Looking at the Problem of Suffering from the Inside Out

What is really on the inside of things?Last week I was out at the Planned Parenthood center in Aurora when a car pulled up to the side of the vacant lot across from the building, where the pro-life outreach there is usually based.

The driver rolled down his window and said, “Let me ask you a question: Why are you out here harassing these young women?”

That’s not an especially uncommon remark, but he went on: “Why don’t you go to the hospital and explain to the parents of a three-year-old dying of cancer why your God lets a child suffer.”

Standing beside me was Marie, a sidewalk counselor, who recognized the man from a previous encounter. Apparently this wasn’t the first time he’d stop to hassle the pro-lifers out at Planned Parenthood.

“I Feel Sorry for You People!”

The man continued to harangue us about how the young women going into Planned Parenthood have made up their minds and probably even talked to their pastors, as Marie tried to explain that the girls going into Planned Parenthood are often scared and feeling pressured to get an abortion they don’t want. But he wasn’t listening.

Then I tried to respond to his original remark, though he kept interrupting me, too:

Me: “I can’t explain why a child would have to suffer—”

Him: “Of course you can’t! You admit it!”

Me: “But if there’s a God—”

Him: “There’s no God!”

Me: “—then maybe that child’s suffering can be undone. Maybe that child can experience eternal happiness with God, with all that suffering washed away. But if there’s no God—”

Him: “That’s right, there’s no God!”

Me: “—then that child’s life means nothing but suffering.”

Him: “That’s right!”

Me: “So what kind of consolation can you offer to those parents whose child is suffering?”

He had no answer for this, but kept on with his harangue about how we’re deluded to believe in God or any kind of higher purpose or meaning to life.

I said, “That’s an easy philosophy for you. It looks like you have a pretty nice life.” He had a very nice car and two dogs, one of which appeared to be a pure-bred Dalmatian. “But what about someone who’s born into a life of suffering—like exploited children—what are you offering them?”

Again, he offered no reply to this, but started to drive off. He paused and called out, “I feel sorry for you people!”

Why Feel Sorry for Anyone?

Reflecting on this encounter, I had to wonder why he would feel sorry for us.

After all, if we’re deluded about the existence of a God who can set all wrongs aright, that delusion only serves to make us happier. If we’re just wasting our time out there at Planned Parenthood trying to convince mothers not to abort their babies, what’s it to him?

If life has no meaning—beyond whatever meaning one can forge by one’s own lights—how can you even say someone is wasting his time? By what standard can you say he ought to be doing something else, when you’ve rejected the very idea of some “ought” outside of himself to which he is responsible?

If there’s no God—no eternal source of meaning, no higher authority to which we are responsible or to whom we can turn for consolation—then why feel sorry for anyone? What is the source of that sympathy?

Why stop to raise objections about what the pro-lifers are doing at Planned Parenthood? Why pretend to sympathize with the Planned Parenthood clients we’re supposedly harassing?

Yes, I’m Really Asking

I don’t know how this man would answer these questions. But unlike him, I’m really asking—I’d like to know what he’d have to say about it.

People so often object to our pro-life efforts–or the public activities of Christians in general—in this way: by asking a question they don’t really want to hear the answer to.

Of course, there are some on our side who do the same, who barrage our opponents with questions when they’re not really interested in any answers.

But in general, we in the pro-life movement are sincere when we try to engage those on the other side of these moral and cultural divides.

The man I encountered at Planned Parenthood last week might claim that he, too, was sincerely trying to convince us to reflect on what we’re doing and see the error of our ways, but I didn’t see any hint of that. He seemed interested only in mocking us, and then driving off with under the warm glow of his self-satisfaction.

Look at Suffering from the Inside Out

Back to the problem of suffering.

This is one of the most common objections raised to a belief in God. If there were a God, why would he allow so much human suffering?

I’m not going to answer that difficult question here. It’s been answered over and over again throughout the centuries, and I don’t really have anything new to say about it. Those who are really interested can look it up—see “the problem of evil” and “free will” and “The Book of Job.”

I’m more interested here in the question, and those who ask it so dismissively. They presume—without really thinking it through—that the only possible answer is that there’s no God.

It’s only suffering that leads one to hope that there might be something more than just this “vale of tears.”

But it seems to me that they’re looking at the whole question backwards—from the outside in, as it were.

They seem to imagine one first sits back, eyes closed, pondering the existence of a supreme being, and only then—having concluded that there is—looks around to find his belief challenged by all the suffering in the world. And then skirts the challenge by refusing to face it squarely.

But the reality is that one starts with the suffering. The suffering in this world, and especially in one’s own life, is manifest.

It’s in trying to come to grips with suffering—to somehow make sense of the suffering in one’s own life and in the lives of those one cares about—that one begins to ask questions about the larger meaning of things.

It’s only suffering that leads one to hope that there might be something more than just this “vale of tears.” That there might be another life beyond this one, where misery is no more.

That there might be a Someone who can restore each of us to the wholeness that we yearn for.

The skeptic asks, “How could a loving God allow so much suffering?” But what he ought to be asking is, “How can I make any sense of the suffering in this world without invoking a loving God?”

Doing away with God doesn’t end the suffering in the world. It only ends any hope that those who suffer will ever be restored to wholeness and happiness.

What about the Suffering of the Unborn Child?

I want to return to that encounter with the man outside of Planned Parenthood for a final reflection. He challenged Marie and me to answer (without really wanting to hear us) how we’d explain to parents why their child has to suffer and die.

But the horrible irony is that right there across the street, in that massive “Abortion Fortress,” little unborn children were suffering and dying, too. Why wasn’t he interested in their pain and suffering?

What would he say to those children about why their lives have to end only weeks after they’ve begun?

And what about a mother wracked with remorse for her abortion? What would he say to help her overcome the pain in her heart?

This poor man really had nothing to offer. I feel sorry for him.

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