Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Problem of Pain Revisited

NOTE: This post is comprised of bits and pieces of a paper I wrote for one of my sociology capstones. The class, "Sociology of Suffering," was perhaps the most interesting, challenging, and thought provoking class I have ever taken. If the post doesn't make sense, don't worry. The class didn't make sense for most of the semester. I got a B+ in the class, but it was hard fought. True story. If you'd like an additional, more easily understood perspective, read this.

In human life, suffering is omnipresent. Whether by war, slavery, self- or other-inflicted, suffering persists. In the midst of one’s suffering, the cry to God follows two strains: “How could you do this to me, God?” and “God, what am I to gain from this?” One approaches God with contempt, the other seeking consolation. Each seeks an explanation for the suffering that has shaken his once stable world, and each turns to an external force to explain that suffering. His pleading begs the question of the purpose of suffering. In either case, he is intrinsically craving knowledge of whether suffering is good or bad, fair or unjust, punishment or blessing.  God’s response or silence to individual suffering further alleviates either the suffering or the desire to believe in an omnipotent, loving God.


Individual conceptions of God vary greatly – from an angry, punishing, Old Testament-style God to a Being working towards a higher purpose, to a loving and protecting Deity (Pargament, AJCP 18(6)). Both have significant ramifications for mental, emotional, and spiritual health (Exline et al., JHP 4(3)). Forgiving God for perceived wrongdoing challenges the spiritual fortitude of believers who endure strong negative experiential outcomes. Indeed, suffering calls into question deeply rooted believes of the goodness of God and the sufferer must endure both his suffering and cognitive dissonance.

Each explanation connotes a desire for a just world, one in which either man’s capacity to cope with the inequalities and injustices of life is not exceeded, or one that allows the individual complete control over his circumstance. Divine attribution serves mainly for the religious as a way to insure that he is not tested beyond his limits (Pargament 1986). Either perspective frames God as either a source of solace or an accessible scapegoat. God is used as solace or scapegoat for suffering as a way of disaffirming the way of being experienced in the world, removing one’s self from the suffering.


Psychologists suggest that religion emerges out of a desire for help and reassurance (Meadow and Kahoe 1984), and that it is sought as a response to what  some (Tillich 1952) refers to as major existential anxieties – the inability to avoid death, fear of meaninglessness or purposelessness, and concern over the consequences of individual conduct. The question religion seeks to answer concerning the suffering of mankind is not so much whether suffering exists or is necessary, but rather whether suffering is a good thing or a bad thing (van Hooft 1998), and religion approaches suffering with the reasoning that there must be some good in the experience; if there is good and meaning to be found in the suffering, the experience becomes, theoretically easier to endure.  As one researcher  asserts, "Suffering loses its prima facie negative character for the victim by being given a transcendent, positive meaning"(van Hooft 1998). Indeed, there is a noticeable shift towards God during times of great personal or societal distress. 

Throughout history, appeals to God have been at their highest during times of suffering – the Black Plague, the Holocaust, or 11 September 2001 to name a few. If bad is indeed an stronger force than good at turning individuals or societies to God, then “God should not thrive in times of plenty but in times of pain, with disease and trauma fueling His perception” (Gray and Wegner 2010). Such a being is strictly a punishing being. Indeed, God may well be called medieval. A God who thrives on pain and suffering, a God who demands perfection and adherence to His tenets is very much the Puritanical God conceived by the Protestant idea as a response to continued, unresolved, and unjust suffering. Religion evolved out of man’s continued failure to explain and eliminate his suffering.

Suffering as an Evil, God as its Perpetrator

As an experience, suffering may be necessary to man’s own necessity for self-overcoming and eventual perfection. However, the negative attribution of suffering to God, and indeed one’s own inability to forgive God for the experience, contribute to the perception that suffering is an inflicted evil. Such a supposition presupposes man’s own innocence in the face of evil, denying any fault of his own doing. The logic of evil (Marion, Prolegema to Charity) appeals to man because it allows him to justly punish his unjust inflictor.


Man punishes God not by projecting his own suffering back onto God, but rather by turning from him, ignoring the omniscient Being. Indeed, to punish God is to kill him, and God willingly accepts His death. The proclamation of God’s death asserts that His timely demise is not enough. “We must still defeat his shadow as well” (Nietzsche, The Gay Science). 

The case of extreme suffering demands justice against the perpetrator, and man turns that blame towards the being that created what he naively believed was the best of all possible worlds.

Such blame does not fulfill the promise of the logic of evil, but rather persists in the eventual hope of the suppression of unjust suffering. Especially in Christian theology, the logic of evil suppresses every external relation, leaving the suffering soul entirely in a voluntary prison, one where only man himself fits as master of nothing (Marion, Prolegomena to Charity). Revenge is the only option for justice as man blames God for his suffering. Suffering must be spread to others for man to feel relief from his own suffering. His query, “How could God do this to me?” becomes a rallying cry against an unjust or apathetic God.

The only response that justice can create is vengeance by eliminating God, indeed to punish him by banishing him from memory. Often punishment seems to be the only response man can use to right his suffering. “Punishment is a vital need of the human soul” (Weil, Void and Compensations) and as such requires not only suffering for the guilty, but also suffering as an educating device. It is not enough to punish the sufferer, man punishes in order to educate the guilty so that he learns not to commit the crime or inflict the suffering again. Inflicting punishment does little for the sufferer except alienate him from the source of blame. Punishment simply causes man to turn on everything the universe represents to him, denying all that was once good and beautiful to him. In this sense, both Nietzsche and Marion concur that the purpose of inflicting punishment or establishing blame is merely to “improve the one who punishes” (Nietzsche, The Gay Science). 

Forgiving God the Inflictor

Even positive attribution to God can cause some dissonance for the sufferer, especially when he perceives his own innocence. To be called upon to forgive the inflictor of the suffering may seem beyond the sufferer, and even more so when the inflictor is perceived to be an all-loving God. The inability to address such cognitive dissonance – and therefore the use of attribution – to move to a point of forgiving God has significant negative implications both psychologically and physiologically. 

In negatively attributing one’s suffering to God, one may not believe that God intentionally or willfully harmed him, but he may believe that it was God who allowed the injustice to occur. When such a stance is taken, it not only has the potential to damage man’s relationship with his God, but also has implications for his anger, psychological stress, and social associations. Even for those who do not express belief in God, forgiving God proves to be necessary in maintaining psychological health. When God appears to be a harbinger of pain and suffering, religious salience often determines the psychological and spiritual impact of suffering.

Often, however, forgiveness is impossible to achieve without also experiencing resentment.  Negative attribution creates the perception that man has somehow been humbled, demoted, or lowered in his standing before God. When man is harmed, there arises within him a series of reactions that seek a desired equilibrium, a place in which the inflictor of the suffering experiences, at least in a small way, similar anguish and suffering. The ideal approach is rather to recognize what the suffering revealed. “It is impossible to forgive whoever has done us harm if that harm has lowered us. We have to think that it has not lowered us, but has revealed our true level” (Weil, Void and Compensation).