Listen to the Hurting {i}: why Suffering is a silly reason to be an Atheist

Adolph Gottlieb-rolling

Update: Part 2 is up.

In the religious circles I walk in, I hear about injustice and suffering quite a bit. Theology friends constantly muse about how to view these things in light of biblical revelation. Atheist and skeptic friends constantly point to these things as the inherent illogical inconsistencies that undermine religious faith.

And caught in the middle are many, many more friends, who live their lives trying to navigate their jobs, families, and relationships the best they can–all while these questions haunt them in their quieter moments or right before they sleep. Unlike the other two groups above, they don’t feel like they have answers. And this can lead to periods of doubt, insecurity, and frustration.

For every group, though, questions abound in these conversations. Oftentimes, they have a religious flavor. Why does this stuff happen? How does this relate to the goodness of God? What does it mean for the reality of God? How is God just when this stuff is real? Why does God seem absent?

And yet…

These are almost never the questions I hear from the people actually going through the suffering.

It’s true. I’ve been doing work in the social work field for going on four years now. I’ve seen some really dark things and heard very painful stories. I spent that week in Guatemala a couple months back, seeing, hearing, watching, such utter poverty, violence, damage, and suffering.

And yet, it wasn’t until I was recently having one of these “suffering in the world is really making me doubt God” talks with a friend that I realized that I’ve never heard any of my clients express these sentiments, nor did I hear anything like that in Guatemala (quite the opposite).

In response to the darkest things I’ve ever seen or heard, I’ve only been met with stories of the faithfulness and sustaining work of God in these people’s lives.

I went into the social work field thinking I’d have the chance to minister to the hurting but (as is so often the case) I quickly realized that nearly all of my clients are already deeply-committed Christians, many times precisely because of how they’ve met him in the experience of their suffering and pain. I’ve never encountered those that have lost their faith or struggle with it simply because they are hurting.

Yes, I’ve had deep doubts in my own head in response to my own pain and suffering. Yes, in the darkness of my own family life growing up, I heard these questions a few times from family members in deep loneliness and pain. And yes, when you look in Scripture, you find these doubts now and again spoken from God’s people in the midst of their darkness.

And I want to affirm all of those moments I’ve seen and read–and those that any of you might have experienced–as absolutely legitimate. They are real and appropriate responses to evil in this world and in our hearts.

But this is part of the point: these are moments or even seasons of these questions rising up (even if they rise up again and again). They are definitely formative to someone’s faith, but not necessarily definitive to their faith in the long run. They shape how this person thinks or relates to God, but not necessarily their basic belief in God.

Another way of putting it is this: I’ve heard many stories of people losing their faith after seeing or contemplating other people’s suffering. But, I honestly can’t off the top of my head think of a single person that I’ve heard of that has lost their faith after their own period of suffering. I’m sure they’re out there. But is it just me, or do they seem pretty rare and the exception to the apparent rule?

Historically (and Biblically) speaking, it really seems that Comfort leads to Atheism a lot faster than Suffering.

When you listen to the hurting, they really seem to have entirely different concerns and questions when it comes to God and faith. They seem to meet God all the more deeply the more they go through, and they have eyes to see all the world as charged with the Presence of God. They see each person as the hands and feet of Christ to them.

And maybe that’s part of the paradox of this world, our God, and his Gospel. Pain is now Glory. Death is now Life. Curse is now Blessing.

NEXT POST: How might this idea and dynamic affect how we experience suffering in our own lives and the life of the world? (Here’s that post)

[image credit: “Rolling” by Adolph Gottlieb]


6 thoughts on “Listen to the Hurting {i}: why Suffering is a silly reason to be an Atheist

  1. Great post, Paul. I’ve been really enjoying getting to know you through your blog. A couple of thoughts I’d like to offer in reflection of this post.

    I would offer that people handle suffering hardship differently. Some turn to faith and religion, while others turn to friends and family (either despite, or in spite of, religion). You may want to consider the summit of all evils that was the Holocaust as a paradigmatic example. Some Jewish survivors held onto their faith, as they believe it helped them make it out the other end. There are others, however, who approached the opposite conclusion. Such as Elie Wiesel, a survivor of both Auschwitz and Buchenwald:

    “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed…Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dream to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”

    – Elie Wiesel, Night

    The second point I’d like to make is that we should be careful not to dissasociate our *desire* for something to be true from its actual truth component. After all, the more we want something to be true the greater skepticism we should wield. Freud argued that our fear of death acts as a key inspiration for the universal human institution of religion. I think we should not fail to consider that fear and its attendant emotions operate at different frequencies for many people and ought to be thrown into these assessments.


    • Crap. I totally meant to mention both the Holocaust and Weisel, but totally forgot. I actually think this is really representative of what I’m saying. Would you agree that Weisel might be the exception that proves the rule? I don’t know that in light of such horror, it was an even split or anything between Jews that lost their faith and those that kept it. I think it was, in the long run, a watershed moment in their communal identity formation, and the vast majority of them kept their faith. I don’t have a citation for that or anything, it’s just my sense. Do you know any more specifics?

      And secondly, i appreciate what you say here about questioning and such, and i totally agree. I’ve written about this before, but there’s a long, long history of a sophisticated and full account of doubt and questioning as essential to the fullness of Christian Faith. Time doesn’t allow me to unpack entirely how that is different from what I’m talking about here. I would summarize by saying there’s a huge difference between deep, angst-filled EXISTENTIAL doubt, and “merely” INTELLECTUAL or cognitive, academic doubt. One is full-bodied and respects the realities of life and the whole person, the other is often abstracted, reductionistic, simplistic, and anemic.

      In this post, I’m saying that suffering is a silly reason for that second kind of intellectual, academic doubt.

      Tasks for helping me think through this and clarify.


      • …Umm, Paul most of the Jews died. Their communities were culled to the thousands…So, no, I don’t have specific statistics on who did or might have retained or lost their faith. I should think such a things morbid and wouldn’t be worth looking into.


        • You know what I mean…Any sociological reports on the impact that the Holocaust on Jewish identity and faith, etc. I didn’t know if you had any more of an understanding on it than I did.


  2. Pingback: Listen to the Hurting {ii}: how now shall we suffer? | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

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