A few weeks ago I shared a question that a friend asked me in an email here. I really love getting these theological questions and having friends that are, like me, gripped and ultimately concerned with such things. I got an email today from another friend that asked a very common and central question for all believers. It is a question that is fundamental in many peoples rejection of faith and it is an unavoidable subject for the apologists.

Here is a segment of the email (slightly adapted for anonymity)

I realized I haven't really ever asked this question and it has become clear to me that I should. Five or so people have asked me this in the past week and I am sure God is trying to tell me something, because I am reading the book of Job as well. The question is: why does suffering exist? You see, I always rationalized that there was always a reason for it, a reason for why my family is broken, why my step-dad died, why now another close family member has cancer. And there is a reason, but instead of walking through it,  I just rationalize my emotions, make it smaller than it really is, because if I actually took the time to go THROUGH it, my whole world might be shaken even down to the core of me...of why I am the way I am, and I just don't know if I am ready for that yet.

I just fell in love with this email. I love the honesty and integrity of the questions, the confession of half hearted solutions and the cowardice (which we all have) to face our pain and trauma. I both share the heart that says 'I don't know if I am ready for that yet' as well I have a conviction that it is the most fertile soil available in us. We are never ready to face it and we are actually made ready in facing it.

When speaking of facing ones suffering it is no exaggeration to say that "If I actually took the time to go THROUGH it, my whole world might be shaken even down to the core of me." I would go a step further and say that this is almost euphemistic language because there is no 'might' or maybe about it and facing pain and suffering does more than shake our world, suffering shatters our world.

The question of evil and suffering, which is referred to in theology as theodicy, was itself world shattering for me at one time. As I became more and more aware of the terrible suffering and excruciating poverty that the majority of our planet as well as the majority of people throughout history have lived in I had a harder and harder time squaring that reality with my belief in a good and powerful God.

The question of theodicy is usually framed with 4 premises that, they say, cannot all be true. As I write this it occurs to me that I have already written a blog that lays out the basic arguments of theodicy which you can read here. As I just read over that post again I find that it is almost exactly what I was just about to write so please read that post as well for my complete answer to this email.

I have so often developed in my thinking that as I look back over the years I find myself almost hating the content of my former thoughts and writing. I know that it has only been about 5 months since I wrote that and I am sure my ideas will continue to evolve but so much has happened in that time that I gotta say I am really encouraged by its consistency with my current understanding.

In a wonderful (and difficult) book called The Way of Suffering, Jerome Miller begins his geography of crisis by reflecting on memory. He observed that memory takes place at a sub-conscious level. We do not make decisions about what we do and do not remember on a day to day basis. Our minds retain and discard information all the time without any conscious effort. He also pointed out how we so often cannot remember what we do on a day to day basis. If I asked you, for example, what you did last tuesday, you most likely would have a hard time remembering. Our memories don't retain all of the mundane details that make up the majority of our lives. He says that it is if our memories stand in protest of the lives that we are living. As though our sub-conscious is saying to us, "I will only retain what is sacred and worth while" as it discards the majority of our lifes content. These worlds of ours that we spend so much energy trying to plan and control are forgettable while the traumas and ruptures in those plans are the things that we never forget. Why might the most painful and traumatic memories be the most cherished and protected by the sub-conscious memory? Could it be that those wounds are somehow more meaningful, formative and important than everything else in our lives that our conscious selves spend all of our attention and resources trying to tend to?

Anyone who has been through extreme suffering can tell you that when they are in the throws of it, everything that usually matters in ones life ceases to have any importance. We normally spend energy and resources trying to look right, dress right, act right, eat right, etc. and when one enters true grieving they stop caring about any of these things. I have come to realize that there is, in suffering, a gift of sobriety about life. It is in that moment that our worlds are shattered that we can look around and see clearly how meaningless and empty what we normally spend ourselves on is. Trauma, suffering and grief take over ones very self. We do not choose to submit to it but are overcome by it, we cannot shake it off but are in its grips and we cannot accept nor escape the evil and death in which we find ourselves. People must never doubt that there is a power greater than themselves for they need look no further than the experience of suffering. Suffering itself is such a power.

Suffering, though terrible to experience, presents us with the best opportunity in our lives to see into our own hearts. We spend so much of our lives stuffing things down and hiding what is truly in our hearts and suffering shatters our sense of control so thoroughly that the wounds themselves becomes portals to the deepest realities within us. We pay such a high toll as wounds are inflicted and then don't mine them for the wealth that resides within the ruptures themselves. If we can muster the courage to face them and the faith that God might be found in the depths of such agony then we enter into a new world in which we recognize our nothingness that depends fully on God for our being.

The incarnation has always baffled me with the depth at which God has identified with us in our existential experiences. God took on flesh and moved into the neighborhood and as Phillipians 2 puts so well took on the form of a servant and became obedient to death, even death on a cross. Jesus lives in the flesh in this fallen world, light lived 'in the darkness' and Jesus would identify himself with the poor and outcasts. (matthew 25) He made himself like a servant or slave and emptied himself of everything to the point of death and even the death of a criminal at the hands of an oppressive government.  Jesus on the cross identifies with the suffering of every victim of every crime this world has ever known. He becomes the very wounds that evil has inflicted and in so doing He has made them a source of life for us.

I feel like there is so much more to write but need to stop for now.
Just one thought to ponder in closing. The resurrected Christ still bore the wounds in his hands and sides. The lamb that St. John saw on the throne in his vision of heaven was a Lamb who looked as though He had been slaughtered. Just think, your own memory doesn't forget your suffering and neither does eternity.


  1. Wow, I read this whole thing and it is amazing. It really brings things into perspective. Thank you.


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