Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Why Does God Let People Suffer?

How can a benevolent God include pain in the universe He has created? This question has led many to doubt in a higher authority. David Hume argued for an uncaring universe in his essay Why Does God Let People Suffer? His position, essentially, is that because of the pain in the world there cannot be a benevolent God. Hume’s view of God and benevolence are false as it lacks understanding of the God it attacks. I'm not saying that you will have all the answers after this, or even that I'm completely right, but here are some thoughts from a bearded theologian. 

What brings a person more pleasure: service and praise from an inanimate object that experiences no pain and has no choice to do differently, or a creation that despite hardships, chooses to serve and praise anyway? Any being with the slightest emotional depth will choose the latter over the former. So God finds His greatest joy in His human creations, man and woman, whom he calls “very good” because of one thing: their ability to choose Him. This is a debated topic, as many do not consider themselves to be complete agents of “free will”. There is no doubt that significant scholarship supports this opposing view. Granted there is strong scriptural and philosophical support for both sides, the idea of God’s complete joy is the reason this paper argues for humans having free will. This single factor plays heavily into the concept of a benevolent God that also allows suffering.

Why does God need praise? He is the most high and ultimate being in the universe and made the very universe over which He reigns. We applaud great accomplishment and no other being has done so much as to deserve it. God is furthermore just. Every society has some standard by which it assesses its inhabitants. We are drawn towards justice, because a just God created us. God commands praise, but gives humankind the choice to do so. There are clear cases in scripture where God must punish those who go against His will, because He is just. This is not to say that He is not a God of grace and mercy, for He possesses those attributes as well, but He is most assuredly a God of justice. Humankind often fails at administering this dual system of justice and grace, because we have fallen and are very inadequate compared to an Almighty and Infinite God. Our failures in life need not be projected onto God, however. The idea of justice need not be the explanation for pain and suffering. For if this were the reason, then one would be quick to call God cruel and uncaring, which is not at all the case. It is important though to understand that God’s justice is very real and something to be desired; but it is not always well received, especially when it is being self-directed. Humankind needs direction at times, even to the point of correction.

One might ask why God would use pain and not some varying degrees of pleasure to direct us, as Hume does. Perception is everything in the idea of correction. A person might say that he or she is starving, but this feeling does not at all compare to the hunger felt by those in a much poorer culture or simply down the road sleeping under a bridge. Another person might say they feel cold, when really that person is simply feeling less warmth than another person. In reality, cold is the complete lack of heat. No person has ever felt the complete lack of heat, only less heat than on other occasions. With these examples in mind, one can think of certain degrees of pain he/she have felt. Hypothetically, in a world where complete comfort is the norm, anything less than that is considered uncomfortable. In a world of lush, leather recliners, a wooden chair would be considered torture. Give that wooden chair to a person who has been in a prison made of stone, however, and the prisoner sits in complete luxury. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed person is king.

At this point a person must begin to refine the idea of suffering. And from the last argument, the concept of that person who does actually starve in a third world country comes into the debate. Here is where the concept of free will really begins to shed light on the idea of suffering. If a person looks at the suffering in the world, they will see that a large portion of it is due to people enacting their will on others. Anyone who has ever been offended or hurt by a friend, spouse, or acquaintance has experienced that person’s free will taking a toll on his/her happiness. We don’t question these small incidents, but the same principles apply to larger situations. Most people love having the freedom to choose what they wish to do; the problem arises when the interests of different people collide. Violence ensues from these two conflicting interests. God remains just throughout all of these conflicting interests and will enact His justice on those who oppress the weaker in His own time. However, one can take a look around their home and see other people’s decisions affecting those around them. A person can complain that there is pain and suffering in the world, but drive a $100,000 dollar car to his or her three story home and think nothing of how his or her lack of compassion affects those around them. Certain people directly forcing their free will upon another is not the only cause of suffering, it comes from those who stand by idly with the resources to remedy it. A benevolent God desires no less of His creation. We are made for community.

There is still one more being that has an effect on all the creatures of the earth in a negative way and that is the opposing force to a benevolent and caring God: Satan. Entertaining the idea of the God of the Bible automatically gives way to entertaining the idea of Satan. A person cannot choose the Christian God without choosing the Devil. This being is, like all other creations, under the dominion of God; however, like all other creations, he also has the power to choose. Scripture teaches that Satan chose to leave God and has been cursed ever since. Just as we are able to affect each other with our own selfishness; Satan also has this ability. Satan is a much more powerful being than any human and has some power over creation. He wishes for nothing more than to inflict pain and misery on God’s creation, causing them to stumble and fall. Scripture clearly cites several instances where Satan is the direct cause of pain and misery. God permits, but is never absent. God allows Satan to work in this world, which the Biblical story of Job makes clear. When God’s creation withstands this testing, He strengthens His creation and gives them rest. In this way, God is never absent, and is always able to help those who choose to call on Him. This does not eliminate all of Satan’s schemes, but it ensures that those who reside in God will never be tempted past what they can bear.

Slowly, these ideas start to make sense, but questions still remain. Why do natural disasters cause pain when no human acts upon another? Part of this answer resides in the idea of Satan. Far less powerful than God but much more powerful than any person, Satan has the ability to manipulate nature if it means causing people to doubt in God. The second part of this answer resides in the fact that we live in a fallen world according to the Genesis account. Once again, Satan allured God’s creation to break God’s law and because God is just, consequences followed. No longer would the earth be perfect as it had been, but now would cause toil and pain. Not an uncaring world, because for every negative and troublesome element in the world there exists many wonderful and enjoyable elements, but an imperfect world.

The last and possibly most important issue that Hume fails to address in his narrow perspective is that of the Christian mindset. It has already been stated that when dealing with the concepts of pain and suffering, perspective is vital to understanding. The Christian perspective distinctly gives joy in the midst of trials and afflictions, because we can read encouraging words such as “in this world you will have trouble, but take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) The true disciple considers it all joy when he or she falls into various trials, because in that testing, completeness is found (James 1:2-4).
It has been shown that God is both benevolent and just. Humankind often has trouble seeing this because our perception is not that of God, nor will it ever be. Faith in God does not need to be shaken by pain and suffering, however. Suffering only makes those in Christ stronger disciples and ultimately makes them all the more joyous because the end prize is so much greater than anything that could ever be imagined, worth the woe here below.

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