Sunday, February 22, 2009

Addressing the Problem of Human Suffering

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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?”

Dear ---------,

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
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 2:54pm

Dear Charlie,

Forgive a "late" comment. I have been dealing with some of the human frailties about which we speak to this post. I, too, thank you for your compassionate reply to a suffering brother. I don't know much about God other than what others have told me, including Moses and Abraham and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and of course, Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus. But, beliving in God's Word, my belief that God created a perfect world and a perfect garden, and put us in it to live forever, I assume, and then sin entered the garden and the world, that is where suffering, including cancer and heartache and sorrow came in. If I believed that THIS world was "all there is," our brother's solution (drinking whiskey, taking pills, and lying down in a field of daisies) would make perfect sense. And there would be a daisy field that was crowded with "customers." And holding on to what "others have told me," I stood at the graveside of my Daddy and heard, "Let not your heart be troubled, You believe in God, believe also in Me. In my Father's house are many mansions, if it were not so I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go to prepare and place for you, I will come again and receive you unto Myself, that where I am, there ye may be also." (forgive any memory lapse, I am 75 now..I am quoting from memory KJV.) Now, Charlie, if He told me wrong, where is that field of daisies? If He told me right, then the Daddy who let me ride, standing in the front seat of his car, with my little arm thrown over his shoulder, for many and many a mile here on this earth, is part of that "great cloud of witnesses, " and after all the sorrow and pain of THIS world has passed away, I will join him to be "known as we were known," and, as the song says, "It will be worth it all...". I, too, lost my mother, my brother, and have only my little sister left of the generation that made up my family here on earth. My heart But, one day it won't. And again, I say to that brother who wrote you in such pain, and to you, who bore the pain of family loss, I know only what I have been told about God, in His Word.

Love you, dear Charlie.
Posted by Grace Menhel on 3/6/2009 at 11:56am


You answered this person's personal crisis of suffering and tragedy with compassion and understanding. In my CPE classes, I was cautioned against talking theology with someone who suffers, but I would say my theology is close to yours. Yes, God is more capable than anyone to deal with the problems of the future, but has chosen to give us the risky gift of free will (the freedom to choose) which leaves the future considerably open-ended with its accidents, tragedies, etc., all outside of divine manipulation. Predestination, which to some is glorious articulation of divine sovereignty, fails miserably, in my opinion, to account for the death of a once healthy infant in an auto accident! For me, God is compassionate and caring, but some events are outside of God's immediate control, because of the risky gift of free will, to name at least one factor in this equation.

Charles Puskas
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Posted by Charles Puskas on 2/22/2009 at 10:04pm