Why The Suffering?

This was the third question of the Explore God series for Metro Richmond churches. It seems I started this essay series in the middle. Onward. If this is a question that is deep for you, sorry, twice. First, sorry that it disrupts your life. It’s kind of cool that you feel it deeply. It’s also rather shitty that the available answers all suck. Second, if you hoped I’d be the genius that had the epiphany of the ages, fail. I’m not the brilliant one. I’m a cab driver. My brilliance lasts long enough to get you to where you are going and get paid. Then I’m just another smelly plebeian.

Over 2,000 years ago another smelly plebeian born in a stable in Bethlehem was crucified by the Romans at the behest of local rabbis. He was Nazarene and nothing good comes out of Nazareth. He made outrageous claims to divinity throughout his life. His followers attributed miracles to him. Three days after his crucifixion his body went missing and certain of his followers made the absurd claim that he had risen from the dead.

The absurd lies about Jesus have continued for two millennia. Today, his followers make the claim that he took all suffering, all death from all time with him to the grave and delivered it to Hell. So . . . why didn’t the shit-show stop 2,000 years ago? Anybody?

St. John said a lot crazier things in the book of Revelations. The fight over what the hell he was saying is as old as the book. Bottom line, instead of the shit-show stopping when Jesus was crucified, it kept going. What was/is the answer? Sheer bullshit, that when Jesus comes back he’ll make that a priority. In the meantime the misery will continue whether morale improves or not.

I am a confessed Christian. Well meaning evangelists have pressed me for the desired answer to their perpetual question, “are you saved?” My consistent answer is still, “yes I am“. I’m not your usual, doe-eyed unquestioning devotee of the mythology and orthodoxy of my church. I came to Christ a deep skeptic. I was sure God existed, somewhat less sure about the claims of Jesus, and very cynical about the church.

Still, I believe the bible is true, all of it. Is it literal, neat, Pythagorean truth lending itself to a linear exegesis? Don’t be silly. Even a superficial browse of it will turn up absurdities that destroy any childish assertion that the Bible holds up as a factual explanation of anything. Some of the Bible is narrative that we have learned is history. Some of the Bible is reliably absurd when read as journalism. I don’t expect my world to be so convenient. My world is absurd. That my religion and its central tome is absurd just fits.

I’ll leave it to others to be frustrated with the ways in which the Bible is bonkers. This is where I am going with this: the claim that the shitty aspects of life would end with Christ’s death is false. Every evangelist who tells you that your misery will stop once you say a quick, 10 second prayer is a liar. Things do improve, sometimes miraculously. I am one of many for whom this has been a life-long project. There is more blessing and less shit-show in my life lately. It didn’t just fall into my life. I had to work my ass off to get to today. I got here, though.

I said I would fail you. 500 words in and I’ve not touched the question–why is there suffering? “Everything happens for a reason?” And that reason would be? Or this, “You must have sinned somehow and this is the consequence of your sinful ways. Repent.” My Mom died last summer. She was 83. Her curriculum vitae was admirable. Dementia stole her from me. Are you seriously going to close the story of her on, “everything happens for a reason” or “She’d be healthier if you weren’t so evil”? Can I smack you? No? Damn. I can’t accept that she did something or I did something to cause her to contract dementia. Dementia just happened to her. It was how the story ended for her. I’m at peace with that. Your well-intended words of comfort that her last 5 years happened for a reason just pisses me off.

That utopia, where we are all the same, frozen at our mid-twenties, free to accomplish the seven deadly sins as often as we like without consequence . . . is a fantasy for some boomers and a nightmare to me. I like this world, where my Mom went home one afternoon during a nap. No, five years of watching dementia eat her wasn’t fun. For a time, I wouldn’t go home and when I did the times in the day when she needed to be moved or fed or her sheets changed or any of numerous small acts of care performed I found a way to be incapable of helping. Still, this world, with my Mom reduced to an imbecile toward the end, is one I’d choose over a pastoral first world where I am coddled and protected from misery.

That I live in a two-story walkup on a back alley off a run-down street next door to the Devil’s Funhouse in a valley named Valle de la Muerte may be concerning to some. It’s home. I’ve got incredible neighbors. There are days when the college kid that lives downstairs will be in my kitchen bitching about my lack of housekeeping skills. Most of the time she does this while she’s got the stove simmering something tasty and she’s taken it upon herself to clean up after me. A hug and a little cash always seems to be about right.

I don’t want the world in which she wears an apron and dutifully greets me at the door with a cigar, a drink and the newspaper. I like it that she scolds me for the way I keep my house and messes up the presets on my TV. A world in which salt has lost its taste isn’t one I would live in. I’m not immune to misery. Those that know me have watched me climb out of the mess I got myself into 15 years ago. I’m a better man today now that the task has changed to thrive from survive.

See, a couple doors down from my walk-up is a dirty, lowdown bar where it’s even odds that they serve you or mug you. Your chances are better if you live nearby and have been there before. The band plays acoustic, with some banjo, steel guitar, trap drums and a blind-guy who looks like he’s a thousand years old and plays clarinet. A short walk a couple blocks is a late-night Chinese American place. It’s a place where a lot of us end up in the short months before we move to 6th & Green. It isn’t all bad though. Some of us move on to better neighborhoods with fond memories of hangovers and stories that penetrate the fog of last night.

That college kid is 6 months clean from heroine. She’s a regular at the bar. The guys tried to mug her and she emptied the place. She was fine, hot for more. The guys, though, not so much. The cops arrested a couple guys for drunk in public and made them sober up at City Jail. She got a lecture about reasonable force. It’s all hugs and smiles now.

This is the thing, living where I do. Nobody is shocked at the existence of the blues. We live on, do the needful and some of us thrive. Our faith in an absurd, martyred carpenter gets us through. For as many sad songs there are songs of praise and ridiculous things like Todd White. Jesus told us we’d always have the poor with us. By inference, I say we’ll always have the blues. The Devil’s FunHouse is as much a part of this world as heaven. Cray cray is part of His creation. He is absurd. That said, it is how we choose to live and love that matters.

I’ll end on this: there are things that give me comfort. I am a huge fan of C.S. Lewis’, “The Problem of Pain”. I’m a fan of Phillip Yancey. I haven’t read his “Where is God When it Hurts?” I trust Yancey enough to recommend him without having read “Where is God When it Hurts?” Of Lewis, the thing that I repeated ceaselessly was his insistence that God can’t do the self-contradictory. He can’t at once provide perfect safety and perfect freedom. Some degree of safety will limit freedom and more freedom will reduce safety. God made a world in which free will exists. The same baseball bat that can be used for a game can also be used to kill somebody. We should not fault the bat nor the God that made a world in which both things are possible. We should look within to where we are broken and tempted to use a baseball bat to injure.

Something else, there is beauty. Even on my street the busker who sings a catalog of b-side ’90’s almost famous mix-tapes accompanying herself with a kiddie synthesizer has her moments of transcendence. There are inexplicable acts of kindness and grace. As infinite are the slights and grievances also infinite are the reconciliations and healing. The sun will come out tomorrow . . . (Yes, ‘Annie’). I said I’d fail you with the question of why there is suffering and I have. I’ve kept my promise. This is an old and oft asked question. Any answer I have will be insufficient. What is sufficient is faith in an absurd event in history when God made himself flesh and died on a cross to be resurrected three days later. Nothing else worked, nothing else is enough. God died and rose again. Hallelujah and Amen!


  1. Isn’t suffering a reminder that you have lessons to learn? If you burn yourself on a hot stove, you learn to use a pot holders the next time. If your relationship crashes, you learn what makes the next one work.

    1. Defining suffering as a lesson to learn isn’t enough to explain acts of God or Ginnie’s dementia? There is misery that defies explanation. God never answered Job with a satisfactory answer. It was Job who surrendered. Maybe some misery is self-generated by our choices. Not all of it though.

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