Affliction as a Window to God

Affliction is a peculiar kind of suffering. Many instances of suffering are such that we can, to some extent, employ to our good, as with those adversities that open the door to moral virtues like courage and perseverance. But affliction is no simple suffering; the mind cannot evade it, and so it leaves one blind to any possibility of redemption. Depression, in its most severe of forms, will acquaint the soul with the barrenness of life. Slavery will demand no less than all humanity, until it leaves behind a hollow shell. Affliction is a use-less kind of evil, consuming body and soul, leaving no dimension of man (social, psychological and physical) unturned. It is a parasite, gnawing at the core of humanity, making a mockery of life itself, filling every pore with self-contempt and disgust. In some cases, this uprooting of life is so severe, so complete, that it will make of any man a passive victim. But so long as affliction has only claimed half of a man’s soul, he will center his life around one question and ask it incessantly, day after day, night after night: Why? Why? Why?

There is something telling about this question, for it is not a question of “by what causes have I arrived here?” The recipient of affliction knows only too well that no appeal to the workings of the universe — that is, no account of the natural causes leading up to his present predicament, no matter how detailed and complex — will ever serve as an answer to the kind of inquiry he has in mind. Man has more sense than to think the complexity of his soul can be explained (at least fully) in terms of impersonal, efficient causes. In asking “why?” the afflicted man seeks an answer of a different quality, beyond the mere quantitative. He wants to know “what is the purpose of this?” or “what is the reason for all of this?”

A person’s experience of the world will necessarily shape the sorts of questions he deems worth pursuing. Hence, the cry of the afflicted reveals much about the sort of world he takes there to be. For in asking what is the purpose, the reason for his suffering, he recognizes its injustice. He understands his affliction as nothing less than evil, that is, a departure from the way things ought to be. He presupposes in his questioning that it is both meaningful and advisable to search for that which can answer his question properly. Note, too, that his question is an inherently personalone; the kind that demands an inherently personal answer, either in himself or in another.

If justice is to render to each man his due by an act of the will, then injustice is the failure to render what belongs properly to him. But what sense could there be to speak of “injustice” in an un-guided, impersonal, purely physical world? Similarly, what “meaning” could there be to a man’s affliction in a world without finality, without some good toward which it points, or by which it is redeemed? And would it be advisable for the afflicted to speak the demands of his heart in such a world? If this is truly the world that is, the ontologically true world, then, ultimately, there is no hope for the afflicted, no purpose to his suffering, no finality or good which can ultimately take this cup from him, the misery of affliction.

But the heart of the afflicted will (rightly, it seems to me) deny this world at every turn. For we dare not tell him, just as he dare not accept, that his suffering is one of great intensity, yet unworthy of categories such as “evil” or “unjust”; or that his search for meaning in his suffering is but a road without destination, a complete and utter waste of his time [2]. Underneath the cry of the afflicted is an aspiration which he cannot hope to fulfill should the world be all that is. In other words, if there is a reality which answers his question properly — “why?” — It cannot be found within the nexus of natural causes. It seems, then, that if the afflictions of this life are to have purpose, real purpose, as opposed to just a cause, this purpose must come from outside the order of natural causes. It must reside outside the universe. God is that good which can bring true fulfillment and relief from the storm of affliction.

I do not pretend that this will be a satisfactory answer to all. But I do contend that such an account may serve to open the heart of the afflicted to a distinctly theological response, in at least two significant ways. In the worst of sufferings, we find ourselves at the grip of evil and injustice. We grasp the absence of a good which should obtain — that of our happiness and well-being — yet it does not. We cry out for an answer and in so doing we set ourselves down a path looking for meaning to our suffering. But, as we’ve seen, whether that road is worth travelling is contingent on what the fundamental character of the world is truly like. A world that is, at bottom, without guidance, without purpose, and without mind, cannot support the weight of the questions given rise by our afflictions, such as “what is the purpose, the meaning, the reason for all this?” On the other hand, a world governed by providence, meaning, finality, and Mind, is one where hope and redemption are possible.

But just how is this hope and redemption made possible, let alone accomplished? According to Christian theism, the answer lies in the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Central to any Christian account is the notion of the Incarnation, of God revealing himself decisively in history through the person of Christ. In taking on our mode of existence, we see God not merely as the metaphysical ground of all being, but as a close and personal reality, one who takes great interest in the affairs of man. God’s love for his creation is so intimate that he condescends to our level, revealing himself in the language of us, partaking in our joys and sorrows, glory and suffering. And suffer he did. For, as the story goes, he allowed himself to suffer unto death at the hands of his own creation, to be spat upon, beaten, and nailed to a cross. Bask in the indignity, in the injustice, in the absurdity of this! God delivered to the height of affliction by his very own. And for what? What good could possibly result from such unspeakable horror?

Here we arrive at the crux of our response. If Christianity is true, then there is none who better understands the measure of our suffering than God himself; none who better understands what it is like to be rejected by God but God himself [3]. In the passion and death of Christ, God bears the marks of the afflicted, so that he will not have to bear them alone. But God’s love is not merely one of relatedness; it is intrinsically redemptive or agape. For by subjecting himself to the realities of affliction and death, he ultimately rises victoriously over them in the event of the resurrection. We see God’s infinite power and goodness engulfing and defeating the evil in our lives, the entropy of life now crushed before the everlasting. We see, as John Stackhouse notes, “what we desperately need to see: God close to us, God active among us, God loving us, God forgiving our sin, God opening up a way to new life of everlasting love. If Jesus is the human face of God, Christians affirm, then human beings have a God who cares, a God who acts on their behalf (even to the point of self-sacrifice), and a God who is now engaged in the complete conquest of evil and the reestablishment of universal shalom for all time. If Jesus is truly God revealed, then we can trust God in spite of the evil all around us and in us.” [4]

What greater love could mend the heart of the afflicted?

[1] I would like to thank Berta Moritz, Dan Julian, and Matt Blosser for their helpful comments of an earlier version of this article.
[2] It is no small argument against naturalism that many people do report finding “meaning in suffering”, whatever this may mean.
[3] Matthew 27:46
[4] John G. Stackhouse, Can God Be Trusted? : Faith and the Challenge of Evil, 1998

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