This morning (June 15th) I was released from the hospital after a 3 day episode which included tests for a heart attack, a stroke, and other ailments. Late night talks with nurses and techs are always a wonderful highlight of my hospital stays. These conversations coupled with lots of quiet time always lead me to reflect. In very simple form, here’s a bit of my Christian perspective on suffering, freedom, and love…
Suffering is more than physical pain.
Physical pain can make you suffer, but suffering has more to do with your mind and your soul. Suffering means experiencing pain, distress, and hardship in a self-aware way. Physical pain is bad, but spiritual / emotional suffering is far worse. People feel sorry for me because of my health challenges, but they shouldn’t. I feel sorry for those who suffer emotionally from things like depression, being betrayed by a spouse, worrying about wayward children, the tragic loss of a loved one. Now that’s suffering!
Love is not merely what you feel or what you say; Love is what you will and what you do.
Feelings of warmth and affection can be a component of love, but those things are not absolutely necessary. One can love without “feeling” it at all. Likewise, saying that you love something or someone can also be a component of love, but it’s pretty obvious that just saying it doesn’t mean much by itself. Love itself is an act of the will. It means to will the good of another. When the opportunity arises, love is made real by actions, not mere words or feelings.
The ability to suffer is necessary for a person to possess the ability to love.
Love is only love when it is freely chosen. If we were not free to choose not to love, then love itself would be meaningless. The logic of free will goes like this: Free will is a blessing and a curse. Love requires freedom, but with freedom comes the ability to suffer.
An ant can hardly suffer because an ant doesn’t have much freedom. It basically does what it is programmed to do. Therefore, it cannot really love.
A dog can suffer a bit because a dog has more freedom, and therefore comes closer to the ability to truly love. But dogs are limited. Dogs can show tremendous affection, can exhibit higher intelligence, and can be fiercely loyal, which are all powers of a higher order. A dog is more free than an ant, but only partially free and only partially self aware. That’s what makes the cartoon depicted so funny. Dogs don’t have the capacity for this kind of self-awareness and reasoning. I have no objection to saying that my dogs love me. They do, but it’s a lesser love than a human being can give. And it’s infinitely less than Divine Love.
Human love is more profound because human freedom is more profound. Consequently, human suffering can be more profound. Humans are more self-aware, more free, and therefore the more capable of love. Humans can do all sorts of things that dogs cannot. We can reason at a higher level, make moral judgments, and do things like deliberately act against our own self-interest. We can refuse to give or accept love. That is why next to Divine Love, human love is the most meaningful kind of love.
Perfect Love is Divine Love.
Omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omnibenevolent (all-good), God has the capacity to suffer more than any human being. With perfect freedom and an infinite capacity to love, it naturally follows that God has the greatest capacity to suffer.
Christ’s greatest suffering on the cross was not his physical pain, it was emotional and spiritual suffering. The very people he came to help were the people rejecting or ignoring His love.
Bloody looking crucifixes are sobering reminders of His physical pain, but they are limited in that no one can depict His greatest sufferings because His greatest sufferings are not physical. No matter how bloody and bad Christ looks while hanging on the cross, it is only the tip of the iceberg.
To Eliminate the Possibility of Suffering Would Eliminate the Possibility of Love.
Lots of people get angry with God for allowing suffering. They ask why God doesn’t just make it so that nobody suffers? Why doesn’t God “fix” their suffering? Why doesn’t God just automatically heal everyone? The answer is counterintuitive. The answer is that God is Love.
To eliminate our ability to suffer would be to eliminate our freedom. To eliminate our freedom would be to eliminate our ability to love. But we all know deep down that it is better to love and suffer than live a life of an ant. At the same time, we all know that the more we love, the more we suffer. Take the example of a mother’s love for her child. The more she cares, the more she can get hurt. Friendships are the same way. The people we love the most have the greatest ability to cause pain either intentionally (by rejecting us) or unintentionally (by dying). But we all understand deep within our core that it’s worth it. It is totally worth it. It is better to love and suffer than to never love at all.
God is Love, so He must allow suffering. It’s not that God likes suffering, just that if he got rid of it, He’d render us all incapable of love. This takes us to the ultimate question. “What is the meaning of human existence? Why do I exist?”
The answer is Love.
(Note: In a blog post like this one, I am presuming that the reader holds a number of basic presuppositions in common with me and is reading in a sympathetic way to understand my thinking. I realize that any one of my presuppositions and premises can be challenged. In a classroom setting we would spend time challenging and defending each. But that is work for a classroom or a long philosophical treatise or a very long evening together on the Side of the House. With this blog post, I’m not attempting to anticipate objections and defend every claim I make. I’m only trying to show that if you accept certain presuppositions and premises, then there exists a logical conclusion.)