Suffering is amoral. How we respond to suffering is moral.
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Tuesday, February 23rd: Psalm 77; Job 5:8-27; and 1 Peter 3:8-18a. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
All three of today’s readings deal with suffering, whether the suffering is deemed deserved or not. Suffering is a universal condition. It is unavoidable. If you’re not too depressed today, because this article could push you over the edge if it’s a bad day, take a quick read of this interview with David Benatar who “may be the world’s most pessimistic philosopher. An ‘anti-natalist,’ he believes that life is so bad, so painful, that human beings should stop having children for reasons of compassion.” https://www.newyorker.com/culture/persons-of-interest/the-case-for-not-being-born
Before any of us reject this philosophy automatically, we should know that there was a strand of early Christianity that professed basically the same aversion to procreation. Earliest Christians were a tiny minority among the peoples of the Roman Empire. The Empire seemed invincible and eternal. What hope did believers in Jesus have to overturn it and usher in the reign of Christ?
Some proffered the teaching that the only way to facilitate Christ’s triumph in the world was to bring the world as they knew it to an end. The sexual mores of the Empire would be rejected in favour of the ascetism of sexual abstinence. Virginity exemplified morality’s highest paradigm. By preventing procreation, Christians would force Jesus to hasten His glorious return in power. They accepted this radical plan because they were so desperate to throw off the suffering of ordinary life.
Whether the philosophy of the “anti-natalists” or the theology of the Christian ascetics, suffering is so burdensome and ubiquitous that some feel sentient life is by definition cruel and mercilessly painful. If you are a Bible reader, think to yourselves about what you have read, and sort casually in your mind how many passages are celebratory and how many, such as today’s, acknowledge justified or unjustified suffering. Which side weighs heavier? Is it even close?
Suffering is amoral. Faith or faithlessness do not affect how suffering is dispersed. There is no such thing as a Prosperity Gospel. Faith is not a magical cloak that protects from suffering’s randomness. Think back to the statement in 1 Peter: “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.” Either way, for doing good or for doing evil, suffering is a constant threat.
But there’s another matter here that should not be overlooked. Suffering is universal, even Jesus suffered, says 1 Peter. Does this imply God’s feebleness? One has to wonder if this conclusion is being counter-balanced by the tidy addition of “if suffering should be God’s will.” Maybe the defender of faith realizes suffering’s amoral universality. Maybe faith can’t be defended as a bastion against suffering, but maybe it can be protected from the argument of God’s feebleness by claiming that the almighty God wills suffering. This is not God allows suffering, but God dictates suffering, is responsible for the suffering.
This convenient addition protects God’s omnipotence, but it does so by brutalizing the very nature of God. How does one turn in faith to God in times of suffering, which are universal, if we are to believe that the same God has willed that suffering? If this is the case, then God may be strong, but also uncaring. The amorality of suffering has become theologized.
In the Book of Job, Job and his companions struggle with the idea of suffering. The companions insist that Job’s suffering is merited and Job counters that it is unmerited. The book ends with no answer offered about human suffering. Probably because suffering is not a moral or theological issue (Dealing with it is and Job’s companions fail miserably at this). Suffering is a disinterested physical occurrence.
Without an answer offered, God basically says to Job, “Who are you to challenge my ways?”, and Job is satisfied at the end of the book. It is facile to imagine that Job is satisfied by the replacements he receives for the lost ones he loved. Rather, the answer in the Book of Job seems to be that Job at least knows that God is and that God is aware. Job’s torment is assuaged by God’s self-revelation. To know that God is and to know that God is not casually uninterested in his suffering satisfies Job.
Move this theology into the future of Jesus’ ministry as God’s presence in the suffering world, and especially to the cross where God in Jesus experiences the torment and fear of suffering, and the Book of Job’s argument is amplified to the point that, yes, suffering is real, but it is not willed by God – It is endured by God with us! This is at-one-ment, and for me at least this is more comforting than atonement.
Suffering is an amoral, disinterested consequence of the real world, but “Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.” We can’t obliterate suffering. It is universal. We can in our hearts sanctify Christ as Lord by standing with those who do suffer. In this way we honour Jesus and especially His suffering and death.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Massachusetts Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.macucc.org/lectionary.
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