Saturday, March 06, 2010

Suffering

A couple months ago my brother brought up the question on many minds of why God allows such suffering as we see in Haiti and other such natural disasters that seemingly blast every man, woman, and child--not to mention every tree, animal, or home--in its path. It got me thinking about what's going on there and how we can make sense of all the carnage, and I jotted a few notes that helped me to process this age-old but ever-present problem.

Something that came to mind is that none of us have ever experienced such physical devastation as they have, so we are in essence acting as "advocates" for them, onlookers from the outside seeking justice in their plight. But having never experienced what they have for ourselves, we can make one of two errors, either to be be overly complacent as if to say to them, "That's not so bad; God has good purpose in it," to which they might respond, "How dare you say that! What do you know?" or on the flip side, to passionately cry out against their plight, to which some of them might say, "Who are you to say how I feel? I still have my faith." Of course we strive for the balance, but either extreme is always a possibility, simply because no matter how much we try to empathize, we have not undergone what they have.

I was thinking about this topic over the past couple months, and the church I've been attending is actually going over a book on suffering. The chapter I most recently read is on the Holocaust, and it made me think how of all the worst nightmares I could imagine, that is probably one of the worst. I was also thinking that if we are really to make sense of the plight of those in such dreadful and unjust circumstances, we are best to ask them how they themselves have responded. The book cited a survey conducted in the 70s (I haven't viewed the survey itself, so I'm just taking the book at its word) on Holocaust victims, and the surprising result was that for a vast majority of the victims, the Holocaust had no lasting impact on their faith, yay or nay. A small fraction turned to atheism, and a smaller fraction actually grew stronger in their faith. It made me think that from those who have actually undergone such atrocity, and not merely the spectators who do their best to place themselves in their shoes, a large fraction at the very least found the events essentially unrelated to the major thrust of their faith. In other words, they somehow found their God compatible with the atrocities they had suffered.

Of course, these people may be biased in another way, since they may "have no one else to turn to" in such dire conditions, for example. But even then, I find it remarkable that they still turn to and embrace the one whom we might otherwise castigate for having brought such genocide. Maybe it's the Stokholm Syndrome, or maybe they have a different view of who God is and what his obligations are. I was also watching a Frontline episode on "The Children of the Taliban," where they interviewed a girl of about 7 years in Pakistan at an amputee camp. They asked her what brought her there, and she said that a bomb had taken out her sister and father, and before that a mortar had consumed her aunt, and rocket fire had taken her cousins, and her second cousins were wiped out by gunfire, and on and on... I was appalled, but when they asked her what she thought of all this, she replied without expression of anger, "What can I say? It is the will of God. It just happens." I was humbled, and although I of course believe that God does not condone such action, I thought of how spoiled I am to think that God has an obligation to keep us all healthy and well.

CS Lewis wrote about how God allows evil because he wants to give us the freedom to love him. That of course begs the question of why God would then allow those who love him to experience such evil. What I think it may boil down to is the fact that when God allows us individual freedom to choose between good and evil, to love or to forsake him, it's implicit that he also allows for societal good and evil. Because individuals can choose evil, we as society must bear the consequences of their evil action, even if we have chosen good for ourselves. Societal freedom is sometimes an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of individual freedom. When it comes to cancer or earthquakes or other "acts of God," it becomes more difficult to see the explanation, and perhaps we never will, or at least until we experience them for ourselves. But even in the trivial things that we do experience, we can ask God to give us the strength to respond.
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