Those who argue against the existence of a benevolent Christian deity will often site as a centerpiece of their belief the inexplicability of suffering in the world. This happened again recently in the New York Times. While there is some suffering caused by other people which can be explained by an appeal to human agency, there is also suffering (perhaps a far greater amount of suffering) caused by mindless, lifeless, natural forces. Hurricanes, volcanoes, tornadoes, tsunamis, famine, pestilence. Millions of people, in pain, just for living on the earth. These forces, they will say, since they cannot be assigned another agency, must be assigned to God, if there really is one.
To secure their position, they might add, while the devil could be a convenient scapegoat, what are we to do when a hurricane has brought rain to a farmer but killed another woman’s child? The farmer kneels in the darkened soil thanking God in the same moment the anguished woman stands at the end of the pier cursing the devil. We cannot say in one instance it is an act of the devil and in another it is the act of God. It must be one or the other.
And this is where we ought to settle our differences and agree. It is one or the other. And it is most probably God, for he is the great force behind the world, not the devil. In the story of Job, the devil’s will is only fulfilled under the auspices of God’s acquiescence. In The Gospels, the devil can only tempt Christ, unsuccessfully. Later, a host of devils obey Jesus’ command and leave their human host possessing swine instead. At least as far as the Bible is concerned, any power the devil possesses seems to be power God allows and could take away. And so God being the source of “meaningless” suffering is not an aspect of life unaccounted for by Christianity, but is found at its very core.
In Christianity, the rejoicing farmer and the grieving mother could very well both be experiencing God. They experience him through suffering. My use of the term requires some explanation, for I intend to conflate what is often two separate meanings of the word. First, suffering as in experiencing pain, and second, suffering as in allowing something to happen, to suffer it. And so while the farmer may feel blessed and the women may feel grief, both can be forms of suffering. It is not particularly important that they happen to share a word, but it is of great importance that they are actually related. For they are both forms of experiencing grace.
To understand this requires a particular conception of what grace really is: Grace as giveness. This is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in Genesis, before Man was placed on the earth, and before anyone partook the forbidden fruit. In this story, God goes about creating the world. The herbs, the plants, the rivers, the light, the idyllic Garden of Eden itself is created before man ever sins. What a gift! The garden was a picture of grace—plants and animals, light, darkness, oceans, mountains, all created for Man. The significance of this, as noted by Adam Miller, is that grace came before sin. Grace was not a response to sin, but sin, rather was a “failed response to God’s original grace.”
What kind of failure it was exactly is hard to pin down. But the essence of the devil’s temptation is dissatisfaction—he tells Eve that things could be different, better. That Man could be like God. The sin, it seems, was that they did not accept what was given to them and wanted something better. In the very least, Adam and Eve’s partaking of the forbidden fruit is a rejection of God’s commandment. God’s response is not to concoct a new plan where grace would step in and save the day, but a continuation of his original plan of grace. The sin of Adam and Eve is met with more grace, with new opportunities, a whole new world more suited for their desires. Each sin is met with greater and greater atonement. Peace, salvation, redemption, grace, beauty, is poured from God to man like a river, and we are left to struggle against the current or allow it to take us where it will.
And so the suffering of God’s will is the experience of grace. This suffering is the beginning of Man’s relationship with God. Both in the sense of Adam and Eve inheriting the garden and in the sense that we are all born with families, frailties, and circumstances that we did not choose. From our birth on, the suffering only continues as we endure ill fortune and good. The praying farmer and the weeping mother are two ends of the same coin flipped over and over in the celestial game of heads and tails. The trick to winning this game is to stop trying to predict which one it’s going to be and start living life, whatever it is. To suffer grace as something given—anything given outside of our own design, control, or ambition. And to see it as something good, something given to you from the source of goodness himself.
This does not mean your pain is not real. God may in fact cry with you while you suffer, just as a mother might cry in the process of procuring needed immunizations for her child. But it does mean that suffering can be done well or poorly. And here I should pause to say that my repeated use of the word “suffer” I hope is counterbalanced by my repeated use of the word “grace.” For I do not mean to suggest a masochistic view of life. I do not believe life is meant to be very hard and full of physical pain. I find the opposite to be true, that even the great pains we imagine around the world are often overstated and misrepresented, just as a child might imagine a trip to the dentist. The imagination not only exaggerating the pain, but actually creating the severest parts. In reality there is nothing unbearable about a trip to the dentist. It is the constant rejection of grace, the desire to avoid experiencing what is already given, that makes the trip unbearable, not the grace itself.
The unhappiness we suffer is often the fruit of attempting to not suffer. Since Adam, the natural response to God’s grace is to try and avoid it, get around it, circumvent it. There are limitless methods: denial, rejection, suicide, disbelief, disobedience, and the list goes on. Perhaps one of the more insidious is that of obedience (Again, I must credit this particular concept to Adam Miller). By attempting to do what’s right so that what is received seems to be somehow deserved. This is an attempt to put God in our debt. This denial of God’s grace is as ineffectual as the rest. There is only one appropriate and authentic response to the abundant grace of God: suffering.
No one deserves to have their home destroyed by a tornado, and no one deserves to win the lottery. To suffer God’s grace is not to experience “good things,” but to suffer whatever is in a particular way, as Christ did. “[W]herefore they scourge him, and he suffereth it; and they smite him, and he suffereth it. Yea, they spit upon him, and he suffereth it. . .” (1 Nephi 19:9). So that it may be truly said, nothing bad can happen to a good man. Or as Paul puts it, “all things work together for good to them that love God.”
Grace and suffering are always tied together, inseparable. And whether it is the woman weeping at the end of the pier or the farmer in his garden, it is grace and it is suffering. To our friend who can only see the suffering in the world as evidence against the existence of God, it might be helpful to remember what you already know: that belief in God does not come into the heart when the day is sunny, the sky clear, the mountains visible in the distance, the horizon decked with majesty half so strongly as when the body is in pain. Suffering, both the painful sort and that of submission, are the cornerstones of faith, not its undoing.
When we understand that our experience with God mostly consists of our suffering his grace, we will not be surprised to find that through suffering we gain certainty that eventually grows into faith. For “to suffer,” as Elaine Scarry has says, “is to experience certainty.” When we suffer pain, we know with certainty that we are in pain. It is pure knowledge. There is no space for doubting. There may be doubts about the causes, physical or mental, but the suffering cannot be disbelieved. It is an experience that requires no corollary in the physical world. It is, and it is true. The pure reality of suffering is a supernal gift of faith, and the seed of faith.
Planted, this experience of certainty can grow into life of faithful suffering wherein the world is transformed, and every moment is suffered with certainty—with an absolute knowledge that it is a grace from God. Understanding this now, it should be no surprise that believers who have obtained this level of faithfulness continue without doubt, with complete conviction in God, seemingly unbothered by the suffering in the world around them. They do not grieve for the world, they bless it.
This is not resignation but radical acceptance. It’s subversive, not anesthetic. Living by grace, a person becomes a nuisance to tyranny because they cannot be frightened, intimidated, purchased, or offended. Like Christ they forgive their offenders, they are immune to power, they “speak what they feel not what they ought to say.” They are fearless. They are compassionate because they are no longer concerned for themselves, they finally have room to be concerned for others.
Once someone is really convinced that their life is a grace from God, they become dynamos to systems of oppression. They are catalyst for change and progress. And while they go around alleviating the physical pain in those they can reach, they never cease preaching the word of God. Because they have realized that the greatest change in the world is done by changing our minds about it. Once God has done that, he has created saints capable of doing the rest. The key is giving up our fragile certainty about what is good and bad and replacing it with authentic certainty of the sufferer. To suffer well is to be graceful, like a child who has just finished his dinner.
One thought on “Suffering Grace: in defense of a benevolent God”
I just read Acts 9:16, in which God, referring to Saul/Paul, says: “I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.” The word translated “suffer” is “pascho,” which means something like “to experience,” or “to undergo,” in either a good or a bad sense. Anyhow, it made me think of this essay.