Monday, December 12, 2016

Chasing the Wind: Of Pain and Sovereignty

In my last entry of the series, I didn't dwell on the text of Ecclesiastes in order to present some arguments that I'd need to return to later. In retrospect, my discussion on God's sovereignty would have been all the better for consideration of the following text, although it was already lengthy enough. My purpose last time was addressing the criticism that our actions and lives cannot be meaningful if they cannot actually change the outcome. God's sovereignty, in that consideration, prevents us from having Meaning because nothing we do matters.

Although I did address this argument, it turns out there's another aspect of God's sovereignty which weighs on the heart.
For everything there is an appointed time, and an appropriate time for every activity on earth: 
A time to be born, and a time to die;
     a time to plant, and a time to uproot what was planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
     a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
     a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones;
     a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to search, and a time to give something up as lost;
     a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
A time to rip, and a time to sew;
     a time to keep silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate;
     a time for war, and a time for peace. 
What benefit can a worker gain from his toil?  I have observed the burden that God has given to people to keep them occupied. God has made everything fit beautifully in its appropriate time, but he has also placed ignorance in the human heart so that people cannot discover what God has ordained, from the beginning to the end of their lives.
I have concluded that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to enjoy themselves as long as they live, and also that everyone should eat and drink, and find enjoyment in all his toil, for these things are a gift from God. 
I also know that whatever God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it, and nothing taken away from it. God has made it this way, so that men will fear him. Whatever exists now has already been, and whatever will be has already been; for God will seek to do again what has occurred in the past. - Ecclesiastes 3:1-15 (NET)

Considering all the ups and downs of life, the Teacher reaches the conclusion that God prevents us from seeing the coming and going of these matters, that what God ordains is beyond our ability to change, positively or negatively. What's left to us isn't to fret and worry about these things, but to simply live our lives and enjoy what we can. Jesus taught likewise when he asked whether someone could add even one hour to his life by worrying about it. (Matthew 6:25-34)

There's a lot to unpack here, but in my experience, the critic's primary reply to all of this is, "Why?" Why should there be downs with the ups? Why should there be a time to weep, to break down, to kill, to mourn? Why has God ordained such things in the lives of people He supposedly loves?

In short, these verses stand in contrast to the Problem of Pain.

You hear about this a lot in the field of apologetics. The argument is usually addressed as the Problem of Evil. The Problem, in short, asks why a loving God would permit evil to be perpetrated in this world. Either God is unable to do anything about evil, making Him powerless, or He actively allows it, making Him complicit in evil and thus evil Himself. While the Problem of Evil merely addresses those acts perpetrated by humans against one another, the Problem of Pain expands the scope to consider acts and occurrences that aren't evil, but still cause suffering. A natural disaster, for example, is not itself evil, but would fall under the scope of the Problem of Pain. This can range from merely banal to absolutely devastating.

The Christian world view has a lot to say on the Problem of Pain, more than can adequately be addressed in a single blog post. Be that as it may, there's one response to the Problem that I have seen in recent years which seems worth considering. The idea, in short, is that we are better off for our suffering. Like most Christian wisdom, this may seem counter-intuitive, but it merits examination.

We are worse off without it

In 2013, sixteen year-old Ethan Crouch was driving drunk and speeding on a small road in Texas. He ended up crashing into two vehicles parked on the side of the road, killing four and injuring nine people, including passengers in his own vehicle.

At sentencing, Ethan was given 10 years of probation and long-term therapy at an in-patient facility. Ethan's lawyers had argued that he suffered from "affluenza;" having grown up wealthy and privileged, Ethan was completely disconnected from a world where actions have consequences. The judge agreed that Ethan needed rehabilitation, not punishment.

That verdict was widely panned, and rightly so. It didn't take long for Ethan to violate his parole and then flee to Mexico to avoid jail. Ethan's story doesn't have any happy endings to be found, but it does provide a great illustration of something every parent learns at some point: We have to be exposed to suffering, setback, and disappointment at some point or another. It's not just that we need to be prepared to experience the friction that comes with living in this world, but being spoiled the way Ethan was can result in a pronounced deficiency of character.

People who are spoiled don't know how to be told "no," and they don't react well to hearing it. They're often selfish and self-centered, because they're so used to having their own desires fulfilled without issue. Everything is disposable to them, even people; when something can be replaced easily, they don't appreciate the true value of anything.

I could go on. The point is clear, though: Pain is difficult, but to never experience it is worse. The writer of Hebrews puts it this way:
Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? But if you do not experience discipline, something all sons have shared in, then you are illegitimate and are not sons. Besides, we have experienced discipline from our earthly fathers and we respected them; shall we not submit ourselves all the more to the Father of spirits and receive life? For they disciplined us for a little while as seemed good to them, but he does so for our benefit, that we may share his holiness. Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your listless hands and your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but be healed. - Hebrews 12:7-13

We can benefit from setbacks

The idea that suffering and pain might produce something good, both for us and for others, suffuses the scriptures. Consider the example of Joseph.

Hated by his brothers, they sold him into slavery out of jealousy. Despite thriving in his new role, a false accusation of rape landed him in prison for years. Yet from there, he eventually ascended to a role at the right hand of the king. When a terrible famine struck, it was Joseph's intervention that saved the land from starvation, including those same brothers that sold him into slavery so many years before.

At the end of it all, when he's finally reconciled to his family again, Joseph says them, "You devised evil against me, but God intended it for a good purpose." (Genesis 50:20)

To use more contemporary examples, you see lots of stories about famous people with lots of setbacks early in their careers. Harrison Ford struggled to get acting jobs, working as a carpenter until he landed a role in American Graffiti. Oprah Winfrey had a rough life growing up, and bounced between media jobs for a while before she took over a low-rated morning talk show in Chicago that would eventually launch her to fame. Colonel Sanders didn't establish KFC until he was 65, and before that he had a number of middling jobs and failed business ventures.

The point of such stories is usually to give people hope regarding their own career disappointments. It's rare that someone becomes an overnight success, and nobody experiences an endless parade of success and achievement. Everyone with some measure of worldly accomplishment took a winding road to get there. We're encouraged to take comfort in these stories and rest assured that success is often far more complicated and messy than we might realize.

This may be true, but I think of what would be had those careers not been so difficult. Had Oprah not struggled in her early career, we might only know her as the long-time host of the local news in Baltimore instead of a media giant. Would Harrison Ford have been better off if he'd become a successful carpenter rather than continuing to pursue acting?

The difficulty comes from applying this lesson beyond our careers. We're ready to accept this as wisdom because we want to believe that success is just around the corner: That big opportunity, that new job, that promotion, whatever it looks like, it's waiting for us. Enduring the pain of setbacks and disappointments doesn't seem so bad that way.

Looking at suffering elsewhere in our lives and seeing it as beneficial is a much taller order. A painful setback in our life doesn't necessarily open the door for other opportunities elsewhere. All the same, it's possible for good things to come from our pain and suffering, even if we can't see that at the time.
Not only this, but we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance, character, and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. - Romans 5:3-4

From the ashes comes beauty

Time Magazine is known for honoring a "person of year" in their publication. In 2013, Time also decided to rank the top 100 historical figures of all time. Perhaps this seems like an arbitrary exercise; after all, how do you decide whether Alexander Hamilton is more or less significant to history than Francis Bacon? One thing you notice when you peruse the list, though, is what marks these figures as noteworthy historical figures. Many of them are well-known for having fought injustice, for reducing or ending some source of human misery, for inventing technology that made saved lives.

All of these things exemplify character traits that we find praiseworthy in others: Mercy, generosity, charity, perseverance, etc. Yet, in a world without pain, where would any of these values come from? What meaning would they have when there is no need for charity, no difficulty to persevere through, no wounds to be healed?

There are other responses to suffering that bring beauty to this world. Many of the greatest works of art or the classics of literature are born of the pain of their creators. This is not to suggest that this is an equitable trade off; no one would ever suggest that we are better off for the Holocaust because it resulted in Schindler's List. We are, however, better off for the impulse it represents, that people can experience tragedy and pain and, in spite of it, create something wonderful.

The importance of this impulse cannot be understated. How we understand pain and how we respond to it are delicately woven together. Do we learn from it? Do we grow? Do we work through the difficulties and continue with life? Or do we wallow in misery and bitterness, becoming stuck in a quagmire of self-pity?

The cry of the heart

We return to the words of the teacher, that there is no better response to suffering than for man to enjoy life as he may, for what else can we do? God remains the final arbiter of life, and we rarely understand how the events of life fit together. This situation, and any explanations for the problem of pain, may still leave some unsatisfied. Arguments like the above tend towards the cerebral, whereas suffering affects us on a deeply emotional and spiritual level. When we ask the question, "Why does God allow pain and suffering?" sometimes the actual question we're asking is, "Does God care about my pain and suffering?"

The God the Teacher writes about is not some aloof, unmoving tyrant completely divorced from our lives. He cares enough about human pain that He chose to enter into it personally, taking on human form and willingly experiencing the pain and suffering of this world. He felt hunger, grief, torture, and death; our suffering is not something alien to Him, but something he knows all too well.

As if that weren't enough, the believer is never left to endure his pain alone; if the Holy Spirit dwells within us, whom Jesus refers to as the "comforter," then God is always with us in our pain. If that is the case, then it is possible to grow in hard times, to be strengthened from discipline, and to enjoy the things in life that are still good, both the temporary and those that will endure forever.

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