Saturday, April 14, 2007

Hart (again) on suffering and providence

"[Many Christians] clearly seem to wish to believe there is a divine plan in all the seeming randomness of nature's violence that accounts for every instance of suffering, privation, and loss in a sort of total sum. This is an understandable impulse. That there is a transcendent providence that will bring God's good ends out of the darkness of history - in spite of every evil - no Christian can fail to affirm. But providence (as even Voltaire seems to have understood) is not simply a 'total sum' or 'infinite equation' that leaves nothing behind."
...
"Yes, certainly, there is nothing, not even suffering or death, that cannot be providentially turned toward God's good ends. But the New Testament also teaches us that, in another and ultimate sense, suffering and death - considered in themselves - have no true meaning or purpose at all; and this is in a very real sense the most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts."

- David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?
(Eerdmans: 2005), 29, 35.

8 comments:

Jill said...

Whilst as Christians we know that death has been overcome and that suffering, no matter how terrible it may seem, is only temporary, I don't think that means that suffering has no true meaning or purpose. We can not presume to know the mind of God and may therefore not understand its meaning, but I do not believe my sovereign, loving God allows suffering without purpose.

Found your site via a link. What an edifying way to spend an evening. Will be praying for you on Monday morning.

byron said...

Thanks for your prayers.

Do you think all suffering has meaning? Hart is not questioning that God can and does use suffering, but he is questioning the assumption that every instance has to make sense somehow. I recommend this little book (it's only about 100 pages). I'm only halfway through it so far (and have been distracted writing a sermon for tomorrow, to which I should return).

Joanna said...

Hi Byron,

I'm very struck by the similarities of thought in the quote you have posted and the notes for the Leading People to Christ EU course... In particular, we are about to do the Dark Days section tomorrow, and the essay contains the same staggering point that sin and evil, in a way, make no sense at all.

There is nothing good, nothing about evil itself. Yes, God can use it for good, but in and of itself, evil is not good. And suffering is a result of evil...

Hmmm...

Christian said...

This is such a potent issue isn't it...if I find tomorrow that I have lost a friend in a terrible accident, how do I know whether that was an example of suffering that had a meaning or an example of meaningless suffering?

I think part of the tension is what's not said in the quote: Saying not all suffering has a God-ordained purpose is different to saying that there will be suffering left un-resolved, un-accounted for, un-judged, un-righted, un-wiped away on the last day. We must have an eschatological instinct: the terrible suffering I might be going through may not have a clear purpose now, but it won't be forgotten about by God on the day he restores his universe...and so in no sense do I suffer in vain.

Would it be fair to say that although it's true that God can work through evil, he seems to prefer to work through good...and this goodness in the midst of evil is often in the form of weakness and humility?


(Had trouble logging in - but it's me, Christian A. !)

byron said...

Jo - ah, you've discovered the true source of my theology... (given that it was jointly written by my pastor (at the time), brother, close friend and wife this is probably not surprising).

Christian - very good point.

Jill said...

If there are some instances of suffering which make no sense, then surely it follows that some individuals experience this 'meaningless suffering' first hand. Who's to say I'm not one of those suffering meaninglessly? If I even begin to entertain the thought that my pain or the pain of my loved ones might fall into the category of 'meaningless' suffering, then I begin to doubt the promises my God has made and His very character.

Philip Britton said...

"...the new testament also teaches..."

Does Hart expound the biblical basis of this assertion that there is no true meaning or purpose in some suffering?

Jonathan said...

Hart says the NT teaches there is no true meaning in suffering or death of themselves. This seems fair enough, but I don't think it necessarily leads to the notion that some suffering might be meaningless or without purpose. We do not need to say that death in itself has a true meaning in order to see that Jesus' death (God working in weakness and humility) is immensely meaningful.

Although often wrongly cliched, Paul's claim about all things working for good does not depend on a rationalisation of evil. Like the statement that we rejoice in our sufferings, it is ultimately based on the hope we have through the Spirit. These things shoudl not lead us to downplay evil, but to more greatly appreciate God's grace.