Another answer to why suffering exists

I personally am not really stumbled by this question, but this post is meant to, from a (spiritual/God) perspective as well – the common question: if God is good, why is there suffering? I’ll do a laundry list of sorts, and there will be lots more answers than I can cover.

1) Suffering has a purpose

I’ll not go too deeply into this argument; I’m sure you can think about the different purposes. Yes, there is the argument about the ‘amount of suffering’; why is there ‘seemingly so much’. Idk but I feel like this is a stupid argument to an extent. We only know the amount of suffering that we have, how do we know that there isn’t A HELL LOT MORE SUFFERING out there which we already escaped due to the grace that was bestowed on us? And how can we know that we will learn just as well if the suffering was any less?

2) Suffering occurs due to sin

I’ll go deeper into this one, since it interests me more.

  • We suffer because of our own sin – and therefore the suffering has a purpose. E.g. we go to jail and suffer because we stole from someone.
  • We suffer because of someone else’s sin – e.g. Hitler killed people and those people + society suffered because of his sin. Yes, God could have stopped him, but that would go against His character of allowing us to have ‘free will’, even the free will to hurt other people too.
  • Sin can be passive/active, or un/intended. And therefore I’m going to go a bit deeper
  • We suffer because of societal sin – This argument is in reference to my post ‘more than ourselves’. There is such a thing as SYSTEMIC/SOCIETAL sin, passively upheld by us. An example would be the institution of slavery (the slaves suffered), and even though I as an individual may not have had slaves and made them suffer, I probably bought things made by slaves/voted for the leaders who constituted slavery, etc.
  • How about suffering from natural disasters?Natural disasters come about due to (human) sin??? Watch this video: ‘There is no such thing as a Natural Disaster’. It’s REALLY GOOD. Mexie brings up lots of stellar points: disasters only become disasters if there are people there – we need to question WHY and WHO lives on the disaster prone site: land is cheaper? Hence, systemic sin of capitalism exploiting the poor who cannot afford to live in places which are less disaster prone. How about our contributions to climate change which cause extreme weather changes and natural disasters? (Romans 8:22; the whole creation groans because of our sin). Are natural disasters our punishment for sin as well?
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In Worship of ‘doing good’//Pursuing ‘goodness’ without God

What do you want out of your life? Happiness? Meaning/fruitfulness/purpose? Before I continue, let me tell you a bit more about myself: I’m interested and concerned with social-environmental issues. I cut down on plastic and waste and generally don’t consume animal products. This could be seen as my way of ‘doing good’.

Let me problematized the fixation on ‘doing good’ without accounting for my Christian identity: 1) there are good non-Christians and bad Christians, and therefore, 2) what makes my efforts at ‘doing good’, ‘Christian’ (I’ve long thought about what makes a Christian NGO different from a non-religious/Buddhist/etc. organisation)? 3) How can I fit Christianity in my life (i.e. assuming that I believe my identity as a Christian is more important than being good)?

I think it’s (more important) to be Christian than ‘being good’ (haha I’m also kinda cheating because I think that being Christian = striving to be good. All/most faiths teach you to do good things, and how could you call yourself Christian if you do not renounce sin? I use sin rather loosely – even ‘systemic sins’ of our society like you consuming products created by exploitation of people/environment).

Sure, I could be obsessed with making my world a better place, starting organisations and doing activism etc., BUT 1) there are so many contradictions in our efforts, we’re never perfect – problematizing the case of veganism for the environment: you eat more plants (less carbon footprint), but there are so many other aspects of your life which contribute to perhaps even more ‘environmental harm’ than consuming animal products – plastic consumption rather than biodegradable animal materials?)

There are even more problems with ‘doing good’: 2) quoting Ecclesiastes 1, ‘meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless’ – I could devote my entire life to ‘doing good’, but I won’t change too much: our world is broken, and I know I cannot make our world a utopia. We’re ineffective: ‘unless the Lord builds the house, the labourers labour in vain’. We need to de-center humanity as agents of change and recognise that there are many forces out there: perhaps I may build many houses for the poor, but a natural disaster can so simply and quickly destroy structures we build. Our efforts at ‘doing good’ will also always be contentious: people will question our motivations, and it relies on the cooperation of those we work with.

And so for me, I hope not to worship the act of ‘doing good’. A fixation on ‘doing good’ can cause anxiety because of the unpredictability of things around us, and we will constantly question our motivations. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t ‘do good’, but rather, uncover the bigger picture of our work. There are many good things we can worship (our family, being a good friend, etc.) – it’s good to be good, but without God, our work will never be perfect.

 

Additional readings –

1) Can we be good without God? – William Lane Craig https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/existence-nature-of-god/can-we-be-good-without-god/

Can we be good without God? At first the answer to this question may seem so obvious that even to pose it arouses indignation. For while those of us who are Christian …

 

2) Faith and Works – James 2 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=James+2&version=ESV

The Sin of Partiality – My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine …

 

Post Script –

I think this piece engages with a little bit of (moral) philosophy, about what defines ‘goodness’; is God inherently good, does he define goodness (e.g. if he does something that seems bad to us like killing people, is that still good?) I’m not a philosophy major, but I’m sure that if you are interested, there are many videos/texts out there. IMO when I write about God making our good works perfect rather than merely good, I mean to say that 1) I’ll have (no) anxiety when I question my motives behind doing good, 2) God will do what he will with my work, and I believe that will make it good, 3) my good deeds will (hopefully) come to fruition with God orchestrating the other forces/actors – other people, the environment, etc.

Suffering

What Kind of Wisdom are You Trusting In

Usually I don’t get touched by sermons, but I found this one pretty powerful, so I thought I should share it here/for future reference. I’ve been engaging with the concept of suffering quite a bit lately, so this was quite apt. I shall share the main pointers/what I learnt from it

  • The ways of the world are insufficient

Our human logic: if we do good, we should be rewarded with good. Yet this is obviously not reality. Ironically, in Job, we see that it is precisely Job’s goodness that caused Satan to challenge God and bring harm unto Job. How then do we reconcile the verses about God promising goodness if we follow him/in Galatians which say that we reap what we sow? The key point is about WHEN our goodness would be reaped. Let us not be impatient for God’s justice and try to enact it ourselves.

  • God is just and fair

Of we believe in Isaiah 55; his ways and thoughts are higher than ours. We cannot fully know what God is doing, but we can fully trust in his character.

  • The ways of a Christian’s suffering serves a higher purpose

For unbelievers, their pain (seems meaningless); a foretaste of the eternal suffering if they do not come to know God/the coming judgement. For Christians, it is a taste of what Jesus felt. To engage in suffering = getting the glory that is promised to him. We become more like Christ if we suffer with him. (And yes, so many more reasons for suffering; heh we can discuss this. I personally don’t really struggle with the concept of why humans suffer and what that says about God). If the aim of all life is to know Jesus, we must suffer too – share in his experience. (Other stuff about Jesus knowing how we suffer too, since he is fully human as well; etc.)

 

More than Ourselves

I just came back from a (para) church camp. There was quite a lot of interesting things that I learnt from it and I will share these insights bit by bit. Here’s just one of them:

I think in Singapore, when it comes to morals (particularly in the religious sense), we’re pretty individualistic. There’s quite a lot of history and reasons behind this, I suppose. Our post-colonial mentality – ‘individualism’ as an inherited concept from the west, as opposed to the eastern ‘communal’ (arguable), the post-modern age (more grey areas, ‘you do you and I do me’, rise of relativism). You could even quote scripture for this: Matthew 7: 3-5; take out the plank in your own eye before you comment on the sawdust in your brothers – be more self-reflective. We’re a conflict avoiding society, we believe peace necessitates conflict avoidance. We lack a rebuking culture.

Yet, this camp challenged me to think about ‘communal’ sins. Communities are known to have been punished for sins of the individual – yes, families, but also those ‘unrelated’ to the individuals. In a contemporary sense, think about the many deaths in human history (genocides, wars, and ethnic cleansings) because of a few individuals sins. We’re complicit in those sins because of our inaction, we’re a part of those sins, it’s a passive sin, but a sin nonetheless. It’s so related to my unhappiness about being trapped in society: (I believe I’ve wrote about this before?) our society’s terrible failures at combating global problems like poverty, climate change, etc., individuals being so deeply entrenched in the capitalist system (exploitation of nature, animals, and people. And there is no way out for the individual, in a sense). In this societal/systematic sin, we’re all, as individuals, either unaware, uncaring, or simply, choice-less. It reminded me of how I used to be so passionate about the sins I committed (thinking about the everlastingness and severity, being consumed by the guilt). And now?

I don’t have a conclusion. But let us remember that we’re much more than ourselves. We’re responsible and accountable for the state of other’s lives (and afterlives, salvation).

Suffering of Christ

(I’m going to assume in this post that readers acknowledge the truth of Christianity and hence discuss the suffering of Christ.)

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt something for faith. I’m usually apathetic: I don’t like acknowledging feelings nor thinking too much about the burdens of life (life has enough unhappiness). I don’t have much sympathy for complainers nor people who tell me about their struggles. I don’t even deal well with my own pain. But today’s message got me to think about what I have forgotten: to acknowledge ‘suffering’ and think about what God went through.

Oftentimes we feel that no one understands our pain; we feel alone in our suffering. Even if someone has gone through something similar, it’s never ‘entirely the same’. Yet how does the intense suffering of Jesus stack up to ours? How can we understand his pain?

I remember thinking about this many years back: the medieval times were absolutely disgusting. People have died worse deaths than Jesus, right? He wasn’t the first (nor last) to be crucified, there have been many terrible deaths in history (you can just google terms like ‘worst torture methods’ or stuff like that). So, who cares what Jesus’ suffered? It isn’t THE WORST?

But there is something special, something different about Jesus, which makes his life/death and all suffering more intense than our own pains (?? Arguable, since he is God, after all, BUT think more), or even the pains of people who have seemed to ‘suffer’ most (I can’t remember if I wrote a post about this topic before, but I once thought about how all pains are relative because of their many different forms and different capacities of the sufferers; I argue that perhaps we shouldn’t be concerned with who suffers more/less because there is no effective relativity, BUT put that aside).

Jesus suffered in a multitude of ways:

  • Physical

He underwent physical suffering; think about his 40 days of fasting in the desert: hunger, heat, pain, sickness and all the sufferings of being man. Before death, he was mutilated, such that it was disgusting to look at him – the physical destruction was so great that he bore no likeness of the human body. He was beaten, spat on, mutilated, flogged etc. Even after death, his body was cut up. (Think about your own experience: I’m quite squeamish; I don’t like looking at slightly deformed things. Think about how we avert our eyes from the homeless, those who stink. Simple things like missing or yellowed teeth.)

  • Social

Consider his humble background and reputation (of being a carpenter’s son, his mother had him out of wedlock – think of the scandal! How can the saviour of the world be born of a single mother! And in a manger, with stinking animals! Not to mention that the people were expecting the Messiah to be a political hero to free them all; they expected someone of standing, someone spectacular.) He was a Nazarene (‘can anything good come out from that place?’) He was not particularly handsome, charismatic, nothing would draw you to him (yet I think about the historical records which talked about how Jesus came to power; surely he had something for him? I don’t know.)

  • Spiritual

He was separated from God before; in a way, from himself.

  • Emotional

Even those closest to him, his family and disciples, did not, could not understand him. No one knew what it was like to be God, nor for that matter, what was it like to be God and have to come down as human. How great the fall! Think about our human limitations – our senses, that even animals have better capabilities than us. His own emotional suffering – his creation, lesser beings, hated him.

  • Economic

He wasn’t rich. Could you even say he was poor? Perhaps, in the same way that monks may be poor (owned nothing?)

  • Mental
  • Societal/institutional

He was controlled – he had to live by the rules of that culture. He could not completely change everything, because it simply wasn’t heaven. He was at the mercy of people (who determined that he be crucified). Who hurt him, who controlled him, who subjected him to law and court.

Contemplate on those who suffer much more than you

Life changes

Is it difficult for you to tell your parents that you want to change your religion? Those people whom I’ve met who find it hard to confess this to their parents would be those brought up in Christian/Muslim families.

I don’t think I’ll find it difficult to do so. Then again, I don’t think I’m the kind of person who is vocal and explicit about sharing my life with my family. Rather, I let them know by showing them. For instance, I’ll just stop going to church. Or in the case of my current lifestyle, I’ve just simply stop eating meat (I still won’t say that I’m super strict about it; I mean, I do eat biscuits and bread which may contain milk and eggs, or I’ll just consume whatever makes me happy. But it’s always nice for people to know and offer the alternative). I’ve not told my parents when I did well or badly in school, be it academic or other things like co-curricular activities.

A senior of mine went to Sheffield on a student exchange and had a conversation about religion with a local student. He said that he found it amazing how ‘Asians own their religions’. We don’t inherit our religion from our families; he stated the example of how there were many British people who were Protestant because it was their family’s religion, whereas in Asian you’ll find a lot more families with mixed religions, of first/second generation Christians/Muslims/Buddhists/Taoists etc., basically, a much greater variety. Religion is something personal to the individual, a choice. What kind of lifestyle do you want to lead. Who do you want to marry. How do you want to die, and where do you want to go after that.

Do what you want to do.

Against insularity

All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
– Matthew 25:32

Self discipline is comparatively easier than having group discipline. While a group can spur/support/encourage the individual members and help people succeed, negative things spread much more easily than good ones. That’s why things like the ‘collective action problem’/’tragedy of the commons’/gossiping (etc) exists.

While it’s easy to do things alone, we all know that as individuals we can’t change the world – at least, not in the scale in which we want/need to. I’m challenged to remember that He calls ‘all the nations’, ‘the people’ to work together, to feed, to water, to clothe all those in need.

Which community do you fit in the world?