We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, May 16, 2011

Beyond Suffering

A recent posting about the Rev. Adam Hamilton, brings to mind again one of the most difficult questions we face as Christians.  What role does God play in human suffering?  Hamilton is a Methodist pastor in Leawood, Kansas, and he  has recently published a timely book on God and suffering.   The posting describes Hamilton's struggle to understand the death of two close friends while he was in seminary.  He could not believe that God was punishing them and rejected the idea that God wanted them to "come home early."  In the wake of their deaths, he began to study the doctrine of divine providence, God's role in history generally and our personal lives in particular.  Recognizing that there are no easy answers to the question of suffering, Hamilton comes to what seems to be a "karmic" ("what goes around comes around") conclusion.  We live in a universe of cause and effect where there are unavoidable consequences for our actions.  The role of God is not to get us out of things but rather to help us work through them to better endings than we might have otherwise expected.  There are miracles, but in the course of things the daily miracles are those in which people of faith under the leading of the Spirit win through pain, suffering, and tragedy to a better place.

Suffering is a fact of life that, ultimately, we do not understand.  Why is the universe constructed this way?  Why does our particular biosphere here on the Earth involve so much "natural" violence, suffering, and things eating things?  Maybe someday we will gain an understanding of these things, but we haven't yet and aren't likely to any time soon.  What we have come to believe is that there is purpose to our suffering.  It is not in vain.  Indeed, it sets a course for our Christian lives, namely to be a people who lighten the loads of others, helping them live with and through their pain.  Pain shared is so often transformed, somehow, into something much more than merely pain endured.

God has created a universe in which suffering exists and physical pain is necessary.  We have to have pain to survive because of the warnings we get from our pain.  Individuals who cannot feel pain are at much greater risk than the rest of us.  Their "pain free" lives are not to be envied.  And, according to our Christian understanding of things, God submits God's self to the same experiences of pain that we go through.  Pain and suffering touch God as they touch us.  And out of the death of pain and suffering God brings resurrection—a renewal of life, of hope, and of purpose.  Why it has to be this way, we don't know.  We do know that there is something Beyond pain and suffering, which we have experienced in our lives from time to precious time.  Amen.