Is suffering pointless? Not to a Christian
Saturday, July 17, 2021
By Matthew Beal
Reprinted from The Christian Post
In my recent meditations on pain and suffering, I’ve had the good fortune of re-discovering my two favorite must-read books on these subjects. I’m talking of course about Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, and The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis.
In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky pens a masterpiece that explores themes of suffering, grace, and the inexorable guilt of sin. Raskolnikov, the main character, is constantly haunted by his recent crimes; his conscience torments him without end. Heroes are few, and virtue comes at a cost—the noblest of our characters, Sonya, has prostituted herself to support her family.
The book reaches its zenith in part 5 when Raskolnikov confesses to Sonya his grievous sins (murder). Physically, she is timid and weak, but her true strength lies in her unstoppable love for humanity and a genuine selflessness that is nearly unbearable to Raskolnikov. He has wronged not just his immediate victims, but Sonya as well. Yet, despite her horror, she reaches through the suffering in absolute love:
“‘What have you done to yourself!’ she said, desperately, and jumping up from her knees, threw herself on his neck, embraced him, and pressed him very, very tightly in her arms. ’Go now, this minute, stand in the crossroads, bow down, and first kiss the earth you’ve defiled, then bow to the whole world, on all four sides, and say aloud to everyone: “I have killed!” Then God will send you life again. Accept suffering and redeem yourself by it, that’s what you must do.’”
Raskolnikov refuses this course for most of the book. Up until the last few paragraphs, he clings to everything except Sonya’s call to suffering and repentance. Yet, in the end, Raskolnikov ultimately finds his freedom in prison, of all places. He finally embraces suffering, and is finally renewed, restored, and “resurrected by love.”
On the other side, we have CS Lewis who lays aside his own narrative sentiments to tackle human suffering head on with precise, prosaic insight. For all the brilliance in The Problem of Pain, two moments stand above the rest. The first is on divine goodness:
“But God wills our good, and our good is to love Him…We are bidden to ‘put on Christ’, to become like God. That is, whether we like it or not, God intends to give us what we need, not what we now think we want. Once more, we are embarrassed by the intolerable compliment, by too much love, not too little.”
Marie Miller, an independent music artist, has put it more succinctly: “God save me from what I swear I need.”
The book’s second standout moment comes in the appendix, where Lewis notes that immense temporary pain may reduce a man to tears, but he is rarely changed by it. But to subject yourself to a prolonged period of tribulation is, “an opportunity for heroism.”
What, then, for us? We can learn two main things:
First, it is my conviction that we have done ourselves a disservice in our prayers by asking for God to take away suffering from our lives. True enough, the desire is understandable. Lewis himself was terribly disinterested in pain and suffering and called himself a coward at the prospect of it. Yet, if we take omnipotence and omniscience seriously, what can we realistically make of the prayer, “Lord, from my shoulders, this burden lift”? Is He all-powerful? Then He certainly can do so. Is He all-knowing? Then He certainly will know when to do so. Does the Father truly love us? Then He has, at minimum, permitted this for our good. It seems to me that our prayers, then, should not be aimed at the release from our sufferings, but at a serious and fervent call for the strengthening of our bodies and souls through suffering. When the time is right, rest assured He will permit it to pass; we don’t need to remind Him.
Second, having redirected the efforts of our prayers, I wonder if perhaps we may better reconcile the tension between Christ’s command to yield our yokes to Him, and the command to take up our crosses and follow Him. Raskolnikov’s freedom is found in accepting his suffering, not for suffering’s sake alone, but that God may give him life once more. The Father’s will is to bring life, not death. Remember, the suffering that produces death is not from Him; only that which leads to repentance and life.
Let us hope for the repentance and the godly sorrow which produces it. Let us accept the present, actual trouble, knowing that God will give us life anew. In laying down our old natures and joining in the sufferings of Christ, may we then reach Dostoevsky’s conclusion:
“…here begins a new account, the account of a man’s gradual renewal, the account of his gradual regeneration, his gradual transition from one world to another, his acquaintance with a new, hitherto completely unknown reality.”
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