Perspectives on Life and Suffering

As mentioned in Saturday’s Stray Thoughts last week, I am currently teaching a course on the topic of God and Suffering. It’s always a “fun” course for me in the sense of getting to learn as much as I may give in the span of a semester. That learning invariably happens because of the stories and perspectives of the participants in the class.

An excellent book on the subject is Brian Morley’s God in the Shadows (Christian Focus Publications). His second chapter reminds us that one of the critical factors in how people respond to bad things happening in their lives is what their expectations are–expectations of life in general and of God in particular. This prompted a discussion of just what it is that American people seem to expect out of life. The list was fairly predictable; it included such things as health, security, sufficient finances, comforts, meaningful work, etc. We consider ourselves to be undergoing suffering in some measure when these expectations are not met. Some people will relate the “suffering” so described to the existence or non-existence of a good God; if God is good and sufficiently powerful, why would He not provide the things we “need” for a good life? Or so the discussion begins for many folks.

Following the class I had a conversation with an African student. This particular class member did not speak during the compiling of the list of things Americans consider as components of a good life. Afterward, however, the matter of perspective came up prominently in conversation. What was revealed was that the so-called “problem of evil” is not a topic in Africa. This may initially surprise many westerners, who look at the horrendous suffering of many people on that continent and expect that the “why” question would be prominent in churches and villages across the land. But whether one is referring to political suppression, starvation, disease, poverty, or whatever other form of hardship, it is not commonly raised as evidence against either God’s existence or nature. These things are life. Or to say it otherwise, these realities are well within the expectations of life. So when this student viewed a Peter Singer diatribe against the existence and/or goodness of God, he wanted to jump out of his seat to offer a rebuttal. I’m quite sure that Singer would expect that his clear and devastating argument would have shown the futility of faith; in fact, the opposite ensued.

Expectations do much to shape what we expect from the world; and as Christians, we attach God’s promises, real and imagined, to the mix. Curiously, we conveniently seem to have forgotten anything having to do with expectations of us. How different in this from the (wrong) impressions Job and his acquaintances had; If one is good, God rewards and if one is evil, God punishes. Therefore, if suffering, then sin has occurred. What is easily missed in this formula is its implication that we end up controlling what God does. He can be manipulated.

Perspective. Does it come from our culture, from our fleshly desires, from our families, from our churches? So much of our success in life comes from the matching of expectations and reality—and the ability to meaningfully and truthfully learn from the difference between the two. Or is that just one man’s perspective?