July 16, 2001
The Meanings of Suffering
Reverend Linda Yates
I watched Oprah one day and saw a mouse with a human ear growing on its back. The mouse scampered about its cage like any other mouse, with the exception of course, that it had this huge ear on top of it. The ear was being grown on this mouse for transplantation onto a human who had no ears. It was remarkable. The entire show was about medical miracles. The problem with these programs which celebrate medical progress is that they lull us into a sense of complacency. Having worked in the field of medical research I can assure you that what we know about the mysteries of the human body is comparable with the proverbial grain of sand on a large beach. As a survivor of cancer I can assure you that this lack of knowledge becomes painfully clear when faced with a life threatening illness.
In our culture we often do not think about the shortcomings of medical science until we are face to face with suffering and pain. In fact, even in our churches, we do not often wrestle with the paradoxical concept of the existence of a good God in a world full of suffering. Only until we are faced with the three big D's, (death, disease and disaster), do we venture into this strange land.
If we are going to look at these questions in any depth we must first differentiate between natural evil and radical evil. Both have two things in common. Both cause pain and suffering and both have existed from the beginning of humankind's participation within Creation.
Natural evil arises from the reality that the world exists such that humankind and all living things can participate within it in some kind of semi-predictable, practical way. Our world is alive with forces. Forces exist as possibilities of wave and light energy. Forces find life within subatomic particles and molecules. These are forces that we are only beginning to understand and which have a life of their own. As a believing people we understand God to have had a hand in this. This much we know to be true. Molecules come together to form amino acids, amino acids come together to form proteins, proteins come together to form more and more complex life forms until we have human beings, among other life forms. All living beings are intricately woven together in the web of life. All these forces, all these life forms act independently and interdependently and it is thus inevitable that there will be overlapping relationships between them. There will be conflict and clashes within the natural world of Creation. The results of the actions of natural forces will differ in effect. The sun gently nurtures a crop in one part of the world and helps create a desert that in another. Winds blow gently in one place even as a tornado may devastate a trailer park. These events happen because we live in a world of creative independence and interdependence. The forces themselves are not inherently evil. They are natural. Sometimes the effects have destructive consequences which create great hardship and suffering. As believing people our call is to work to respond in life giving ways to alleviate such hardship, pain and suffering.
I will give you another example. Is gravity good or evil? We can say that gravity is good because without it we could not live on the earth. Nothing would stay put. The planet would be unlivable for everyone and everything. However, if a piano falls off of a tall building and hits three people below, killing two of them and permanently paralyzing another, is gravity not then evil? Gravity is neither good nor evil. It's just gravity. It's a force that endangers our lives sometimes. It's a force in the natural world that makes our lives possible. We name the suffering created by the effects of some natural forces as evil because as a people of God we know that suffering is something to be relieved. Suffering for sufferings sake is abhorrent to a God of love.
Disease falls largely in the category of natural evil. For example a cell in my body at some point in my life underwent a mutation. Perhaps I was exposed to one to many carcinogenic substances in the lab I worked in. Perhaps I ate too much Bar B Q'd food. Perhaps I just breathed too much of this Maritime Air. Who knows. I'll never know why I got cancer. It is a mystery partly because it is a result of natural randomness. Our body is made up of cells. Cells multiply and divide. Cells undergo changes because they are dynamic. This too is part and parcel of being alive. We also experience physical pain because we are alive. Pain can be a good thing. I received a very nasty fly bite on my left arm which does not have any feeling because of the mastectomy. After the bite created swelling and discomfort in my arm I found myself wishing I had felt the pain of the insect's sting. I simply didn't know the fly was there so I couldn't shoo it away and protect myself from its bite. Rarely, some people are born whose pain sensors do not function. They can feel no pain. These people don't live very long. Why? Because they do not know how to avoid things that hurt their physical bodies. Most of these people die in their late teens from massive internal injuries. Usually they have broken almost all of the bones in their body by the time they die. Pain is protective. We need pain. It tells us when something is wrong with our bodies. Unfortunately, when something is really wrong with our bodies, such as when a baby is stuck in the birth canal or when someone is in the end stages of terminal cancer, pain can be constant and severe. It is a function of natural evil. It is not punishment. It does not have moral meaning in and of itself.
I know this much to be true. I did not get cancer because I was evil. I did not get cancer because I was good. I can not tell you how many people I have visited in my time as chaplain at the hospitals and in my work in pastoral charges who ask me what they've done to deserve this or that disease or this or that catastrophic accident. If we believe God to be good, I know the answer to that one - God does not inflict disease or catastrophic accidents upon people, period. Either God is good or God is evil. You will have to pick one. If God is good and the culmination and source of all that is loving then God does not discipline with acts so horrendous we ourselves could never contemplate them. Think of it. You know what goodness is. Which of you would run your child over with a car because they had done something wrong - no matter how wrong and how old the child, most of us know that this would be an act of great evil. Jesus poses the question to us - which of us would give our child a scorpion when they asked for food? In Matthew 7:11, Jesus says "If you then who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!"
Some people have said to me "Well, God gave you cancer so that you will learn. Imagine how good you will be as a minister now?!" Think about this rationale for a minute. Which of you would run over your children with a car or throw them down a flight of stairs or inject them with a deadly disease so that they would learn what it was like to experience such things or so that they can learn to be stronger from the trauma or so that they can be kinder and more empathetic to others. In our society we are smart enough and compassionate enough and loving enough to describe parents who would do such things as ill and as child abusers. We understand that such persons would no doubt have experienced great deprivation of love themselves and be to a large extent unable to love fully. Our God, the centrepoint and source of all that is love is not a child abuser. God does not abuse us. Remember Jesus said that even we, who are sinners, would not give our children scorpions when they ask for food. If we could not hurt our children thus, then how much more does God love and care for us? Do not make the mistake of thinking that when scorpions come into your life they are sent from God.
Some people have told me that God is testing me. All right lets run with that one. How many of you would set your child or your friend on fire everyday just to see how much they could stand? What about tripping them down a set of stairs just to see how long it was before they got angry with you? None of you would so cruelly test those you love I hope. I hope none of you would so cruelly test those you hate. Would it be a loving thing to do? No. Would it be an evil thing to do? I think so. So pick one. Is God good or is God evil? Our bible tells us that the greatest evils arise from calling a good thing bad and a bad thing good (Isaiah 5:20). Please don't so desperately need God to be in control of every aspect of the world that you ascribe to him the attributes of a cruel, petty, evil tyrant. Jesus reminds us, if we who are evil would not give our children snakes instead of fish or scorpions instead of eggs when they are hungry, how much kinder, more loving and more compassionate then, is God with us, the children of God.
Some have said to me that God never gives more to you than you can bear. If God does give such horrible burdens then God has badly underestimated the loads. I have met people who have been given more than they could bear. I met some of them at the Nova Scotia Hospital For the Mentally Ill when I did my Clinical Pastoral Education unit. Some of them were children, broken by horrendous burdens most of us could not bear to even think about. God did not give these people such burdens. God wishes these people to be relieved of their burdens. The relief of burdens is part of our work as Christians in the world.
In terms of natural evil, we need only look to the life and person of Jesus of Nazareth to understand the will of our Creator. Jesus spent all of his life befriending the friendless, comforting the afflicted. According to our gospels he spent well over a third of his ministry healing mental and physical illness. Healing. Never once did he make someone sick to teach them a lesson or test them. This man was about the work of Healingand relieving the suffering and pain of others. If God does afflict us with calamities and disease why would Jesus work against the will of his Father? It is not logical nor is it possible. God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one in intent. Jesus points most directly and succinctly to who God is and what God desires for us. If we call ourselves Christians; if we call ourselves followers of Christ, then we can rest assured that our God is a God of goodness and love and wishes us good health. God works with us within the constraints of God's own Creation to move us toward fullness of life.
Does this mean there can be no miracles? Not in the least. I have seen miracles happen. If we open our minds, bodies and souls to the healing power of the Spirit of God, healing can happen despite the constraints of our natural world. God wishes us good health. Often we do not know how to open ourselves up or there are not enough people in our lives who can help us know the loving, faithful Spirit of the Lord. God depends on us for the work of healing. If there is no faith and no openness, healing can not happen. Remember that in Jesus' own hometown he could do no deeds of power there because the people did not believe, (Mark 6:1-6). This is not to say that people become ill and die because of a lack of faith. I have been with many faithful, wonderful people who grew sicker and died even as they were surrounded by others of faith. Their departure from this world was eased knowing that through even this they were held close by the love of their Creator who made dying a part of our life on earth. Every one of us will die. The promise is that even during and through the act of dying, new life is promised.
A more complex problem for us and for Creation is that of radical evil. The concept of radical evil deserves a couple of good sermons to explore it properly. Radical evil arises from the reality that God has left human beings with free will, the ability to choose. We are free to choose right from wrong. We are not robots or puppets. Imagine if a parent says to their child, "You have two choices, you can either smack your brother or share your dessert with him." Then imagine that the parent says, "And oh, by the way, you can only choose the second option." That is not a choice - it is an imperative. What we are given as human beings is choice. Imagine again, if you will, that you say to your closest friend, "I command you to love me or else." The affection that your friend gave you would be suspect because of the nature of the threat and because of the coercive measures needed to enforce such a decree. Finally, it would not be love at all. It would be some other thing, but it would not be freely given, freely accepted life transforming love. What our Creator desires from us is freely given love. Thus, as creatures we are given free will. We can make choices. It is the nature of being human.
Now, what gives rise to radical evil is that some people's choices deny or limit other people's choices. For example, my decision to drive drunk may well result in someone else's death or serious injury. Thus my decision will have an impact on and seriously limit that person's choices in life. When a person mentally, physically or sexually abuses a child they are often taking from that child some capacity to choose healthy ways of relating to others in the world. The decision by the administration of a corporation to remove a factory from Canada and locate it somewhere where they can pay starvation wages and where labour and environmental standards are non-existent has a negative impact on thousands of people in both countries. Because we exist in communities and because we live within relationships of intimacy our choices affect other peoples lives and well being. Our choices as individuals and as nations and as the one-third world of privilege have often created unbelievable misery on a scale never seen before in the history of the world. In order to alleviate such suffering we ourselves will have to suffer. Some of us may have to give up inappropriate levels of consumption. Our standard of living may have to drop in order to make the kind of economic choices that hold up the most vulnerable. We don't want to choose to do the right thing, the good thing because we know that some of us may have to suffer at least the loss of a little comfort. We rarely understand that we also will be helping ourselves. We will be participating in our own redemption. Redemption however, always involves work, sacrifice and thus suffering.
The passage from Isaiah describes a people's understanding of how their choices as a nation resulted in catastrophe. When the Israelites took possession of their new land after wandering in the desert, God had given them a very comprehensive set of economic laws which were designed so that all people could participate in the economy. The land was distributed equitably. Orphans and widows were cared for. There were economic laws designed to support the most vulnerable members of society such a s the gleaning laws where parts of fields were left for the poor. Debts were forgiven every seven years, (the national Sabbath year), in order to prevent excessive indebtedness, (and it was not permissible to deny someone a loan in the sixth year just because you knew the loan would be forgiven next year). However, the people chose not to obey these laws. Excessive indebtedness and therefore the selling of oneself and one's family into slavery in order to pay the debts became common practice. The land and the power became concentrated in the hands of a few. The poor were trodden on and exploited. What happened then was a natural outcome of corruption and the rottenness of the social fabric. A decadent and unsound government was unable to prevent other countries from invading and destroying Israel - even the rich were left destitute and carried off into slavery. The author of Isaiah describes this outcome as the fulfillment of God's prophecy. The author also describes a God who weeps and promises, yet again, to work with the people in life-giving activity - if the people will allow it. The only thing that will save them is a long clear look at how their choices created their situation of pain and suffering. The long, clear look will be painful and is as necessary for life as food and water. The prophet Ezekiel reminds the people held captive in Babylon that like dry bones becoming enfleshed and breathed into new life, so God will be with them in their struggles.
In order to grow, to live fully in relationship, we must suffer. There is nothing more fulfilling and more life giving than a genuine relationship of intimacy with another human being. However, all intimacy requires suffering and a certain amount of pain. It is why it is so difficult to find life-giving intimate relationships. Intimacy requires empathy and empathy requires putting oneself in the other persons shoes. This is often a painful process because it involves reorienting our whole perspective. Suffering accompanies emotional and spiritual growth. When we attempt to enter into the world of the other we must look at ways in which our choices have injured them. This is painful but can be deeply rewarding. Another problem with love and intimacy is that instinctively we know that if the beloved is taken from us we will experience great pain. Perhaps our beloved will choose to not love us or perhaps the beloved will leave us by dying. However, if there is no commitment to intimacy, if we hold ourselves back because we are afraid of the agony of loss, there can be also be no joy, fulfillment or ecstasy. Again, you will have to choose.
How can we stand it? How can we survive this life among the forces of natural and radical evil? Can any of us be saved? Paul assures us that it is not only possible, but the resurrection of Christ points to the promise of new life in any situation. God can work to bring good out of a bad situation. This is NOT the same as saying God allowed or brought about the bad situation about so that the good can be created. This is a very important distinction. For example, God did not give me cancer. However God is working with me and others so that I continue to find many great gifts of love within this situation that I otherwise would have been without. Do you understand the distinction?
Finally, if God does work in ways that are mysterious, then evil too has an element of the mysterious about it. There are just things that we must accept that we don't understand. I would like to close with reference to the passage from Romans. In it the writer Paul assures us that no matter where we go, or what we're up against, God is with us and nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. (Romans 8:35-39)
The Sermon, The Meanings of Suffering was delivered on - March 21, 1999