Two Views of Suffering: Atheist Existentialism and Christianity

By nature, we all avoid suffering, and suffering comes in so many varieties. We attend funerals and sob. We visit a loved one in a psychiatric unit and wonder how live ever got this bad. We consider animal cruelty and are appalled and saddened. A military dog dies of sorrow immediately after his soldier is killed in battle. A mother laments over her son’s heroin addiction. A son agonizes over this father’s imprisonment. A seventeen-year-old commits suicide, leaving a hole no one can ever fill.

But what of it all? By nature, we seek to avoid suffering in ourselves and in those we care about. Much suffering is unavoidable (such as many illnesses); but much of it is avoidable, but still afflicts many who become haunted by guilt, as in alcoholism. What can the sighs, groans, headaches, tears, and sleepless nights tell us about the meaning of life? Can philosophy find clues in these myriad maladies on how to live a truer and better life?

Trying to answer these questions is the quest of a lifetime, and, one hopes, an examined lifetime. I offer only prods to this end. Prompted my own and my wife’s suffering, due to her dementia, I have much pondered on the meaning of suffering philosophically and, of course, existentially (many of which can be found in my book Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness–A Philosopher’s Lament). I will briefly compare two views of suffering, that of atheistic existentialism and of historic Christianity.

Atheistic Existentialism and Suffering

I thought that atheistic existentialism had passed from the intellectual scene by the mid-1980s, having been eclipsed by New Age thought and postmodernism. But its demise was, like Mark Twain’s death, greatly exaggerated. Gary Cox has labored to rehabilitate existentialism (particularly Jean-Paul Sartre) through a number of short, snappy books such as How to be an Existentialist and Existentialism and Excess, a longer biography of Sartre. We even find The Dummies Guide to Existentialism.

"Atheistic existentialists, such as Sartre and his life-long partner, Simone de Beauvoir, argue that life in itself has no meaning because the universe is uncreated and undesigned." - Jean-Paul Sarte

Atheistic existentialists, such as Sartre and his life-long partner, Simone de Beauvoir, argue that life in itself has no meaning because the universe is uncreated and undesigned. Humans turn up and must define themselves, living without a “heaven of ideas” or the divine Amen. As Sartre famously wrote in Existentialism and Human Emotions, “Existence precedes essence.” Sartre emphasized the necessity of free choice to make an authentic life. De Beauvoir stressed the “ethics of ambiguity,” the right and the meaningful is not spelled out anywhere. We interpret life as we will—with no Hermes at our side. Heidegger claims that we are “thrown” into existence, suffering the anxiety of intrinsic alienation, and must experience “being unto death.”

For these thinkers (despite their differences), suffering is intrinsic to human being. For Sartre, we are “condemned to be free” and, as he says in No Exit, “Hell is other people.” There is no objective meaning to suffering, but only our subjective meaning in suffering. While Camus denied being an existentialist (as did the later Heidegger), he, like Sartre, et al, found meaning only in the absurd revolt against meaninglessness. Hence his book, The Rebel. The hero of Camus’s The Plague fights against the mysterious plague that ravages his town, knowing his task is futile. Somehow, amidst the ruins, a kind of absurd meaning is found. But that meaning does not extend beyond the individual. No one can align herself with a broader meaning of suffering in relation to a greater good or a hidden purpose that transcends the merely human and terrestrial. To use Kierkegaard’s term, “the audit of eternity” is lacking.

To endure such suffering, according to Existentialism, is simply our lot. We should not resign ourselves to it passively, but create meaning in the midst of it. As Sartre emphasizes, we have “no excuse” for leaving our post by blaming our biology or upbringing. That would be “bad faith,” not authentic freedom. Suffering, for Sartre, is part of the human condition of being who are always in process, but without an objective end or objective meaning to our becoming. All the weight of the world is on our shoulders, and there is no Atlas to help us.

Going further, Sartre says that man is “the desire to be God.” We yearn to be what we are without the instability that freedom brings, but we also yearn to be totally unconstrained and free to do as we will. But, says Sartre, this is impossible for a finite being qua finite being, and there is no infinite being (God) to synthesize this freedom and stability. Because of all this, man is “forlorn.”

Christianity and Suffering

Suffering is not the starting point for the Christian worldview, but, nevertheless, it throbs in its philosophical marrow. Blood is shed everywhere, but that blood is not without a voice. Humans did not just appear without forethought or purpose, but are integral to a divine plan. But this plan is fully made known—and often largely obscured—to erring mortals.

For the ancient Hebrews and Christians, death and suffering are rooted in our responsibility to God and others. The world and its finite stewards were created good, but that original felicity did not last. A rift occurred between Creator and created such that those who bear God’s image also bear God’s displeasure. In Christian terminology, this is called the fall.

As Pascal wrote in Pensées, man “could not bear so great a glory without falling into pride.” In The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Oriented Deliberation in View of the Dogmatic Problem of Hereditary Sin, Soren Kierkegaard considers the suffering of anxiety in explicitly Christian terms.

Things go wrong; blood is shed; tears are many. Cain slays his brother Abel out of his jealousy. His blood cries out from the ground for justice. There are wars and rumors of wars. Women and men waste their lives. Perhaps no other passage in the Hebrew Bible sums up our sorry condition better than the words of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, which I quote in the King James Version:

I returned, and saw under the sun,

that the race is not to the swift,

nor the battle to the strong,

neither yet bread to the wise,

nor yet riches to men of understanding,

nor yet favour to men of skill;

but time and chance happeneth to them all (chapter 9, verse 11).

The practice and skill of lament is how the biblical authors and the Jewish and Christian traditions come to terms with suffering. This world is broken and that cannot be hidden. Humans ought to recognize the losses and injustices of life, and make that know to heaven. This includes inexplicable suffering, lamenting over one’s moral failings, and paying the heavy prices of suffering for one’s religious convictions. Perhaps sixty of the one hundred and fifty Psalms fit in the genre of lament. The writers cry out to God and unburden themselves in their sorrows. But these are prayers, not the voicings of unheeded anguish. The reader finds anger, impatience, and even despair in these poems. They cover the gamut of sorrow, all brought before God. Man is not a useless passion. His passionate suffering and grief may be brought before God who is there and who hears him.

Psalm twenty-two was on the lips of Jesus as he was crucified before the audience of his fellow Jews and his Roman executioners: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This wail of dejection was also a prayer. Christians affirm that somehow this suffering heals the rift between God and man. Suffering was never more real than here, but suffering is not the final word, since these were not Christ’s final words.

A short essay cannot adjudicate between the Existentialism and Christian account of the meaning of suffering. I offer it simply to illuminate the landscape of possibilities under the sun.

 

 

 

Theology of Suffering

Guest post by: Chad Ellison


The phenomenon of suffering is at once alien and common. It is not difficult for most of us to hear and accept statements such as, “If you are not suffering now, you will be soon.” Yet I’ve never known anyone to accept suffering as just another banal feature of existence, to passively observe it and get used to it like one might get used to an unpleasant landscape. It seems that in every instance of suffering the soul violently rebels, and we cannot help but thinking, even knowing, that this is not the way life ought to be. While suffering in a vacuum is not a good thing, in our world it is the common and intended experience of God and His people.

One cannot even skim through the New Testament without quickly discovering that suffering is a major part of being a disciple of Christ; indeed, every book of the New Testament except one, references suffering for the follower of Christ. Paul wrote several of his letters from a prison. James said to consider trials pure joy (James 1:2). Peter reminded the early Christians to not be surprised at the painful trial they were suffering, as though something strange were happening to them (1 Peter 4:12). There are moments when life is so painful that one would rather not be alive. We might be surprised to find out how many recorded instances God’s people asked God to kill them; these people include: Moses: Numbers 11:13-15; Job: Job 3:11; Elijah: 1 Kings 19:3-4; and Jonah: Jonah 4:5-8). I often look to God in bewilderment and shock at why others and I are permitted, and in some instances caused, to suffer so much more than expected.

An essential part of being a Christian, however, is devotion and being conformed to a man of sorrows who was tortured to death. Jesus tells us candidly that “anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). What is the cross in this passage if not an instrument of suffering? Perhaps the person who does not carry their cross is excluded from discipleship, not because Jesus will exclude him, but because a person who is not willing to suffer will exclude himself. He will not follow God into the gallows. By contrast, a disciple carries his cross even when he knows that God has given it to him and is the engineer of his suffering.

To be a Christian and not suffer turns out to be an oxymoron; suffering and Christianity are coterminous. We must even conclude, to the shock of many comfortable people, that one’s love for Christ is as deep as one’s suffering (or willingness to suffer). A Christianity that is not worth suffering for reveals a relationship, not with Christ, but with a product—a product that will be abandoned when the costs outweigh the benefits. If this were not the case, then the blood of the martyrs and the tears of the afflicted would indeed be in vain. By contrast, we see that suffering is the currency of love. A man suffers for what he loves, and suffers more intensely for what he loves more thoroughly. The Church’s love for Christ will be revealed in how she bears her cross, just as Christ’s love for people was revealed in how He bore His.

Suffering Well With Others

Many of my friends are suffering terribly in different ways. Bad news is breaking forth everywhere. This is likely true for you as well, whether you discern it or not. Through this manifold of variegated tragedies it strikes me that many of us fail to minister to our friends who are suffering. We say and do things that hurt more than help. We dispense acid rather than balm. By and large, we do not know how to lament and grieve with others—although some saints excel in this grace. Popular culture teaches us next to nothing in this regard. It has no time for such realities. In the wake of the recent horrors (such as ISIS) and given my many friends, relations, and students who are suffering deeply (from bereavement, marital crisis, cancer, and chronic illness), let us consider briefly a few ways to suffer well with others.

First, we ought to pray for wisdom before speaking or communicating in any form with one under the pressures of loss. Ask God to give you the heart and tongue that heals—or at least doesn’t multiply the pain. Consider a few egregious examples. Someone loses a spouse only to hear someone ask within a few weeks of the spouse’s death, “Are you grieving well?” Is this some kind of test? One should grieve with the sorrowful heart, not ask it for an internal audit. Or consider this. Someone is diagnosed with cancer and is trying to reorient their life to handle this. A member of the person’s church says, “Oh, if I had to have chemotherapy—just shoot me.” The dear person who received this body blow is now preparing for chemotherapy with courage and hope. Remember what The Book of James says about the power of the tongue (James 3:1-12).

Second, one should not over-interpret the dire situations of a fallen world by trying to read God’s mind. This only makes for hollow comfort. Yes, God will bring good out of evil for his people (Romans 8:28), but we don’t quite now how he will do this. As Os Guinness writes in his superb book, Unspeakable, the silver lining of a dark cloud—if we can even find it—does not explain the full meaning of the suffering. In light of this, we must learn to silently stew in our ignorance instead of spewing forth our pious pronouncements on the specifics of divine providence. Job’s friends went wrong only when they broke their silence in his presence and began to speak without knowledge.

Third, learn to lament with people. Study the Psalms of lamentation and the many laments in Scripture, such as those uttered by King David, Paul, Solomon (Ecclesiastes) and supremely Jesus himself, “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” A lament is the cry of the anguished soul before God, which displays puzzlement as well as anger. It expresses disorientation in search of reorientation. However, a lament is directed to God and before the audience of God, “the audit of Eternity,” as Soren Kierkegaard put it. Listen to the stories of the suffering and identify with them. Say un-profound, but appropriate, things like, “I am so sorry” and “That is terrible.” The American South has expression that captures this perfectly: “I hate it for you.” I hate the fact that two marriages are being ripped apart and are may be dying. I hate the fact that my friend’s spouse is going through chemotherapy. I hate it for all of them, and I should show them that I hate it. I hate it because I love them.

We should never try to tell people that losing a spouse or having cancer or facing a divorce isn’t really so bad. It is bad, very bad. This is a fallen world, a world that is still groaning in anticipation of its final redemption (Romans 8:18-26). As Nicholas Wolterstorff writes in his moving and profound meditation, Lament for a Son, we must sit on the mourner’s bench with the suffering and lament with them. This in itself provides a kind of comfort.

I am but babe in this healing skill—suffering well with others. Will you join me in the school of lament? Will you learn to sit on the mourner’s bench before God and with those whom you love?