Meaning in suffering

9 07 2010

I’ve often wondered about the scripture that says that God “works all things for the good of them that love the Lord.” Preachers often interpret that to say that God either lets everything happen to us because it’s to our benefit, or that God will make everything work out for our good in the end. I find that hard to swallow. I have experienced evil so intense that the grieving spirit can only stand before it and say, “If this is of God, what kind of God could allow it? A God so evil as to allow this deliberately is not worthy of worship.” Knowing that God might bring some good of it after the fact seems entirely inadequate.

For some time I’ve realized that much of what we attribute to God is, in fact, the work of his opponent. God is guilty only of allowing us the free will we so stridently insist on. When people choose to follow the leading of evil, God, who advised and fought against it is neither responsible nor to blame for the results. If he does choose to bring about some small measure of good from the evil we perpetrate on each other and suffer from daily, we should be penitently grateful. Instead of shaking our fists at heaven and demanding, “God, why did you let this happen?” we should bow our heads and repent for all the people whose hearts and bodies we’ve trampled in our rush to get what we want.

But to return to the verse, it occurred to me today that what it means is not that God willed the event for our good, or that God will necessarily bring good from the evil actions, but that God can give our suffering meaning. One of the worst features of evil is the waste. The utter useless waste of human beings slaughtered, tortured, used, enslaved, disposed of heartlessly and carelessly, or neglected to death strikes horror in the heart like no other dread thing on earth. At least the tiger eats his victims. Evil devours with no appetite except for more devouring. Only God can go into this wasteland of suffering and give it purpose.

Christians talk a lot about “redeeming” and Christ’s redemption. Redeeming is taking something that is worthless, something that means nothing, has no use, and makes no sense, and giving it a purpose, a reason, a value. God takes the suffering we’ve endured for no good reason, or no reason at all, and uses it somehow. He takes what was pointless misery and gives it a point, so that we can look back and see the pain we endured in some kind of perspective. Yes, I had to endure that, but this came of it. Only God can take such an evil seed and produce a good result. Without the transmogrifying presence of God, people who suffer only lash out and cause more suffering. But God can transmute destruction. God can spin gold from straw. God can take our purposeless lives, our purposeless grief, our useless suffering, our empty joys, and give them purpose, hope, love and meaning.

He doesn’t promise we will always be happy. He doesn’t promise freedom from suffering on this side of the grave. We are still vulnerable to the effects of our own evil choices or the evil choices of others. But he does promise that if we hold on through the storm, that he will make sure that it matters. What we’ve been through will be to some good purpose. It won’t be wasted. This is the gift God gives us in our suffering: the gift of meaning.