No, not good enough

I’ve come to intensely dislike the proposed “solution” to the question of pain and suffering which says (in crude summary), “Any suffering we experience is less than we deserve as sinners; the wonder is that God is so merciful in letting us ever experience freedom from suffering.”

I dislike it because it’s so neat in attempting to define the whole question out of existence, so cold in its emotionless appeal to logic in the face of agony (“Your questioning the goodness of God is… illogical, captain”) – and because in fact it explains nothing, because it doesn’t explain why I, sinner, enjoy a largely suffering-free existence, whereas I could run off a list of people known to me personally who deserve far less than I but who have known (and continue to know) real anguish.

All it does is let us off the hook; gives us a way to satisfy ourselves intellectually without convincing others or, deep down, ourselves.

Hence I love this poem by Scott Cairns, which succinctly expresses why this “apology” for suffering is simply “not good enough” – “thin soil” which gives way when we are confronted by the suffering of the “undeserving”:


No new attempt at apology here:
All suffer, though few suffer anything
like what they deserve.

Still, there are the famous undeserving
whose pain astonishes even the most
unflinching disciples

whose own days have been consumed by hopeless
explanation for that innocent whose torn
face or weeping burns

or ravenous disease says simply no,
not good enough. This is where we must begin:

pain, nothing you can hope to finger
into exposition, nothing you can
cover up. A fault

—unacceptable and broad as life—gapes
at your feet, and the thin soil you stand
upon is giving way.

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8 Responses to No, not good enough

  1. steve martin says:

    We will suffer in this world. There is no escape.

    But since we can see the end (ahead of time) we have hope that our suffering will not have been in vain.

  2. Good point. Pain and suffering are also opportunities for people to help. They remind us that we are dependent on each other.

  3. Jesse says:

    This is why I love Beowulf and Tolkien’s “The Monsters and The Critics.” They do not shirk the problem.

    After I read both of those it hit me: Christ’s gift for eternity is heaven but his gift for us while on earth is death. Death and suffering in life on earth were inevitable before Christ and they remain so after Christ, just without despair. Hope is not escape from suffering and pain but confirmation of them. The origin of our life passed through them and, in him, so will we – whatever the details of our suffering.

  4. Chris E says:

    This touches on something I’ve been struggling with in various forms over the last few weeks, namely what does the ‘already but not yet’ concept actually mean in terms of people’s lives.

    It seems to me that one thing – but not the only thing – that would lead to the ‘solution’ you refer to, would be an under realized eschatology coupled with the theology of the cross. I’d be interested in your thoughts on how this plays itself out in lutheran theology.

    Assuming people take this to it’s conclusion, how do they even summon up the energy to pray about situations like this – apart from the anodyne ‘thy will be done’ – not so say that that can’t be a prayer of real faith, but quite often it can become an excuse for giving up.

    • John H says:

      Chris: I’m inclined to think the “you deserve even worse, you realise” theodicy is more likely to come from an over-realised eschatology combined with a theology of glory – one which inclines people to think they can discern and interpret the will of God in what happens around them.

      Perhaps the heart of “already but not yet” is simply this: we suffer no less, but we also have hope (cf. Lamentations 3:22,23).

  5. J.P. says:

    This sounds close to the explanation that I’ve been given that (a) God is Sovereign, (b) everything that happens is God’s will, so (c) whatever suffering you experience is God’s plan for you because it ultimately brings Him the most glory/pleasure.

    It’s logical arguments like that that helped me almost completely reject Reformed theology.

    Instead, I believe that there is a difference between what God allows to happen (evil, sin) and what God wants to happen (and what God chooses to exert his power to make happen) – all while still affirming His absolute sovereignty and control over the universe.

    And I’ve found myself agreeing more with C.S. Lewis, when he attempted to explain the existence of pain and suffering –

    “… the possibility of pain is inherent in the very existence of a world where souls can meet. When souls become wicked they will certainly use this possibility to hurt one another; and this, perhaps, accounts for four-fifths of the sufferings of men … from the doctrine that God is good we may confidently deduce that the appearance of reckless divine cruelty … is an illusion.”

  6. Rick Ritchie says:

    I think there is a distinction to be made between righteousness and goodness. The more “mathematical” solutions usually do something to explain righteousness. But they don’t tell us much about goodness. They might even argue that goodness is optional for a righteous God. I think most of us want to know that God is good. Not just sometimes or to some people, but deeply good. Many answers offered are solid answers, but they don’t answer the questions we’re asking.

  7. joel in ga says:

    Would you say that this disagreeable “solution” is of a piece with or flows from Anselm’s doctrine of the atonement?

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