Although this post was sparked by reading my priest’s, Father Patrick Reardon’s The Trial of Job and by a conversation with fellow parishioner and dear friend, Dr. Michael Rhodes, one should not think that the failures and infelicities of my thoughts here are in any way generated by these two men. Rather, they have served as catalysts to coalesce some of the thoughts I have had on these matters.
When it comes to human suffering, there’s no use beginning at the beginning, because no suffering comes to us in this way. It always catches us in media res, right smack dab in the middle of doing other things. Because this is so, then, I will forego both the elucidation of causes (sin, freedom, the devil and so forth) as well as the justification of God in the face of human suffering (whether the weak form of defense or the strong form of a justificatory theodicy). I can say that I myself have heard often of late the resolute determination, “I will not discuss theodicy with a philosopher.”
There is, it must be understood, a good reason for this. It is simply this: reason is not only wholly inadequate to the task of the understanding necessary for this topic, it is not reason which must be satisfied.
I do not mean to indicate that Christians are not obligated to take captive every thought to the obedience of Christ, or to give a ready defense to those who ask. If we are reason-endowed creatures, our reason must be equal to the challenge given us by those who would know how it is that a God omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent can co-exist in a world in which manifest evil acts are accomplished, and humans made in the image of such a God suffer evil. There will be debate as to how best this is to be done, as well criticism of which answers achieve the best and most complete ends. Yet we cannot shut off from this question of human suffering all the powers which human reason can bring to bear on this question.
But, even so, reason is wholly inadequate to this task. It is inadequate for two reasons: both God and the human person are utterly opaque to human reason. Reason can no more get at God–unless God reveal himself–than it can make two contradictory things true (or false for that matter) at the same time. Nor can the human person be subsumed to reason’s extent. The human person is always mysterious. Which is why marriage in a fallen world is even possible. The God with whom we have to do is not the god of the philosophers (and therefore cannot be reduced to the scope of a rational problem), because he is indeed, a person (or, if it’s preferable, a tri-unity of persons).
And since all human suffering is suffering in the concrete, which is to say, all human suffering is personal suffering, reason will always fail to rightly analyze and resolve human suffering. At best it can perhaps shed light on the limits, perhaps reveal the outlines and contours of the problem, but it will never get at it in total because the reality is far greater than reason’s potential.
Since human suffering is not a rational problem but a personal one, then while one ought not shun reason, one would do well to seek elsewhere than reason for satisfaction. I am not talking here fideism, which is just another form of rationalism, but, rather of philosophia, a way of living. That is to say, one must put reason in its place: within the heart. And one can do so only by askesis.
At the risk of repeating others far more experienced in the true philosophia, far more wise and mature than me, I can only say that the book of Job gives us a glimpse of how to begin. On a superficial read, one would think that Job was doing just fine till the philosophical discussions with his “comforters” began and once such dialogue had been given up. But whether this conclusion is justified, we may still take note, it seems to me, that the book begins and ends with worship, sacrifice and intercession. That is to say, in the face of suffering, Job did well and rightly the one thing needful. His life prior to tragedy was one of worship and sacrificial intercession for those he loved. With the horrors of his children’s death and his own disease upon him, he entrusted himself to God and worshipped. And in the end, having gained the audience he’d long sought with God, it was after he’d worshipped and sacrificially interceded for his woeful comforters that he was restored.
We have here, then, a paradigm: there is not so much a set of rational answers we must employ against our doubts and fears in the face of suffering (we must note that God did not address a single one of Job’s questions, but pressed the righteous husband and father with questions of his own), but rather an askesis, a way of life, which is the only thing suitable within which to face suffering. Such an askesis is not directly satisfying to the heart, and less so to the mind, but it is the only means by which we can find true satisfaction: the presence of God himself. Within the heart. If we have done with reason what we should always do, and place it within the heart, then it is there that the presence of God will fill reason not with the answers it seeks but with the One in whom reason’s silence is met with infinite fullness.
I have stated these things in somewhat formal terms. But perhaps I may be permitted a few more personal comments. This question of personal suffering has confronted me at key points in my life–key perhaps precisely because of the aspect of personal suffering. Certain of my family and friends may remember that as a senior in Bible college I was given the opportunity to preach on just this very thing: human suffering as seen through the prism of Job. In nearly twenty years, the questions have not changed, nor have the conclusions. I must also admit, that my understanding of this question has not grown one iota. But if I may be permitted to say so, I have learned one very practical thing. The discipline of prayer, of intercession for others, is perhaps not the only askesis personal suffering calls forth, but it is the only thing by which one may endure such suffering. Because it is the only place in which one may be granted by grace the long-desired audience with God, in whom even silence saves.