The Winter of Our Discontent

On God, unjust suffering, and hope

The men and women who have been our guests at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter–our nearest neighbors–have suffered a lot this winter.

Even as temperatures and spirits rise, it seems proper to pause and solemnly regard the winter past.

Last October, the shelter on Long Island, which housed several hundreds of people, was suddenly shut down. Other shelters, including ours, strained to accommodate the unusually vast need. Triage was even crueller than usual. Tempers flared, even in the gentlest souls. Mental health faltered. The colds and flus made their rounds.

It was a long winter.

There is something unfair about it all. It is unfair that every night we returned to our warm dorm rooms while they froze. It is unfair that even the laziest of us will be showered with bright opportunities for the future, while they work bloody hard to get out of homelessness and yet are treated as subhuman because they don't have addresses. It is unfair that when we make mistakes or get unlucky, it costs us little, while if they make mistakes or get unlucky, it costs them everything.


And God’s in His heaven.

The Christian says that God is good and powerful and all-knowing and cares about us. So why doesn't God eliminate unjust suffering? Why does he stand by silently? This problem has vexed Christian thinkers for as long as there has been Christianity.

Some have said that the existence of unjust suffering logically disproves the existence of the Christian God. It turns out to be surprisingly hard to make these charges stick. Then again, the logical solutions are not very satisfying either. Perhaps the problem of unjust suffering is just not a problem of logic. It is a different sort of problem, a first-personal, existential problem.

“What is all this suffering for?” It seems to me that this is the real question asked by the suffering heart, if it can move beyond sheer anger at God into something like a gentle melancholy.

“Does my suffering matter to God?” If only I could be sure that it were in aid of something, I might not even demand my suffering should be fair. I might even voluntarily choose to suffer, if some good would come of it in the long term for the world or for my children or for others whom I love.

But so much suffering seems completely pointless.

So we are back to the question: Why?

The book of Job, which is the Bible's most extended treatment of the problem of suffering, suggests that if God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting unjust suffering to occur, we may just be in the dark as to what those reasons are. There, God's answer to Job's complaint is, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”

But that's hardly an answer, is it?

Christianity does not solve the problem of unjust suffering. But Christianity does remain uniquely committed to the problem of suffering as a mystery of our life and existence, demanding our faith and our hope.