PART 1: INTRODUCTION
1. OUR MANY TROUBLES
The teenage girl sat on the carpet of our den. She looked up at me, tears running down her face: “Why does something like this happen?” Her brother had just died in a car wreck. She had known what it is to laugh and win and flirt and run for joy. Life can bring so many good things—chocolate and money and a soft bed and a brilliant blue sky. But now she knew that life can also smack you in the face and make you wish you had not been born.
You can be too poor to buy adequate clothes for your kids or too rich to be loved for yourself. You can be so old that nothing in the body works right. You can have bypass surgery and then need a kidney transplant and get a staph infection after the second surgery and then develop pneumonia. You can fall in love and be rejected. You can lose all possessions in 30 seconds to a tornado. You can lose a job because of the ruthless maneuvers of a coworker. You can be trained as a teacher and then forget what a gerund is and get laughed out of the classroom. We can plot revenge and be caught by an undercover cop posing as a hit man. We can write beautiful novels that never get published. We can be exercise fanatics and be struck down by a stroke. We can lose elections by less than one percent of the vote. We can be criticized for every decision we make.
Life is hard. Then you die.
Life, in fact, is very complex. It gives us joy and blessing, and, yet, we also must deal with disappointment, danger, destruction, and death.
This essay attempts to understand and deal with all of those negatives. It tries to answer the young woman’s question: “Why does something like this happen?”
2. THIS BOOK MAY NOT MAKE YOU FEEL GOOD
This is not a devotional reading. It is not intended to minister to you in the days immediately after you have experienced trouble or right in the midst of that trouble. This is a “heavy” essay that deals with major issues. It is not filled with sayings that encourage you to find solace in sunsets or the change of seasons. That kind of book has an important role to play for many people.
This essay has another function. It is intended to help you put your trouble in a proper perspective. Therefore, I encourage you to select the right time to read it. I think it should be read in one of the following times of your life:
* When life is going smoothly for you
* Several months after you have undergone a troubling experience
You should also understand that this essay is not “politically correct.” I have a theological-philosophical perspective that is not generally accepted, even by many in the church. This essay may make you angry.
I do plead that you to read it through. I hope that, when you have completed it, you will have a perspective about life, God, and suffering that enables you to deal with suffering. At the end of the essay, I shall indicate some practical steps that can help you deal with suffering.
3. THE COLLAGE OF LIFE
Imagine a collage. It was created by cutting out pictures from magazines and cutting away parts of photographs and then gluing these onto a large board. The artist chose each picture-element with care. She glued each one carefully in a way that slightly overlapped adjacent pictures. The finished product is beautiful, fascinating, and intriguing. One can spend an hour or more focusing in on the individual pictures and then stepping back and getting a broader perspective of the whole work.
But, then, as you study and appreciate the artistic achievement, you notice that certain pictures in the collage seem out of place. You begin to question why the artist chose them. You respect the artist, but you want to ask her if the work might be greatly improved by removing some of the elements. But the artist is nowhere in sight, and you are left to ponder the meaning of the collage and only wonder what it would be without those troubling elements.
Allow me to change the subject. Imagine a young man. He has grown up in small town America. He had good parents who loved him, disciplined him, reared him in the church. He grew up with a few setbacks. In football, he did not get to play varsity quarterback, and had to play defensive back instead. He made a few “B’s,” two “C’s,” and one “D” during high school. He applied for, but was not accepted into the prestigious college that he had hoped to attend. He went to the state university. He graduated and went to law school. From there, he entered a moderately successful law firm. He had met a girl in college, and they were married shortly after he joined the law firm. So, his life was moderately successful. He had had enough setbacks to mature and temper him so that he was set to enter a strong, productive career as an attorney. He understood life can be challenging, and you get out of it what you put into it.
Then, after two years of married life, a baby came along. It was thrilling for this couple to bring this new life into their home. Life had been fun and filled with love. But there had been some negatives along the way. There were a few in the law firm that could be very difficult to live with. The money was still tight for the young attorney. But, overall, life was good, pleasant. Now, however, the baby changed everything. The young man and his wife were filled with love for this beautiful child. Every wiggle, every coo, even crying in the night and stinky diapers—every aspect of this child was fully satisfying and fulfilling. This was what life was all about.
Then, one night, the baby became fussy. His wife was up a couple of hours, trying to determine what could be the problem. Finally, when the baby’s temperature began to rise, they rushed it to the emergency room. The next day, they learned the baby had meningitis. Two days later it was dead.
Here was a picture that did not fit into the collage. Just as the young man had thought that he knew the big picture, he found this horrible image that destroyed all the beauty. If he could have spoken to the Artist, he would plead that the Artist do one thing: take away that terrible picture of my baby’s death. It does not belong. It should not be there. Turn back the clock to the four wonderful months when we were a perfect family and life was beautiful.
Now, I shall mention several possible theological-philosophical ways of explaining and dealing with the situation of the young man.
1. One way is to remove the Artist. We can simply explain that there is no God. The sadness of this death is proof positive that God is not the Artist that puts our life together. Life is a random event. If we can snatch some pleasure and joy and love before we die, we are one of the lucky ones. Get used to it.
2. Another way is to make the collage itself the Artist. Life and everything we encounter is God. Death and sadness are as much a part of God as are life and joy. Any attempt to rearrange the collage is futile and will not bring you peace. Embrace your destiny, which is death.
3. Another way is recognize the limitations of the Artist. The Artist is slowly working at the collage and will some day get it all right. The evolutionary processes of the material/biological universe, along with the progressive nature of human history, are all the work of God. Someday, God will have it right. In the meantime, God offers God’s sympathies.
4. Another way is to deal with one’s own perspectives of the collage. That is, the issue is not so much with what has happened, but what your reaction is to those events. There are two approaches from this perspective. (a) One is to contend that you must drastically change your understanding of reality. Sickness and death are inside your own imagination. If you can understand that they do not exist, then you have ended them. (b) A second is not quite so drastic. It contends that you must deal with your own reaction to the horrible events. If you can ever reach a point of looking with a positive attitude at reality, then life will indeed be positive again.
5. Another way is related to some of the previous approaches. It would ignore the Artist and challenge human ingenuity and wisdom to end the suffering. It would put its faith in Science and various humanitarian causes. Progress promises us a future with no suffering. We must accept the suffering of today, but join the efforts to alleviate the suffering of tomorrow.
You probably can guess that I reject each of these understandings. You will find that some of my conclusions have slight similarities to some the thoughts expressed in these approaches to dealing with suffering. However, I believe that my understanding is drastically different from all of them.
4. THE BIG PICTURE—AN OVERVIEW
In the previous section, I used a collage to illustrate life. In that illustration I pointed out that we might see one part of a collage that does not seem to fit. We would be tempted to remove that one part. But we might be too hasty in making that judgment. This haste would result from not seeing the complete collage. We would not understand the collage until we saw it completely. We needed to see The Big Picture.
In the following discussion, I shall try to create a picture of our world. I shall begin with THE WAY THINGS ARE or THE PRESENT ORDER OF EXISTENCE. By this I mean the origins of our ordinary experience of life. That life is a complex mixture of pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, hope and disappointment. I believe that the present order of existence has two origins: God’s creative acts and The Law of Sin and Death. We see evidence of both of these in our world. The good stuff derives from the good creation that God has made. The bad stuff issues from The Law of Sin and Death.
There is, however, more to the collage than that. There is an answer to The Law of Sin and Death, and that is the victory of Jesus Christ. I call that victory The Law of the Spirit of Life. This new framework for life is not a bandaid that stops the hurt momentarily. It is not a matter of moving one small picture out of the collage. Rather, it is a complete, radical, eternal answer to all suffering.
Since God has provided such an answer, we need to receive that answer and to find comfort in it. In order to do that, we need to become committed to it. Many people cannot find comfort in God’s victory in Jesus because they cannot let go of the little pictures of their lives. We must become part of something larger than ourselves. We must define ourselves by The Big Picture.
When we experience pain, reversal, sadness, and devastating loss, we, as Christians, must deal with the question: “Has God failed, and, if that is so, has all that I have believed in and hoped for been put in jeopardy?” No “little picture,” no matter how awful it may be, can render invalid The Big Picture that I am a part of. It may make me sad or anger me or disappoint me temporarily, but it does not change the fact that God has won the victory.
The following sections will develop in detail the ideas that I have briefly outlined in this section. Keep in mind that I must deal with the bad news first. It is important to get an accurate understanding of THE WAY THINGS ARE so that we can understand what God has done for us.