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Columns

The Winter of Our Discontent

On God, unjust suffering, and hope

By Stephen G. Mackereth

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.

Here is the idea. Maybe suffering doesn't make sense because it's like one of those paintings that don't make sense.

As I write, I am looking at one of Paul Signac's pointillist paintings of the harbor at Marseille. I observe that there are a lot of mustard-yellow blobs in the middle of what is presumably the sea. Maybe they represent the sunlight on the waves or something. But then what are the lavender blobs supposed to be? And the red blobs are completely inexcusable. This sea, I think to myself, is full of blobs. It is all blobs and no sea. What an exceedingly defective painting.

Only, when you stand back, it actually looks rather good.

I like pointillist paintings because they capture the fragmentation of life, the sense that life is a drawer full of odd socks. Within the madness, within the ugliness, within the suffering, our hope may yet hang on the big picture, which we do not yet see.

In this same vein, think of how discord is used in a piece of music to tell a bigger story. In the end, somehow, the awful noise may yet resolve into an unexpected harmony. Musical people may be able to sense that a resolution is coming. Yet our location within the unfolding drama of the music is always in media res. No one can know ahead of time how the piece will end.

In the Christian story, sorrow will be “redeemed.” This is God's promise, no more and no less.

When we say in common English that a person has “redeemed” herself, we don't mean that she has erased the past. Rather, her earlier actions are recontextualized or reevaluated in light of her later ones. In the light of the whole story, even the memory of the past is transformed.

Christianity does not offer an answer to the problem of suffering, but it does offer two things. One is a present imperative, a call-to-arms, to imitate Jesus Christ in the terrible, beautiful, transformative mission of suffering for others' sake. The other is the future hope of seeing the winter of our suffering redeemed and transformed. It is the hope of spring.

Et gloria in excelsis Deo.

Stephen G. Mackereth '15 is a joint mathematics and philosophy concentrator in Mather House.

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