Is There Any Purpose or Meaning to Suffering?

Before starting this blog, please note that this blog will probably offer little or no sufficient answers to a person who is currently suffering. Having experienced my own oppression, discouragement and suffering, rarely did people attempting to provide answers seem to help. Yet I think it important in times of lucidness to find meaning in suffering since people have difficulty doing so.  Even some agnostics or atheists have used suffering to question God’s existence. In reality and truth, suffering reveals glimpses of a God who has a purpose and a God who cares.

Did you realize or consider that pain and suffering are clearly acceptable at times, and at other times pain and suffering are not? Why the difference? Philip SufferingYancey in his book, Where Is God When It Hurts? quotes philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “It is not so much the suffering as the senselessness of it that is unendurable.”

Yancey then notes the different views of suffering and pain by using a couple examples, NFL football player Merlin Olsen who continued playing football on a bum knee through pain and fluid retention. His persistence and willingness to endure pain and suffering is remarkable. As the fluid buildup got so thick, medical personnel had to almost drive the needle in with a hammer. Olsen was quoted as saying, “Damn it, get the needle in there, and get that stuff out.” His words are a stark glimpse into Olsen’s willingness to endure pain in order to fulfill his desire to play football.

Yancey then contrasts birthing a child with passing a kidney stone – a similar level of pain. A woman experiences the excruciating pain of child birth because there is meaning and purpose, and then may desire to have more children. Yet, there is no desire to have additional kidney stones.

The difference is in purpose and meaning. This is no small issue.

The senselessness of Nazi Germany is often referenced by some as evidence that given the brutality and scope of the suffering, God must not exist. Some ask, “Where was God during that terrible tragedy?” Yet Yancey notes that some Jews (Frankl, Bettelheim, Wiesel) and others found meaning and fared better overall than those who did not find meaning amongst the suffering.

When pain has a positive result or outcome, we might possibly accept it better, but more importantly it gives us meaning. There’s purpose. There’s hope! To lose hope causes a person to want to quit; to despair. Despair is a painful emotion in itself. So, as humans we try to cope. In order to avoid despair, tragedy, hurts, problems, etc., one alternative is to indulge in the present, “the now” with its pleasures and entertainment. Like pain medication or drugs, indulging in the present only temporarily relieves pain and numbs the senses. But like the drug user who desires an escape, while imbibing in the drug, the drug user cares not that the high is only temporary. All that matters to the user is the “here and now.” More importantly the high postpones / defers the critical need to address underlying problems and issues the druggie has.Drugs

I believe America (and the world at large) is utilizing the drugs of pleasure, entertainment, sports, materialism and other riches to avoid the realities of and purpose of life. Rich America is not the only place. This numbing happens here in the slums of Africa, too. Sex, alcohol, drugs, pleasure, entertainment, money, material items, etc. are all desired in order to avoid and/or escape the reality of severe underlying problems – the day-to-day issues of lack of good health, lack of proper food, lack of happiness; and the larger issues which result from a broken relationship with our Creator, such as lack of answers, lack of peace and contentment, along with ultimately despair and lack of hope.

Ironically and amazingly it seems one of the challenges in an increasingly wealthy society is that meaning and purpose fade as life becomes easier, more pleasurable and materialistically driven.

Knowing this, God has provided wise counsel for those who are relatively well and are not suffering very much. Rather than stay busy with life and work, He counsels His people to care for those who are suffering: outcasts, orphans, the sick, fatherless, prisoners and the poor. Spend time with a disabled child or in a slum in Africa – be quiet, that is “shut up” talking, visit and listen, perhaps for weeks. Attend funerals, not parties. Does God work through those who suffer? Does God speak quietly and provide answers through those who suffer? I believe He does slowly, and I see Him working.

What about those folks who suffer to the point that there is no satisfactory answer, purpose or fulfillment. For example, the issue of totally disabled children (IQ’s of 30-40) or senile adults (with Alzheimer’s) who lie in bed day in and day out. Yancey asks the question, what could possibly be meaningful to these people who suffer? Yancey provides an example of an East German doctor who cared for severely mentally disabled children. For years the doctor could not answer that question, until a survey of new trainees mentioned the fulfillment and rewards the trainees experienced of helping others. The children (and their disability) gave the trainees meaning, purpose, fulfillment, compassion, appreciation for life, a different perspective, more tolerance, patience, less complaining, a renewed looked at their own problems, an appreciation for what love can do for people. It gave purpose while the child received necessary care and love.

NOTE: One should not, in my opinion, surmise from the above example that God allows or creates mentally disabled children or causes / allows adults to develop Alzheimer’s for the sole purpose of other people’s own learning and advancement alone. This kind of logic seems myopic and can be quite cruel and calloused. Rather, these terrible conditions exist in a fallen world. It is the responsibility of the world’s inhabitants to respond in care and love, and a result could very well be an insight to life’s broader questions.

Love in a society is paramount.  It should be elevated to the highest standard.  Yet our society is promoting selfishness and self-absorption, similar to drug addicts.  In February 1995 Mother Teresa stated at the National Prayer Breakfast the following reality:  “By abortion, the mother does not learn to love, but kills even her own child to solve her problems. And by abortion, the father is told that he does not have to take any responsibility at all for the child he has brought into the world. Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching the people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want.”

What messages are we sending our young people – to commit violence and murder in order to live happy lives?

Finally, Yancey also briefly references the existentialist, Sartre’s play, No Exit Drug Paraphenaliaabout three people (two men and a woman), who after death are locked into a room together for eternity. One of the three characters in the play, Garcin, concludes, “Hell is other people.” At the end of the play (after much analysis, attempted sexual acts and attempted murder) the play closes ironically like an addicted drug user – rather than freely escaping the room of hell (which they could have done), the three characters at the close of the curtain agree, “let’s continue on.”

I ask, “For what real and lasting purpose should the three in the play continue on? Other than for purely selfish reasons?” And isn’t that the point? True hell is selfishness. Watch the lives of a drug user who will do anything to get him/herself a temporary high.

Lack of meaning. Lack of purpose. People are not hell, unless the world is all about me. People are not hell until they refuse to satisfy my needs and my pleasures. At that point people start irritating the hell which resides in each of us.

Then again, maybe people are hell, broken in pieces. And God’s purpose might just be to rescue us from ourselves by entering hell in the person of Jesus Christ and saving those who trust, believe and rely on Him. As He saves us, He whispers simple answers to life: “I am your hope, your Outcastfulfillment, your purpose.  As I have rescued you in your sin as a pleasure- seeking drug addict, follow in My steps and focus on those hell-filled sinners, especially the broken and humble of society. In that path of life you will catch a glimpse of who I (God) am while discovering love, mercy, satisfaction, meaning, fulfillment and purpose in life.”

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3 responses to “Is There Any Purpose or Meaning to Suffering?

  1. Janice Cartwright

    A thoughtful article about a painful subject, Mark. I am certain you have witnessed a powerful lot of human suffering during your sojourn there in Uganda and I can tell it has moved you deeply as you work aongside these people you have come to love.

    A perspective on human suffering that has helped me is more shown than told in Corrie Ten Boom’s book, “The Hiding Place, a scene previous to Corrie’s sister Betsy’s death at Ravensbruck. It is before morning roll call in the brutality of excposure to German winter when Corrie and Betsy must keep moving to avoid being more frozen than they already are. Corrie describes it thus: (paraphrased) Betsy spoke, I spoke, Jesus spoke. I cannot tell you how this happened, I can only tell you it did happen. Betsy asks, illogically, “Isn’t this a little slice of Heaven?” When Jesus enters so personally into our suffering it is as if all our unanswered questions are swallowed up in His presence alone.

    • Janice: thanks for sharing that story. Corrie Ten Boom’s attitude and willingness to resolutely forgive for their suffering at the hands of evil, I can only ascribe to the character of God. I’m further sobered by the embrace Jesus had of the cross – an embrace of the will of God to accept mistreatment and pain unjustly. That embrace is not a place I am at yet. It seems like Betsy arrived there before her death, similar to the way Peter, Jesus and others did. Appreciate your comments and prayers. Such an encouragement. Much love and thanks for reading.

  2. I really liked your article Mr. Wise. You wrote, “Ironically and amazingly it seems one of the challenges in an increasingly wealthy society is that meaning and purpose fade as life becomes easier, more pleasurable and materialistically driven.” It’s such a paradox that you’ve identified. Even with the abundance of possessions, there is no hope—no lasting joy.

    Jesus comments on that very thing in Luke 12:15, saying “Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

    “Life” as used by Jesus here seems to allude to an alternative. It’s not about possessions, so it begs the question, “Jesus, what is life about?”

    Two Scriptures came to mind there:
    John 10:10 – “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
    and
    John 17:3 – “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

    The life which Jesus has given is so much greater than the pursuit of earthly things, He offers us a chance to know the one true God—-abundant life for all eternity.

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