Archives For Suffering

Seneca

Yesterday, I introduced the topic of suffering. Specifically, I raised the age old question, “Why does God allow his children to suffer?” And although I have spent a lot of time looking into the Bible’s answer to this question, in yesterday’s post I explored one of three similes that Seneca, a first-century philosopher, gave in order to explain why the godly suffer. Yesterday’s simile was of the godly as “disciplined children.” Today I will continue by looking at two other similes: “proven soldiers” and “victorious athletes.”

 

Proven Soldiers

Seneca compares the godly who suffer to proven soldiers. Whereas the raw recruit turns pale at even the thought of a wound, the veteran warrior looks undaunted upon his own gore, for he knows that his blood has often been the price of his victory. “In like manner, God hardens, reviews, and disciplines those whom he approves, those whom he loves.” For this reason, the philosopher argues, God actually afflicts the greatest of all people with illness, sorrows and misfortune. These situations are compliments rather than curses, evidence that this child has been deemed worthy of God’s purpose. Furthermore, through suffering, God makes his children to be a pattern for others: in fact, they are even born in order to teach others how to endure hardships.

When good people suffer, then, their hardships serve as affirmation of their character and as an opportunity for growth. In a phrase that echoes Romans 5:3-4 and James 1:2-4, Seneca states “Fire tests gold, misfortune brave men.” So also, returning to the military metaphor, Seneca says that Fortune chooses to confront the courageous rather than to waste time by contesting the weak. Lady Fortune cries out:

Why should I choose that cowardly fellow as my adversary? He will straightway drop his weapons; against him I have no need of all my power—he will be routed by a paltry threat; he cannot bear even the sight of my face…I am ashamed to meet a man who is so ready to be beaten.

Therefore, while Fortune disdainfully passes these people by, she seeks worthy opponents—the brave, the stubborn, the unbending—those against whom she can flex all her might.[1]

 

Victorious Athletes

Having used the similes of disciplined children and proven soldiers, Seneca appeals to the experience of athletes.[2] He claims that the great person cannot be approved without an encounter with suffering. Those who are truly misfortunate, then, are those who have never been misfortunate. Without hardship “no one will know what you can do—not even yourself.” He continues by likening untested character to a runner who races in the Olympic Games without any other contestant. How absurd! This person may gain the prize, but he did not win the race; he may have the crown, but he does not posses the victory (coronam habes, victoriam non habes).

 

Conclusion

Finally, like a good teacher, Seneca answers his student’s questions with more questions:

How can I know with what spirit you will face poverty, if you always wallow in wealth? How can I know with what firmness you will face disgrace and ill fame…if you attain to old age amidst rounds of applause rather than through pain?

Of course, Seneca’s teaching does not serve as a substitute for the Holy Scriptures. But his examples can complement them. And without “ruining the question with an answer,” perhaps Seneca’s similes can encourage my students and even you in the midst of divine fatherly discipline, battles with hardships and marathons through suffering.



[1] Cf. Robert Service’s “The Law of the Yukon”: This is the law of the Yukon, and ever she makes it plain: “Send not your foolish and feeble, send me your strong and sane—Strong for the red rage of battle; sane for I harry them sore; Send me men girt for the combat, men who are grit to the core; Swift as the panther in triumph, fierce as the bear in defeat. Sired of a bulldog parent, steeled in the furnace heat. Send me the best of your breeding, lend me your chosen ones; Them will I take to my bosom, them will I call my sons…”

[2] Cf. Heb 12:1-3; 1 Cor 9:24-27,

A student once asked his Rabbi, “Teacher, why does the Lord allow evil in the world?” The Rabbi responded, “With such a good question, my son, why would you want to ruin it with an answer?” Despite the Rabbi’s clever response, the question “Why does God allow his children to suffer,” remains an apt one—especially in light of current blows such as crashing economies, threatening epidemics, surrounding wars and rumors of wars. My students also ask me this question in various forms. Their pain behind the question drives me to search for answers—answers not to ruin the theological question or to solve a theoretical paradox but ones to encourage them through real hardships.

Seneca

I have studied the Scriptures to see how certain passages handle problems of suffering. But I also became curious as to how those who did not know Job’s God or Paul’s Christ answered such questions.  One of my favorite extra-biblical responses to the problem of suffering comes from a first-century philosopher by the name of Seneca.[1] One of Seneca’s students put the question like this, “If Providence truly reigns supreme, then why does evil befall the good?”[2] Seneca responds to his student by employing three similes: godly people who suffer are like (1) disciplined children, (2) proven soldiers and (3) victorious athletes.

I will explore the first simile today and the other two tomorrow. Seneca’s approach to this question can help us think through the suffering we encounter. His words aren’t to be taken as Scripture, of course, but he can give us some perspective on what the biblical authors are saying.

 

Disciplined Children

According to Seneca, if Providence (i.e., God) governs the world and cares for humanity, then “evil” should be reinterpreted as divine discipline. This is not discipline in the sense of punishment for human sins, but of training for divine service. God disciplines good people because they are God’s pupils, his legitimate children who seek to imitate their all-glorious Father. Like any good parent, then, God rears his offspring for virtue and fosters character in his sons through suffering.

Therefore, the philosopher continues, rather than God spoiling his children, God parents them with severity so that they may become useful to him. Therefore, one should realize that when good people painfully struggle up a difficult path—while at the same time the wicked coast with pleasure—it is because God “does not make a spoiled pet of a good person.”[3] Rather, “he tests them, hardens them, and fits them for his own service.”

When I read this I was surprised at how similar the argument is to the one in Hebrews 12:

Have you forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons? “My son, do not scorn the Lord’s discipline or give up when he corrects you.” For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son he accepts. Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? But if you do not experience discipline, something all sons have shared in, then you are illegitimate and are not sons. Besides, we have experienced discipline from our earthly fathers and we respected them, shall we not submit ourselves to the Father of spirits and receive life? For they disciplined us for a little while, as seemed good to them, but he does so for our benefit, that we may share in his holiness. Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it. (vv. 5-10, NET Bible)

Tomorrow, I will explore Seneca’s two other similes for godly people enduring suffering: (2) proven soldiers, and (3) victorious athletes.


[1] Seneca was a contemporary of the apostle Paul. He lived in Rome and, like Paul, died by the hand of Nero. Seneca wrote a number of moral essays and epistles that have some striking similarities to statements in the New Testament. So much was this the case, that years later, someone penned letters as written from Paul and Seneca to invent correspondence between the two writers.

[2] See Seneca’s  essay On Providence.

[3] The quotations of Seneca in this article are from John W. Basore’s translation in Seneca: Moral Essays, Vol. 1 (London: Harvard University Press, reprint 2003).

There was a time once when Man enjoyed a very close relationship with God. It was a time when all was perfect, and the entire creation, right along with Man himself, echoed songs of praise with every breath taken and with every flower’s bloom. But, as the story goes, Creation’s song would soon give way to an unbearable groaning (Rom 8:22). Thorns and thistles would become the new normal, and Man would soon find himself in the midst of suffering and pain.

TornadoI think of this story a lot, especially recently. As I’m sure you know by now, several tornadoes swept through Oklahoma this past week, leaving many people devastated and homeless. Living just a few miles from one of the areas hit by the first round of tornadoes, I’ve seen the carnage for myself. We locals use the term “war zone” to describe it. There simply aren’t any other words. Perhaps most heart aching was when we learned that one of the tornadoes hit two elementary schools in the city of Moore, killing several young children in one instant. Stories were reported how teachers did all they could to protect their kids from the massive mile-wide tornado. Many students survived, but several did not. When my wife and I first heard about this, our hearts sank. All we wanted to do was hold our own children a little tighter that night.

I’ve learned this past week that the problem of suffering can’t be turned into some “detached” philosophical musing or a mere theoretical quip. Suffering is far too real for us to allow it to become a “how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin” sort of debate. Real people have lost real children. But like suffering itself, the question is just as real: “Where was God? How can evil such as this exist when God is supposed to be good and powerful?” As a minister who wants to address this question pastorally, I keep finding myself going back to Man’s first home: the Garden of Eden.  We’re obviously far from Paradise these days, but it’s evident that we all seem to want to go back. After all, behind the sorrow, grief, and tears, there is something deep within each of us that cries, This is not the way things were supposed to be! Yet the events in Oklahoma remind us that this is the way things are. So we’re full of questions.

The key to answering these questions is to look back at what went wrong in the first place.  It all started when the serpent said, “You will not surely die” (Gen 3:4). What a crazy lie. But let’s not be sidetracked by it; the lie, after all, was not an end in itself. Satan’s ultimate goal was to tempt man with a type of knowledge he didn’t need to possess—a knowledge he couldn’t handle. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). As the story goes, when Man ate of the fruit (v. 6), his eyes were “opened” (v.7).  It’s all sort of tragic: Man starts off with having God in very close relationship. But Man’s desire for knowledge of good and evil outweighed his desire for relationship with God. The end result was suffering and death.

Not much has changed. Man has been treading upon ground wreaked by thorns and thistles ever since, experiencing suffering every step of the way. As if things weren’t bad enough, when we run to God with our questions, it seems as though we’re left without any answers—at least satisfactory ones. C.S. Lewis once observed that when you go to God in times of pain, you often get “a door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”[1] So why does God seem so uninterested in giving us real answers?

Think of the story of Job. Have you ever noticed how he never got an answer as to why he was suffering? It’s all sort of odd when you think about it. Starting with chapter 38, God reminds Job that he is only a mortal. And for the next several chapters, God directly challenges Job (for his own good, mind you), showing him that he isn’t on par with the Divine. As a result, Job’s final response was a simple, yet profound, confession: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3).

What’s most striking to me about the story of Job is not so much that he never receives an answer, but that Job receives something far better. See, Job may not have gotten an answer, but he did get a bigger vision of God. The rest of Job’s confession is astounding: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (42:5). Did you catch that? Despite all of the pain, the questions, the hurts, the despair, Job learned that what would ultimately satisfy was not gaining insight about his suffering, but in receiving the very thing that Man originally lost in Eden: God himself.

So it all begins to make sense. I mentioned above that, deep down, we all cry out for a return to Eden. So what if God is actually hearing our cries, but is tending to them in a way that we simply can’t understand? I can’t help but wonder if God seems so strangely silent in giving us “answers” to our sufferings all because he wants to give us something greater. Ask anyone who has suffered loss, and they will tell you that answers—no matter how “logical”—simply won’t suffice. Yet often enough, they will tell you that what does bring a small amount of comfort are not words per se, but the quiet presence of a friend. I suspect that God is out to relieve our suffering, not by giving us answers and knowledge, but by giving us something far better—namely, himself. This is something Job came to realize, and something Adam failed to realize.

I don’t know how God’s goodness and power are compatible with the reality of evil and suffering. Make no mistake about it, I want to know. But, despite my intense struggle with the events of the past week, I’ve decided that it’s okay if I don’t know. In fact, God himself seems content with my not knowing. In the end, it appears as though the way back to Eden is not through gaining more knowledge about good and evil; that’s what led to Man’s expulsion in the first place. Rather, I suppose that the way back—and the very thing we need the most in times like these—is the abiding presence of God.

In the days ahead, please pray that God’s peace be upon the people of Oklahoma. We’re all looking for answers this week, but I know he will be faithful and gracious to give us something much more valuable—his unshakable presence.

 


[1] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 6.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.” (2 Corinthians 1:3–7)

Paul explains that the suffering we experience is not for us alone. We can get pretty selfish with our suffering. We hoard our suffering, unwilling to share it with the people around us.

How self-centered can we be?

FriendsWhen you experience affliction and suffering, know for sure that God wants you to share it. God is the God of all comfort. He is the one who comforts us in our affliction. Why? Paul is clear: “so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the same comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” There is a missional aspect to the suffering we experience, and there is a missional aspect to the comfort that God gives us to help us through that suffering.

From a biblical perspective, trials are actually blessings for many reasons (e.g., see James 1). One of those reasons is the comfort that we receive, which in turn becomes the comfort we are ready to dispense to the suffering people around us.

Our suffering can be so specific to our unique situations, and the comfort that God gives us can feel wonderfully individualized. God truly does reach directly into our particularized pains and bring healing in a way that seems meant for us alone. But it’s not. Yes, God’s comfort meets us where we are, but that’s not where it stops.

The next time you experience God’s comfort in the midst of suffering, don’t stop at thanking him for it. Ask yourself how that comfort can be passed on. Maybe the answer will be immediate. Or maybe you’ll be waiting for years. But until our experience with suffering ends in the comfort of the people around us, it has not fully run its course.

The flipside of this is equally important. If God expects us to share his comfort with other people, it means that God may well pass on his comfort to us through other people whom he has comforted. In other words, when a fellow Christian embraces you in the midst of your suffering, the comfort you are receiving from that person has its origin in God.

God is “the God of all comfort.” He’s the source. So accept the comfort of your brothers and sisters not as the misguided efforts of people who ought to be minding their own business, but as the mediated comfort of God sent to you through someone who has been comforted by God in the midst of affliction.

Your suffering is not about you. It’s about us. And ultimately, it’s about the God of all comfort.