Our Two Levels of Suffering
1. MATERIAL SUFFERING
Deep suffering occurs at two levels. The first is sort of animalistic—material human encountering material threat. It's the biochemistry inside us, the process of hormone generation that allows our bodies and minds to respond to a stimulus.
When something (or someone) we love is endangered, our hearts pound with feelings of loss, dread, or sorrow. Our minds race through both the past and the future. We are filled with regret for what we might have done differently, and we are filled with dread, imagining the worst-case scenarios that may befall us. Here at the material level, we react. We cry out in agony. We react in anger. We eat too much or nothing at all. We sink into depression.
ANIMAL EMOTIONS IN ANIMALS
Scientists disagree about the emotions of non-human animals, debating quality and capacity for "feeling" and whether chemical changes in the body initiate or result from a stimulus (or both). Higher-level, intelligent animals (like a golden retriever or an elephant) seem to be more conscious of the results of chemical changes—actively demonstrating signs of sorrow or joy, while lower-level animals (like a flinching sea anemone) seem to have more instinctive reactions to danger.
Some Christians disagree with me on this, but as a dog lover who has spent decades in very close company with her pets, I believe that at least at some level, intelligent creatures are capable of feeling. (By the way, check out Numbers 22:27-30 if you want to see a Biblical example of an animal being allowed to express sorrow over injustice.)
ANIMAL EMOTIONS IN HOMO SAPIENS
Because humans are more intelligent than other beings, our material capacity for suffering is complex. We don’t just fight or flight, we process and strategize. We experience surges of hormones, and flutters of feeling, and waves of agony. We reflect and react in a thousand different ways.
2. SPIRITUAL SUFFERING
But there’s also a spiritual realm in which suffering occurs, and I don’t believe non-human animals are capable of this sort of pain. Spiritual pain requires the imago-Dei--a godlike capacity for metaphysical (beyond the physical) awareness. Of all the animals, humans alone were given this ability during the separation of Adam and Eve from the rest of creation.
THE UNIQUE PAIN HUMANS FEEL: THE UNIQUE COMPLAINTS HUMANS MAKE
No matter what you believe about the nature of the narrative given to us in Genesis 1 and 2—no matter what you believe about theistic or literal evolution—I think it’s evident that humans are the only animals capable of carrying suffering beyond the physical realm, all the way to the throne of God.
Apart from Romans 8:19-22 (which describes the general frustration of creation, longing for the healing of earth), I can’t think of an instance in which an animal brings grief to the Almighty. The ability to enter the intimate, invisible realm--that burning room in which we take our pain back to God--seems to be distinctively human.
It’s fascinating to see how the Bible handles this ability. So many times, atheists depict a sort of mindless, robotic, Stepford-wife nature to prayer, but that’s not at all what we see in God’s word. So many of God’s characters experienced intense moments of conflict in which they confronted their Creator openly man-to-God.
Abraham challenged the Lord with a rhetorical battle for Sodom, dealing him a brazen accusation, “Shall not the judge of the earth do right?” (Genesis 18). Did God instantly obliterate Abraham for his audacity? No. He made time and space for his argument, and he changed his own plans to fit Abraham’s request.
In Genesis 32, Jacob contended with the pre-incarnate Lord, wrestling with him all night long and insisting that he would not let Him go until he was blessed. The Lord gave a response so unusual here, I wouldn't believe it had happened, if God had not left it in the text word-for-word. He said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
Over and again in the Psalms, David wailed out to God in honest sorrow. He used fierce and terrible words, expressing feelings of abandonment, betrayal, and doubt. Often when he returned to praise, he was expressing the sort of hope and the trust that come after the confession of fear and disappointment. This is the raw, real prayer book God left for us to use during our own moments of sorrow.
In the New Testament, this pattern of honesty is repeated. In Matthew 15, a Canaanite woman refused to leave Jesus and his disciples alone until he healed her daughter. Even after Jesus discouraged her appeal, she persisted in wrestling against him--at which point he not only conceded to her request, but also praised her for her stubborn faith (26-28).
When Lazarus died in John 11, both Mary and Martha openly expressed their disappointment with Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And Jesus was moved enough by their pain to weep with them before he raised Lazarus from the dead.
These honest, passionate, supernatural engagements with the creator are only found in Homo sapiens. Even in non-Christian culture, the capacity to suffer metaphysically, crying out to a god of some sort is nearly universal.
THE INSUFFICIENCY OF MATERIAL ANSWERS FOR METAPHYSICAL QUESTIONS
Because humans have this dual capacity for pain, it’s insufficient to treat suffering at only the material level. If (as Christians) we medicate only our animal pain, there will be deep parts of our spirit that remain infected and broken.
The battles we must fight with God, the disappointment we must express to him, cannot be remedied by any other means.
But this is terrifying work because many of us have never been brave enough to identify what’s churning in this invisible part of our souls. We have tried to push those questions down and away. We have tried to patch them with self-control or with spiritual busyness. We have tried to maintain our Christian focus by the strength of our will, without ever admitting to the Living God why we are hurt or what’s broken in our trust.
In doing so, we are attempting to lie to God. We are like a child who withdraws, refusing to go to his parents to talk about his anger. We are avoiding the real work we need to do the living God because we don’t truly trust him to love us or do us good.
We also know how dangerous he is. Every time I read Job 38 (one of my favorite chapters of the Bible), I am simultaneously thrilled and terrified because here God roars.
“Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
“Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb,
when I made clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed limits for it
and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?
On and on the monologue goes, the holy bellowing of Papa-is-in-the-house. I’m stunned, breathless, humbled.
But though I am flattened, I’m flattened with a comfort that could never have come had Job not been honest about his appeal. I need to be overcome by the glory and holiness of God, just as much as I need to tactile answers to the material problems I face.
The answer to Job’s question was God himself. Job needed to know that, and I do, too.
WHAT WAITS ON THE OTHER SIDE OF SPIRITUAL HONESTY
A living God doesn’t work like a religious formula or equation. As Lewis wrote, "'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”
This King might heal a child, or he might not. He might wrestle with you all night, bless you with a new name, and leave you with a limp. He might give your cause a second chance, or sit and weep with you, or raise something you love from the dead. He might roar and say, “I am all the answer you need.”
I don't know. That's why I'm scared to go there. That's why I am way more comfortable with my primal, animal responses to suffering.
It’s hard to have the faith to enter into honest, necessary wrestling matches with my Father. I'm ashamed of the questions I need to ask him. I’m also not sure that I will like his answers.
I’d rather hide behind a bunch of spiritual fig leaves than stand before him and say, “You have known all along how weak I am! Why didn’t you come sooner? Now my world is broken and dead, and I was depending on you, and you didn’t come.”
But only when I’m willing to confess the real questions deep inside me can I exercise the unique capacity God has given me to interact with him. He's knows what's churning there anyway. He wants me to carry it to him instead of shielding my suffering with business, anger, and mistrust. He's strong enough to handle all of me.
This is some of the work I’m doing today in my prayer life. I could use your prayers for courage as I take these steps.
Cognitively, I know that God is good. I could give you systematic, theological arguments explaining the necessary presence of evil in the world as well as the exegetical mathematics of the justice of salvation. But these days, I am needing more than rational or empirical proofs because I'm more than a body attached to a mind. My invisible soul needs to encounter the resources of God at a level deeper than the mental gymnastics of an intelligent animal. I need to run deep, deep into the presence of my Father.
Know that I'm also praying for you. So often it seems like God carries me into private pain that resonates with what's happening inside my readers, and I can't help but think that this bond is intentional. That modern readers (like you) would wade through 2,000-word posts in a world of bullet points and platitudes is astonishing to me. I don't take your camaraderie lightly.
A friend of mine (who has walked through similar pain) said to me last night, "I'll go to battle with you," and I didn't realize how much I needed that companionship until I heard the promise. So I'm extending the same offer to you. Here's where I am today. Take my hand; let's pray and walk together .