the true God. In “Matins (4),” she writes:
                                    I am ashamed
                        at what I thought you were,
                                    distant from us, regarding us
                                    as an experiment: it is
                                    a bitter thing to be
                                    the disposable animal,
                                    a bitter thing. Dear friend,
                                    dear trembling partner, what
                                    surprises you most in what you feel,
                                    earth’s radiance or your own delight?[v]
            The only way to read the “test of faith” idea as saying something worthy of consideration is to interpret the “test” not as an examination, but as an exercise in faith. That idea has been embraced by notable theologians such as Simone Weil, Diogenes Allen, D. Z. Phillips, and John Hick. They have offered truly compelling arguments that God has designed the world as a spiritual boot camp to whip us into shape.
         The Christian tradition is not alone in its claim that suffering can humanize us and make us wise.
Aeschylus and Sophocles rarely wrote a play that did not include the line “I have suffered into truth.” 

Undoubtedly, the idea of suffering as a way to grow spiritually has deep roots in the Christian tradition, 

too. St. Paul said, “I want to share in the sufferings of Christ . . . if I may somehow attain the 

resurrection from the dead.” St. Ireneaus, in the third century, taught that evil was in the world in order 

to help us to grow toward holiness.[vi] Hebrews opines that “God disciplines those he loves” and that

“all discipline is painful” (but not that all pain is discipline). In the fourteenth century, Lady Julian of

Norwich prayed for the wounds of true contrition, true longing for God, and a serious illness to purify

her soul. In her classic Shewings, she said the wounds of life lead to greater honor and joy than we

could experience without them.[vii]

We must acknowledge that suffering and spiritual growth are sometimes, at least potentially, connected. 

In the Christian tradition, there are two versions of the idea that suffering is good for us. A view that D. 

Z. Phillips calls the “Outward Bound” school of theology holds that our own suffering poses challenges 

that enable us to develop heroic virtues, and the suffering of others gives us opportunities to practice 


         I call the other theory the Casablanca school of theology (“the problems of three little people 

don’t  amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”).[ix] The Casablanca school does not see God as

sending specific sufferings, but as leaving the universe to function unrestrained and therefore with

amoral  indifference to our well being. From the resulting hardships, we should learn that we are

insignificant.  This insight liberates us from our egos.
            Both views have some merit, but I cannot unqualifiedly accept either of them. As with the “divine retribution theory,” this “spiritual growth” theodicy is undercut by the facts we experience. So much suffering is grinding, dehumanizing, and embittering. Suffering is as likely to disintegrate us as it is to ennoble us. In Imagining Redemption, theologian David Kelsey shares such a case study. Sam was a little boy who contracted Guillain-Barré syndrome. It left him disabled and behaviorally unmanageable. The strain drove his mother to suicide. His father was then worn down by trying to care for Sam alone, leaving Kelsey to ask the hard question, “What earthly good does Jesus do in this situation?”[x]
            Does this theology offer a God we can worship and adore? No. It reduces God to a cosmic drill sergeant. That God-image may be more benign than the cosmic executioner, who punishes us for our moral lapses, but it is still a small-hearted God, using carrots and sticks to enforce his will. It is hard, and perhaps not healthy, to love such a God. His character still smacks of sadism.
            So how shall we sort out the truth from the falsehood in this approach to suffering? It is crucial here to distinguish a cause from a purpose, and a purpose from a justification.[xi] Spiritual growth will not do as a cause of suffering. God doesn’t send affliction like a thunderbolt to humble us. But our choice to use our suffering as an occasion for growth is another matter. Purpose and meaning are not just lying there before the event in an objective way for us to discover. Purpose and meaning are fashioned by our own interpretation and actions. Suffering and grief are sometimes somewhat redeemed from utter meaninglessness by spiritual transformation. Suffering isn’t caused by our need to grow, but we can grow through suffering and so give it a purpose or meaning.
            The possibility of making productive spiritual use of our suffering still doesn’t justify what happened to us. That would be a false defense of evil and injustice. Simone Weil, of all people, a brave fighter against fascism, certainly never intended that. Rabbi Harold Kushner described what he had gained spiritually from the death of his son Aaron, but acknowledged the gains did not justify the loss:
                        I am a more sensitive person, a more effective pastor, a more
                        sympathetic counselor because of Aaron’s life and death than I
                        would ever have been without it. And I would give up all those
                        gains in a second if I could have my son back. If I could choose,
                        I would forego all the spiritual growth and depth . . . and become
                        what I was fifteen years ago, an indifferent counselor, . . .
                        and the father of a bright, happy boy. But I cannot choose.[xii]
 Spiritual growth does not justify our suffering. But it can often paint the silver lining. If Kushner had shriveled into bitterness when his son died, he would have suffered just as much, perhaps more, but without finding any meaning or value in it. In fact, it would have made the meaning of his son’s death even worse. Kushner says:
                        We, by our responses, give suffering either a positive or a negative
                        meaning. Illnesses, accidents, human tragedies kill people. But
                        they do not necessarily kill life or faith. If the death and suffering
                        of someone we love makes us bitter, jealous, against all religion,
                        and incapable of happiness, we turn the person who died into
                        one of the “devil’s martyrs.” If suffering and death in someone
                        close to us bring us to explore the limits of our capacity for strength
                        and love and cheerfulness, if it leads us to discover sources of
                        consolation we never knew before, then we make the person
                        into a witness for the affirmation of life rather than its rejection.[xiii]
It is not always possible to turn pain into wisdom and compassion, but when it is possible, it is a 

profound way to live through affliction. Making meaning is a spiritual challenge life sets for us. We 

grow stronger in the process of trying to meet it. The irony in Archibald MacLeish’s J. B. is this: The 

“God” character is an immoral tyrant who subjects J. B. to unendurable suffering just to win a bet. But 

J. B. makes meaning of his suffering in the end, by resolving to love in spite of it all, knowing that love 

entails suffering, but that same love makes life worthwhile anyway.

[i] Dorothee Soelle, Suffering, trans. Everett Kalin (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 25.
[ii] MacLeish, J.B., 49.
[iii] “In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” The treatment of suffering in I Peter is, however, much richer and more complex than this snippet would suggest. See Patricia M. McDonald, “The View of Suffering Held by the Author of I Peter,” in Tambasco, The Bible on Suffering, 165–87. I would call it the weak point of the epistle.
[iv] Louise Glück, “Matins (3),” in The Wild Iris (New York: Ecco Press, 1996), 12.
[v] Louise Glück, “Matins (4),” ibid., 13.
[vi] Alistair McGrath, Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001), 292.
[vii] The idea that our suffering and struggle with evil is an essential part of our spiritual growth goes back to St. Ireneaus and persists today in the theology of John Hick (ibid., 292–93).
[viii] D. Z. Phillips, The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 166, 179–80. Ireneaus, Hick, and Swinburne are leading proponents of this approach.
[ix] Simone Weil, Diogenes Allen, and D. Z. Phillips are proponents of this view. Allen insists that God’s reality makes everything meaningful, even catastrophes: “[We] can trust that what we are doing and what is happening to us from the operations of the natural world and the social order make a contribution, even when we are not able to see that they do. All moments of dismay and dryness, as well as times of elation, make a contribution to that life which is being formed but which is not visible to us, especially when we are in states of distress” (Christian Belief in a Postmodern World [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989], 117). Later, in commenting on Adams’s Horrendous Evils, Allen implicitly acknowledges that horrendous evils may serve no good purpose, but can only be redeemed by some counter-good that only God can offer. Simone Weil is the greatest exponent of the view that affliction ennobles, but it should be noted that Weil’s life makes her subject to Soelle’s accusation of masochism.

[x] Kelsey, Imagining Redemption, 51-54.
[xi] Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas were careful to distinguish between what we would call “causes” from what we would call “purposes.”
[xii] Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Schockten Books, 1981), 133–34.
[xiii] Ibid., 138.

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