The Problem of Suffering

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One of the questions which has perplexed philosophers down the years is about suffering; not how on earth do we cope with it, but why is it there in the first place? I’m no great philosopher or theologian (as you will by now have noticed if you’ve been following my blogs) but I want to try to shed some light on this difficult question in my next two posts under the #godingrimtimes hashtag. Today I simply want to note two things: next time I’ll attempt my take on why people suffer. I doubt that it’ll be the last word, but it might just help those who are as concerned about why this is hurting as about how much it is hurting.

The first thing to say is that the problem of pain and evil is only a problem if you believe three things about God: you have to believe he exists, that he is powerful and that he is good. Take any or all of those out of the equation and your problem disappears instantly. If God is not real we live in a random universe where things … just happen. There’s no-one to blame if life hurts you. If God isn’t all-powerful then however much he might want to stop people suffering he just might not be up to the job. And if he isn’t a good God then he might inflict suffering just for fun, because he enjoys watching his people squirm. All of these possibilities make perfect sense, and completely solve the ‘mystery’ of suffering. But it is the stubborn Christian belief in a real, powerful and loving God which creates the problem.

Secondly (and we do need to get a bit philosophical here) pain and suffering is always a consequence of free will. If God wants his people to love and worship him, and like all of us wants to be loved because we love him and not because we have no choice or because he has our arms up behind our backs, there must be the logical possibility that we’ll choose to go the opposite way and reject him. He could theoretically have made us to live in a world where we have no choice but to do everything right, in which case suffering might not be a feature of life, but that would rob us of our free will and therefore of the possibility of a genuinely free loving relationship with him.

All of which takes us no closer at all to understanding a world where nasty thing happen and people get hurt. Neither, if I’m honest, does it do very much to help those who are going through the mill at the moment. We still need to grieve, to shout and cry ‘Why me?’ We may even conclude that in fact the God we thought we knew turns out not to be real and/or powerful and/or loving. But it might just help a bit to understand that in a sense it’s nothing personal: pain is, and has to be, a part of our experience, at least in this life.

But where does suffering actually come from? I’ll have a go at tackling that next time.