|Sunday, February 22, 2009
Addressing the Problem of Human Suffering
Here edited for brevity are a few excerpts from a letter I received sometime ago:
“….Why would God choose to have me watch the deaths of my mom [from bacterial meningitis] and my sister [from bone cancer]. I heard that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, but I am being punished for something, and how does he know I can handle it?....In two days my father is having surgery for tumors and masts on kidneys and spots on lungs….I know if I am diagnosed with bone cancer I will take pills and drink whiskey and lie down in a field of daisies and die….My seven year old boy says ‘wonder what God is doing right now?’ I say ‘I don’t know.’ He says ‘maybe taking a field trip to Nebraska.’….Praying and church don’t help….My neighbor told me I was a selfish person because of how I feel. What do you think?”
Please forgive the familiar address but our subject, God, death, and religious faith are very personal topics. Another thing we share is this: my mother also died from complications arising from cancer surgery, and my sister from a fast-acting cancer of the abdomen. So we have each lost two very close family members to disease.
Here is how I make sense of things. There are no easy or final answers to the problem of human suffering, disease, and evil in the world, if one holds to the idea of an all powerful and yet compassionate God. I frankly don’t know much about God; I only know what others tell me. Everybody has an idea on the subject of God, and not infrequently the ideas are very different and contradictory. Nevertheless I do believe in God—basically because I cannot explain why there is nothing at all (if I can put it like that). But I do not believe God is vindictive, at least not the God I believe in. A vindictive God gives up the right to be called God and in my view is something less. So I do not think God is taking anything out on you personally. I have come to think about things like this: We live in a world in which disease, human cruelty, and human obsolescence (aging and eventual death), for whatever reason, are the normal way of life in our world and for some reason God chooses to be absent from our predicament. In the present time God is manifested, if at all, in weakness. In such a world it is not uncommon for bad things to happen to good people. Or if you want to cast the situation in more “religious language” I would say: God does the best of which God is capable. Sometimes things get by God, and hence a hurricane destroys New Orleans, or beloved family members are taken from us by accident or disease for no apparent reason. I do not believe things happen for a reason. Such an answer is what we tell ourselves to excuse God for the tragedies that occur. Things just happen. God is not behind the scenes manipulating matters. We live in a world where randomness is normative. So I would not blame God for particular events or circumstances. We live in a hostile world not of our own making and we must cope with things the best we can.
I do not think you are selfish or crazy—you, of course, may be both, but not because of your anger over the loss of your mother and sister, and the illness of your father. That is a very normal reaction. It would be abnormal not to miss people you loved and angry with a God you believe capable of having done something about their illness and loss.
Life is a very good thing even in the worst of times. I cannot conceive of never having existed. And if I were a conscious entity who had not yet been born and were asked if I would prefer not to enter such a random, happenstance, and hostile world, I still would have jumped at the chance to live in it, in spite of the hardships and sorrows. Or put another way, as Elizabeth Edwards says: living with cancer is a better concept than dying with cancer (I think I got that from her). Life is all in the attitude. As long as there is life there is hope. So I agree with you sometimes a little whisky helps (I prefer wine, however), but not mixed with pills and certainly not combined with an attempt at escape in a field of daises.
I am very sorry for your losses.
As I look back over my slightly edited letter now from a distance of more than a year, I would not change a thing. What do you think?
Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick at 2:54pm