The Problem of Suffering

The problem of suffering in the world confounds many who seek an understanding of God.   Addiction recovery seekers who have survived childhood trauma struggle to understand a God who is all-powerful and all-good yet permits children to be victimized.  Religious missionaries and hospital chaplains of all faiths minister amid immense suffering and few answers.  The problem of suffering is a central theme in Buddhism.  The existence of suffering is a feature of the human experience that transcends all faiths and traditions.  How do we reconcile the ideas that God is all-powerful, God is all-good, and evil exists?  

One way to approach the problem is to assume God is all-powerful, and in his desire for relationship, God cedes power to beings in the gift of free will.  A free choice is actually a false choice if the outcome is controlled.  Free will choices have consequences that, in the spirit of true freedom, God may decline to control.  Certainly much of the world’s suffering can be attributed to human choices.  That doesn’t answer questions about the physical world, though, such as why an all-powerful God allows the earth to evolve in a way that includes earthquakes and tsunami’s and birth defects.  Certainly those aren’t the product of human choice.  Even acquiescing to the idea that some humans might have some limited ability to choose to avoid those realities does not answer the question of why destructive forces exist.  This reality leads us to question God’s goodness.  

The question of God’s goodness reminds me of a needlepoint canvas.  My grandmother was a prodigious master of needlepoint.  Sitting at her knee, I gazed up at the underside of her canvases.  They had loose threads and frayed ends.  The colors did not form tidy shapes.  Sometimes a pattern could be made out roughly, and sometimes it was indecipherable.  Yarns stretched illogically across the back of the canvas.  Invariably, though, she produced gorgeous works of art, always balanced in color and theme.   

Our suffering might be like that.  We may see knots and frayed ends.  There may be a thread woven through the fabric of life that has inflicted intense suffering or shame.  If viewed alone, that thread is not pleasing or artistic.  It might be an ugly color or trace a broken line.  It does not stand alone, however, and the canvas might not ultimately be as beautiful and balanced without it.  Sometimes from our vantage point, we cannot see how our suffering weaves into life to produce anything good at all.   

Where we cannot see goodness, however, we can have faith in goodness.  No physicist who seeks a deeper understanding of the universe believes his perception is all there is.  There is reality that lies beyond human perception.  There is mystery, and that mystery is a source of hope.  When we cannot perceive the meaning in our or another’s suffering, we can have faith that God is other, not limited to seeing the underside of the canvas as humans are, and that he gathers all the loose and frayed ends and uses them for good. 

Join the conversation.  What inspires hope in the face of suffering for you?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved