Yesterday, a friend asked: “Is God worthy of worship?” He continued: If God is all-powerful, yet refuses to intervene or stop suffering, doesn’t that make him a monster? If someone had the power and yet did nothing to stop suffering, we would call them an evil monster. If God continues God’s refusal to intervene, then, is this evil monster really worthy of worship?
My friend’s question is a twist on why God allows suffering, which Dostoevsky addresses in The Brothers Karamazov. If I’ve read it correctly, Dostoevsky seemed to say that atheists will complain all day long about God allowing suffering to exist, yet when these atheists see suffering around them, they’re the first to skip town. By holding God ultimately responsible, they hold themselves irresponsible for the suffering around them. So in the case of The Brothers Karamazov, they skip town and let all sorts of evil happen; atheists become like the monstrous God they don’t believe in.
When my friend asked, “Why doesn’t God intervene”, he asked out of the common belief that suffering is an exception to the rule of happiness. No one ever asks, “Why doesn’t God stop happiness?” We don’t ask this because we think happiness is the rule. For most of us, when we look into the future, we do not expect to see suffering. What do we expect? Family life, pleasures, success, so on and so forth. When suffering knocks on our door, we think that it is an interruption to our happy reverie.
In Darrin McMahon’s Happiness: A History (Grove, 2006), he outlines humanity’s thoughts on happiness. For the Jews, happiness would be found in following the commandments of God; it was living a life of virtue for Aristotle; and, to medieval man, life was so terrible that happiness couldn’t be expected until the life of the world to come. By the Enlightenment, happiness became immanent and, then, a right. After all, the Declaration of Independence declares that the Creator has given us the inalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Contemporary life is built on expecting and believing we deserve happiness.
What if suffering is the rule, though? If we expected suffering, would we even ask God to intervene? Why would God intervene in the rule of life? Would we still be asking this question if we believed that suffering was part and parcel of what it means to be alive? Perhaps the problem is not with a God who seems monstrously unethical, but with our expectations from life. Happiness is a dangerous idol.
Yet, suffering still hurts, no matter our expectations. Like Camus described in Le Mythe de Sisyphe, we struggle between the desire for a world to make sense and the experience of a world that is anything but. No matter our expectations of happiness, humanity has struggled with suffering since, well, ever, and every answer to the question of suffering is deeply, deeply unsatisfying.
In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky answers the question with a kiss. Even though this kiss happens repeatedly throughout the novel with different characters, in a proverb Christ famously kisses a Roman Catholic Cardinal who is angry that Christ had the gall to return. Dostoevsky seemed to say that the true believer, like Christ, becomes incarnate to suffering by kissing the questioner. They put themselves in the middle of suffering, remaining to do as much good as possible. The true believer, like Christ, takes the responsibility for the suffering of the world upon himself; they do not hold God responsible for the sorrows of man.
Maybe there is no answer for why we suffer and perhaps God is an unethical monstrous abyss of uncaring nothingness. Maybe the point of suffering isn’t the answer, or even the question, but in busying our hands to help those who are.