It is important to understand how we see ourselves in the world when grappling with the question of suffering. As I wrote last time, I think when we believe suffering has an ultimate meaning, as the schadenfreude-laden Deuteronomistic school does, we’re inclined to sit in judgement over each other. This is exactly what Job’s friends did when they looked at his life and tried to explain it. By using their beliefs, they made themselves lords over Job’s life.
But, this is only natural. After all, although I’m not a psychologist (or a neurologist), it seems the brain gives everything a meaning, a purpose. We’re biologically predisposed to constantly file things away into little folders in our head to make sense of the world. Caramel ice cream goes in the good file, along with my friends. Pain goes in the bad file. Yes, this is a drastic oversimplification, but like everything else, it is only natural for us to want suffering to have meaning.
It also shows in the way we tell our life-stories. Indeed, we tell them as if we are the center of that story: we act; are acted upon; and everyone else plays a supporting role. Suffering pain usually plays an antagonistic role in our life-stories, in that it is something to overcome. It’s incredibly hard to convince anyone that they — and their filing system — are not the center of the universe. I hate to admit this, but rather selfishly, I even think I’m a major player in everyone else’s life. I know this is wrong, but I go on believing it, anyway. It is only natural that we are so self-interested in our own understanding.
But, when suffering happens upon us, it is catastrophic to this self-centered worldview. In The Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross writes that these old self-interested paradigms suddenly do not work anymore, causing our filing system to break down (so to speak). Things no longer make sense as down becomes up, light becomes bad, and darkness becomes light. Most everything, including prayer and faith, ceases to have meaning. And, even though all this suffering might eventually have meaning, that meaning will never be what you thought it would be.
Most Christian explanations for suffering do nothing but continue to prop up these old self-interested paradigms. By offering an explanation for suffering, Christians hold up the idol of their filing system, hoping to keep their self-centered worldview intact. After all, it is a cushy position to sit in judgement of the rest of the world. Therefore, well-intentioned Christians will say to the sufferer, “I know it is hard, but just keep on believing.” This is exactly what Job’s friends did, when they were so sure that Job had broken one of God’s laws, but then couldn’t pinpoint an example.
“Just keep on believing in our filing system” is what they should really say. After all, they are not arguing that we should continue to believe in Jesus Christ. Most Christians don’t care whether you believe in Jesus Christ, but they do care that you believe in the god-they-believe-in. The Christian explanations for suffering show this very clearly: none of them have anything to do with Jesus Christ and everything to do with their filing system. In other words, “Keep believing in this idol we’ve constructed,” is what they’re really saying. How encouraging!
This is why Atheists are completely right when they say that Christian explanations for suffering are totally bogus. Even the Saints like St. John of the Cross point this out! Yet, many Christians will say that suffering has meaning not because they actually believe that meaning, but because their faith is so fragile that they cannot handle having this idol falling from its sacred perch. By their explanations for suffering, they show that they do not believe in Christ, but in their filing system. And, they will protect their worldview with their cushy judgement seat with all the self-righteous indignation they can muster.
Suffering, for St. John of the Cross, was the time when truth would be separated from lies; and when the worldview would shift from self-centered to centered on God and others. Yet, Christians keep babbling their filing system lies. Sadly, they cannot untie Jesus Christ from the idol made by their human hands.