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The Question of Human Suffering

November 2, 2021

Back in 2014, Todd May, author of A Significant Life: Human Meaning in a Silent Universe (2015), published a summary of his understanding of various attempts by religions and philosophies  to defend humanity from suffering. Entitled “Against Invulnerability,” the article inadvertently makes a strong case for Christianity.

May made the following argument for how to endure human suffering.

  1. I feel bad because I am not as good as I wish to be. Perhaps it would be better not to feel bad at all.
  1. Some philosophies and religions look for ways to have tranquility of mind—ways not to feel bad about anything. They are, I believe, false paths.
  1. These philosophies and religions (Buddhism and Stoicism, for example) suggest abandoning desires and emotions by looking at the universe with realism. However, most of us don’t want to abandon desires and emotions.
  1. If you want a label for these religions and philosophies, you might call them advocates of “invulnerabilism.” This word summarizes the philosophies that abandon desires and emotions through developing a sort of “immunity against trouble.”
  1. Invulnerabilism says we need to create a distance between ourselves and the world. Example: a Stoic philosopher heard about his son’s death and replied, “I always knew that my child was mortal.”
  1. I think the death of a child would shatter me because I choose to be involved in the world. To care makes one vulnerable. “Caring requires desiring for the sake of others, which in an uncertain world entails that that desiring can be frustrated.”
  1. Many people who claim to be invulnerable really aren’t. The best they can do is use invulnerabilism to take the edge off the troubles of the world.
  1. We have to accept that suffering is inevitable. To live successfully, however, invulnerability is something to consider, something to lighten the load a bit.

May’s view illustrates the sad condition of the world’s ability to explain, and endure, suffering. First, there is the sense that suffering is a natural result of the human condition, which it is not. Suffering was brought into the world by human sin. It is not natural. Second, the rejection of the actual cause of suffering actually leads to more suffering, not less. Human speculation has a tendency to ebb and flow throughout history, offering no final answers for, and thus no final release from, suffering.

God does not ask humans to endure human suffering in a vacuum. From the biblical perspective, suffering leads to important results. Most importantly, Christian suffering leads to identification with Christ’s suffering. Christ’s suffering promises final redemption and freedom from all suffering. After all, in the end, all tears will be wiped away. No human philosophy or religion asserts this outcome.

No human being can cross the great divide between the desire to live as a feeling, happy person in a sinful world and the desire to be free of suffering. But Jesus made a way.