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Friday, October 4, 2013

How Can I Suffer, Let Me Count The Ways

Perhaps, with the current shutdown of the government, discussing how we should suffer through trials can be pertinent. But that is only if you are affected by the shutdown, which I am not but many vulnerable people are. The people at The Gospel Coalition have made suffering one of their several blog topics of the week by posting an audio of Tim Keller speaking on it, posting an interview conducted by Matt Smethurst of Tim Keller about suffering, and a blog post by Scotty Smith on accepting suffering. The release of the audio and the interview were posted in order to promote Tim Keller's new book on suffering. After all of this, we could say that those at the Gospel Coalition are gluttons for suffering.

According to Keller, our reaction to suffering reveals that we don't make people like we use to. That is that we in the West don't handle suffering as well as others whether those others are from a different area or time. Why? Keller says it is because secularism blinds us from seeing the purpose and benefits of suffering. Since secularism teaches us that our meaning is found in happiness, suffering is an interruption of or possible end to happiness, and that secularism tells us that our only rewards come in our earthly lives,  it keeps us from appreciating what we can from suffering.

In the posted audio, Keller defends the challenge to the existence of the almighty God that the presence of suffering brings. This challenge says that suffering either proves that God is not loving or that He isn't all powerful. Keller's defense to this challenge says that the greater challenge to explaining suffering belongs to the unbeliever. Why? It is because without God, there is no standard of justice to constrain us from violence and thus limit some of the suffering that goes on in the world. 

One of the first points Keller makes is that suffering happens. And the challenge to the Christian when it does occur is that not only should one not let suffering cause their spiritual demise. Instead, one should come out of the suffering stronger and more pure. Keller gives the Christian reasons why this is the case. In the audio, Keller makes Christ the center of our suffering. After all, God personally connects with us and can walk us through our suffering because of what Christ endured. And Christ's suffering was more than the earthly suffering we all face, He suffered what we deserve to suffer because of our sins. In addition, Keller points out that our suffering here does not imply that God doesn't care or has abandoned us because His own son also suffered. Finally, Keller points out that just as Christ endured His suffering for the joy that was set before Him, so should we. Only Christ's joy was our salvation while our's is our own.

In both the audio and the interview, Keller paints a pretty picture, inspiring to look at, of how Christians should react to and endure suffering. But as with any picture not painted by God, we must ask, 'What is missing?' Before answering this question, I should note that perhaps Keller has possibly addressed some of the points I will bring up in his book. For right now, I will be reacting to the material linked to in this post. 

The first point that needs to be addressed is Keller's assertion that the secular has lowered the threshold of the suffering we can handle. This point begs the question of whose threshold should be used as a standard. Are we less tolerant to suffering now because of the effects that the secular's definition of happiness has on us or is it because, for some groups, our definition of humanity is progressing? We also have to ask if one's experience of enduring suffering is evidence of their reliance on God or their attempt to be a spiritual spartan--noting here that the latter reason is based more on pride than faith.

In addition, the secular provides no single definition for what gives a person a sense of meaning and happiness. For some, meaning is found in serving others despite the pain that such serving brings. Thus, secular's version of meaning enable them to endure suffering. For others, meaning is found in materialistic pleasure. We could reason that such people would find suffering to be more of an obstacle than something to profit from. Thus what seems to hinder people's ability to suffer is not the secular per se but what gives each person meaning and makes them happy. 

At this point we should note that just as Christians do not hold a monopoly on serving others, neither does those who are secular have a monopoly on determining happiness by materialistic pleasures. Many of my fellow activists at Occupy Wall Street put up with much more suffering than I did as they camped out longer than I did, they camped out in worse weather, and they were willing to endure police abuse and imprisonment whereas I did not. And yet, many of my brothers and sisters there are secular people. In contrast to that, many of my fellow Christians couldn't come close to putting up with what my fellow, secular activists did because they cling to the comfort that comes from materialism.

What about God's existence being challenged by presence of suffering? Rather than answering this question of God's existence and characteristics directly, Keller states that without God, there is more suffering in the world because there is no standard of justice to restrain our behavior. And there is a problem with this answer. The problem is that it doesn't explain history where Europe, which was the center of Christianity at the time, was one of the most vicious and violent places in the world while certain places where people had never heard of the Gospel were peaceful. In addition, why is it that atheists like Chomsky and Zinn have both risked much suffering to demonstrate a greater sense of justice than many Christians have? Those outside the faith are thus often perplexed when they hear claims of how Christianity is a prerequisite to holding to a real standard of justice.

There is one more point to make here. As Keller does a wonderful job showing how Christ should be at the center of how we should react to suffering, sometimes making Christ the center is misapplied and not implemented correctly. Sometimes, people say they are making Christ their center when in reality they are becoming more self-centerd and self-absorbed. We become that way when our suffering is all about us, our faith, and what benefits we receive. This is what this blog has called being an "innie Christian (click here). If we are to follow Christ, then at some point we must realize that we will also suffer because of the benefits it will bring others. This can occur in many ways. One such way is when we suffer while working for justice. Martin Luther King both preached and lived this. He viewed unjust suffering that occurs when one works for justice is redemptive. But by redemptive, he meant that it might help others more than it helps us. We need to escape the inclination to make our Christian life all about ourselves, that is if we are to follow Christ.

Another way by which we suffer for others is when our current suffering prepares us to help others to persevere through their own trials. Sometimes that preparation readies us to help those whose future suffering will be similar to our current suffering. And sometimes it is the degree of our current suffering that enables us to help others. In any case, our suffering isn't just about the benefits we experience, it also is about how others will be helped. 

In addition, we could look at times of comfort and ease in that same way. Just as suffering now enables us to help others in the future, a lack of suffering frees us to help those who are suffering now. And perhaps the suffering of others is God's way of telling us what to do with our current state of comfort. That is that our current restful situation is not just there for us to enjoy as consumers, it is there so that we can better help others who are in distress.

Despite the additions and criticisms that have been stated here, there is much to learn and great value in Keller's talk and interview.  The theme of making Christ the center of our suffering because of what He has done for us, is doing for us, and will do for us is essential if we are to be successful in persevering through suffering. We just always need to remind ourselves that we cannot oversimplify what the secular means especially when both there are so many examples of nonbelievers lives excelling past our own and believers and nonbelievers have much in common. In addition we need to remember that the events in our lives are not there for our own benefit only, but they are there for the sake of others. 


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