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?

4 thoughts on “Perspectives on Life and Suffering

  1. Makes you think then, if we are not guaranteed any kind of rewards because one cannot manipulate God, then why bother being good? I have thought about this a great deal and not only for myself but because we as ministers and church leaders have to field questions like this from the people we serve.

    This drives a person to truly remember that all good (no matter how little of it can be seen) comes from God and even if all of the evil in the world afflicts us, we still have a promise in Christ that our Salvation is in His hands no matter what evil befalls us. I guess what I am saying is that its a real test when things aren’t going how we expect them to go. The reason to be good is that if our relationship to God is truly based on love, then we should desire to serve Him and others without expecting anything in return (I say that admitting I struggle with this like everyone) because that is truly selfless and reflecting of God’s character. We should try to do good and be good out of sense of thanksgiving to what God has already promised us in Christ-life, perserverence, hope, endurance, peace, and the like.

    feel free to give more imput, i would greatly appreciate it and if i am wrong i am always willing to be corrected

  2. I think it’s significant that when Jesus taught us to pray, he implied that we should feel comfortable asking for just enough for today, our “daily bread.” Not whatever we think we need, or whatever we want. As Americans, most of us know absolutely nothing about “suffering” in that sense. We feel mistreated when the car breaks down. We perceive ourselves as suffering when we have trouble paying for the theater tickets.

    In a few weeks I will be heading to a third world country where the average annual family income is less than what it cost me to repair my hot tub last week. I expect my own understanding of suffering will be changed, hopefully for more than a few days. But I have known for a while that my view of it as an American is not even close to what it ought to be. What most Americans expect out of life is far beyond what Jesus himself, and most of his early followers, ever had.

    Living for Christ should never lead one to believe that you will receive any material or earthly reward, and certainly not a life free from suffering. These should not be our motivation, nor our expectation. As your African student observed, suffering is simply part of life – it is neither good nor evil. Expect it, just as you expect the sun to rise in the morning. Expect from God the grace to handle what comes, not a free pass to be excused from it.

    • The line asking for daily bread is believed by several scholars to harken back to a line from Proverbs which asks just for daily provision, adding that if he had too little he may be tempted to steal and thus dishonor God; if he had too much he would be tempted to forget God, thus dishonoring Him in a different way.

      God does seem to tell us He knows what we need and is willing to provide it. It’s very telling, as you will undoubtedly discover, when those we think to be pitiably poor have a greater sense about life’s real treasures than we do. But they are too often hungry nonetheless.

  3. That day
    was like a hundred years. At dusk
    his wife returned. And she was brusque
    and cool. “Do you still cling to God?”
    She asked, and saw his wordless nod.
    “I think you are a fool. How much
    from him will you endure till such
    a love as this from God, the Great,
    is seen to be a form of hate?
    Here’s my advice for you to try:
    Curse God, tonight, and die. And I
    will follow soon–a widow robbed
    of everything.” And Dinah sobbed.
    And tears ran down Job’s horrid face.
    He pulled himself up from his place,
    and by some power of grace, he stood
    beside his wife and said, “I would,
    no doubt, in your place feel the same.
    But, wife, I cannot curse the name
    that never treated me unfair,
    and just this day has answered prayer.”
    “What prayer? What did you bid him do?”
    “That I should bear this pain, not you.”

    From “Job” an illustrated poem by John Piper

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