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from the RC Professor Ministry
The Suffering Professor - part 1
By Dr. Paul M. Gould
As a philosophy professor, one of my bread and butter subjects is the problem of evil. Why would a good and powerful God allow pain and suffering? For years, I’ve walked students through the philosophical answers to this question and questions like it. A typical answer I give (and still believe) goes like this: God values our freedom. As free creatures, we have the ability to be self-determiners of our actions, our character, and our lives. Importantly, we can enter freely and without coercion into a relationship with God and others as we live out our purpose. This is a great good. But, when we misuse our freedom, pain and suffering result. Still, the good outweighs the bad. God permits evil, but we humans cause evil. We could add to the free will theodicy, soul-making reasons for evil, and more besides. I conclude my lectures on evil with passion and all the flourish of a Baptist preacher: “And so, there is no philosophical objection to the coexistence of God and evil. What’s more, Christianity offers God’s answer (voice rising) to the problem of pain and suffering. God’s answer is a person (voice lowering), the person of Jesus. Christ on a cross, that’s God’s answer to the problem of evil. All sin, death, loss, pain, and evil are hung on that Cross with Jesus, so we can have hope, freedom from its sting, and eternal life (now a whisper).”
I believe every word. I still do. But, until recently, I’ve not really experienced much loss or pain in my life. The problem of pain and suffering, for most of my life, has largely been viewed by me as an interesting intellectual puzzle. I’ve wrestled in the abstract with the question of suffering. But it’s always been at arms-length.
But what happens when your life crumbles and you experience real loss? What then? What do you do when the abstract becomes concrete, the philosophical existential? The basic answer is unsurprising. You live out your training, as it were, as a Christian. You turn to God. You turn to his word. You turn to his people. And wait.
I write this post, without going into the details, as one who is now looking at suffering from the inside. In my own loss, I’ve too turned to God, his word, and his people. I’ve prayed and searched my soul. And in the searching, I’ve also had a few surprises, that Lord willing, will not only make me a better teacher on this subject but a better person. The first surprise is the phenomenology of grief. In my own loss, I’ve learned something new that I didn’t know before: what it feels like to be heart-broken. I also have new eyes to see loss and grief in others. I know what it looks like and I know how it feels. This has deepened my trust and dependence on God and I hope it has also made me more compassionate with others. My second surprise is the encouragement I’ve found through reading the stories of others who have gone through times of grief and loss. As they persevere and cling to the goodness and beauty of God in their darkest moments, I’m encouraged to do likewise. In this post, I share two books, read in the last six months, that have been helpful to me. In my next post, I’ll share two more. In particular, I pass these books onto you because each is written by a university professor.
The first book is Gerald Sittser’s A Grace Disguised (Zondervan, 1995, 2004). Dr. Sittser is a professor of religion at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. Catastrophe stuck one fall night in 1991 as he and his family were driving down a lonely stretch of highway in rural Idaho. Their car was struck by a drunk driver. The crash killed his mother, his wife of twenty years, and his three-year-old daughter. In the book, Dr. Sittser tells the story of how his family tried to pick up the pieces and build a new life in the midst of loss. According to Dr. Sittser, loss and sorrow can enlarge our soul and teach us to know and rely on the goodness of God: “[Loss] will transform us or destroy us, but it will never leave us the same.”  The challenge to live with renewed vitality and gratitude “is met when we learn to take the loss into ourselves and to be enlarged by it, so that our capacity to live life well and to know God intimately increases. . . . Loss can diminish us, but it can also expand us.”  This book has become our “go-to” give away to friends going through a hard time. Dr. Sittser’s story of loss and hope has also nourished my own soul, challenging me to invite God to enlarge my soul, even in and through the times of pain.
The second book is Jack Deere’s Even in Our Darkness (Zondervan, 2018). This book is not your typically Christian autobiography. It is raw and uncomfortable at places. But Jack Deere’s story is our story, a struggle between good and evil. The highs and lows of Jack’s life, rivetingly told in this memoir of hope and love, include the following: an abusive mother, a father than committed suicide when Jack was 12, a teen conversion story, the teen struggles for sexual purity, the allure of celebrity culture in ministry, marriage, children, the meteoric rise to become a seminary professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, the meteoric fall from grace (and loss of his job) when Jack’s theology changed, the death of a struggling prodigal son, the descent into alcohol of a grieving wife (who we find out had her own wounds from childhood), and through it all, the pursuing love of a God who heals and restores. Reading Jack’s story reminds me that God’s central posture toward us—fallen, imperfect, finite creatures—is one of love. And this love can sustain us.
 Gerald L. Sittser, A Grace Disguised (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 62.
 Ibid., 180.
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