Is All Suffering Meaningful?

At the end of Part One of his new book, Timothy Keller says that the distinctive characteristic of the Christian view of suffering is that “contra secularism, suffering is meaningful.”* I understand Keller’s intent, I hope, but I’m looking for a different way to articulate this. I do not believe we who believe in the sovereignty of God over all things make sufficient pastoral use of Romans 8:20, “For the creation was subjected to futility . . . because of Him who subjected it.” Sometimes, it is wiser to tell someone in the midst of incomprehensible, “accidental” suffering that it is because we share in the futility to which the whole creation has been made subject rather than it is God’s will. I took a stab at articulating the same thought differently, “The Christian believes that sometimes suffering is not meaningful but it is always purposeful,” but Terry, my most trustworthy critic, was dissatisfied with it. Somehow there has to be a way to give due weight to Romans 8:20 without compromising God’s all-encompassing providence, He “works all things according to the counsel of His will.”

I believe that my own incurable illness is, in some sense, an accident of a fallen creation. I have an auto-antibody that doesn’t confine itself to cleaning up my own already-damaged nerve tissue. Instead, it will eat the myelin sheaths of my healthy peripheral nerves–and keep going sometimes to even eat through axons. It’s a very rare disease to begin with–my measured levels are 64 standard deviations above high normal, which would make me uniquely ill. There is a meaningless to my disease.

However, I also believe that God, my sovereign God, did this to me. And, as I have testified, I love Him for it. (I cannot love a God whose sovereignty is limited.) It is not that He started working after the fact to make good come out of evil. He purposed it from the beginning. (See Joseph’s story in Genesis.) When I went for years without a diagnosis in a fog of confusion and self-doubt, my faith in an omnipotent, omniscient, all-wise, perfectly benevolent God sustained me.

I affirm at the same time two seemingly contradictory propositions: my pain and weakness is meaningless, and my pain and weakness is purposeful. However, I am still struggling to find a better way to articulate this.

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