Theodicy: a watering down of human suffering?

‘In the midst of suffering, theodicy simply misses the point’

I have a mixed attitude toward theodicies. As a philosophy student, I appreciate that theodicies may offer sound responses to particular antitheistic arguments from suffering, and may sometimes yield valuable insights along the way. But as a perplexed and often frustrated Christian (in which capacity this short piece is written), I feel that theodicies turn sour and unsatisfying in the face of real suffering.

Suffering is not abstract. To suffer, and be advised to take comfort because you are thereby a sponsor of someone’s free will, or because your suffering is outweighed by the good in the world, or because if nothing else, at least your soul is being formed: such counsel seems to assume a view of suffering that is kitsch and facile at best.

Theodicies fail most utterly of all with “problems of suffering” that raise no argument whatsoever. For suffering is a problem from which no argument, as such, is needed. Merely to look at all the world’s suffering, and not turn away, is enough: faith in God must inevitably come into tension with the brute facts of suffering. To offer a theodicy before such facts seems somehow inappropriate, or even rude. Like telling jokes at a funeral, or checking your emails on a date – in the midst of suffering, theodicy simply misses the point.

The problem here is an existential one. We mustn’t be blind to suffering. But if we are not, faith in God becomes unliveable.

At present, my best attempt to make sense of this begins with the Old Testament figure of Job. In some ways, Job’s story is puzzling. God’s decision, in the first place, to let Job suffer at Satan’s mercy seems inexplicably capricious. Moreover, His answer to Job (chapters 38 to 41) seems all bluster and obfuscation on this point. By the time Job comes to terms with God over his suffering, one might easily think Job has been simply browbeaten into submission.

These are fair worries, but I want to postpone them a little. For it is possible to make sense of Job’s story from another angle. Here I want to make two points.

First, it would be wrong to say that Job ever comes to terms with his suffering. He doesn’t, and of course, he shouldn’t: his suffering is awful, and remains so throughout. He does, however, come to terms with God. While Job’s suffering is his first problem, it is God to whom he must ultimately become reconciled.

Second, that reconciliation takes place very much within the setting of Job’s second-personal relationship with God. It is because Job sees God (42:5–7) that he repents “in dust and ashes” – not because he sees that God is such-and-such a way. This second-personal dimension helps to make sense of much that would otherwise be perplexing in Job’s tale. (One general point I want to offer here is that making sense of suffering is fundamentally a second-personal – not third-personal – undertaking. For a wonderful account, see Eleonore Stump’s book, Wandering in Darkness).

What can Job tell us, then, about the problem of suffering? I want to suggest that Job plays the role of an exemplar: he exemplifies faith in the midst of suffering. His final reorientation challenges our attitude or conviction (since we are not discussing an argument, I do not want to say “claim”), that faith in God as good is unlivable in the face of suffering. He does this by modelling precisely this kind of faith. We are forced to consider our own attitudes – why we can’t or won’t approach God in faith – given that Job can, and does. (Is Job’s example undermined if his story is fiction? I see the point, but I’m not sure. In any case we may find similar inspiration from more real-worldly, and perhaps perfectly ordinary and unfamous and indeed unchristian, characters.)

Job’s story should leave us open to feeling that faith is psychologically or existentially possible. His example leads, creating the space into which we can be challenged to follow. Thus God’s initial question to the devil – “have you considered my servant Job?” – is turned, in a way, toward us.

We find in Job, then, a companion in suffering. He does not come bearing answers, but his example does (should!) change the shape of the problem that our suffering forces upon us. The problem is how to come to terms with God, in such a way that ultimately makes sense of our relationship to Him, in light of suffering (which, note, differs a bit from making sense of suffering in light of God). Such sense-making can be so hard that even giving up on existence as absurd or meaningless can serve as an easy way out. Hence we are challenged not only by Job’s faith, but also by his courage in rejecting the outlook of Camus, which views human existence as fundamentally absurd.

If this is the significance of Job’s companionship in suffering, then consider: how much more might it mean if we found even God Himself to be a co-sufferer at our side?

If Job’s suffering was undeserved, then Jesus’s suffering was even more so. For while both could claim to be ‘righteous’, Jesus suffered: (i) by God’s specific will, and (ii) for the benefit of the very people at whose hands he was suffering. Yet the gospels do not wallow in the horror of Jesus’s suffering, but rather focus on his response to it: a kind of purposeful acceptance of his Father’s love and will.

Hebrews 2 comments that Jesus’s suffering, like Job’s, had the effect of ‘tempting’ (or ‘testing’) his trust in God (2:18). As a result, he was ‘made perfect’ (2:10). Not that through suffering he became somehow a better person (the gruesome ‘soul-forming’ view alluded to above). Rather, Jesus through his own suffering is able to help us (2:18b), and stand alongside those who suffer (4:15). The perfection in question is a perfection of God’s empathy with human sufferers (Isaiah 53 for details).

[Aside: For this reason, God’s intimidating tirades in Job 38–41 are only half of the picture. They are the tirades of a God who, elsewhen, would even die for us on the cross.]

None of what I have said makes suffering remotely a good thing, nor does it give us an explanation of why there is suffering. Hence, none of it offers any theodicy as such, even in part. Those questions remain intractable, for all I know. We can only keep asking them, while conceding that we do not know their answers. In the meantime, the challenge from Job is to consider whether we might live in faith even without the answers we so rightly desire. Most importantly, we are not asked to find it easy, or to do it alone – for incomprehensibly, God Himself comes to struggle and suffer beside us.

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