Review: Suffering and the Search for Meaning

SufferingSummary: This book surveys seven different approaches to the question of why pain and suffering if there is a God. This serves both as an introduction to the subject of theodicy and provides pastoral and personal resources for responding to people in pain, including one’s own suffering.

Suffering raises profound questions for every human being. For the Christian or other theists, it raises the question of how we are to understand a good and powerful God allowing evil and suffering. But even for the atheist, who can only say that suffering is, there is still the profound sense of the “wrongness” of suffering and why one thinks it wrong. Then there are the times where suffering becomes real in our lives, or for someone who we care deeply. At times, the numbness, or the outrage of suffering leaves one thinking no answers make sense. Yet few of us wish to live our lives believing it is really all senseless. We try to make some sense out of suffering, or are in the position of walking along others as they make their own sense out of it.

This is a book for those times. What the author does is survey seven approaches to this question that have helped Christians over time. The approaches are:

  1. Perfect plan theodicy: that all suffering is a part of God’s perfect plan
  2. Free will defense: that suffering is a result of human free will used badly.
  3. Soul-making theodicy: this approach finds meaning in how suffering changes us for the better.
  4. Cosmic conflict theodicy: this approach recognizes the role of the devil in directly or indirectly causing suffering.
  5. Openness of God theodicy: God doesn’t foreknow the choices we make, only the possibilities, but how we actually exercise free will is only known to God when we act. This approach has much in common with the free will approach.
  6. Finite God theodicy: God is not all powerful, the “when bad things happen to good people” approach.
  7. Protest theodicies: These are expressions of outrage against terrible evil claiming no God could permit such evil.

For each approach Richard Rice outlines the basic contours of that approach, why it is attractive as a response to the question of suffering, and what the drawbacks of the approach are.

His concluding chapter, titled “Fragments of Meaning” explores how one uses this material to help the suffering, whether the suffering is “theirs” “ours” or “yours”. Each is a unique situation with unique pastoral requirements. He suggests that in formulating our own theodicy the twin questions of What kind of world did God create? and What kind of God created the world? are key to the theodicy we form. Rice would suggest that most will form a bricolage, an understanding drawn from the fragments of different theodicies rather than favoring only one. For the author (who favors open theism but evenhandedly presents each view) his own bricolage consists of these four statements:

  1. God is Lord and God is Love.
  2. Suffering is real and suffering is wrong.
  3. God is with us when we suffer
  4. Suffering never has the last word.

What I most appreciated about this book was the conciseness and clarity of explanation of the different views as well the pastoral sensitivity that realizes that these are not “answers” we give, but resources on which we draw as we try to make sense out of our own suffering or walk alongside others. For those looking for the “right” answer, this is not the book, but as the author observes, in Job, even God does not really “answer” Job.

9 thoughts on “Review: Suffering and the Search for Meaning

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: March 2015 « Bob on Books

  2. Thanks for this review Bob. It sounds like ebook worth reading. From what I am learning, I have yet to see how our human mind can latch on to any of the approaches with absolute certainty. While I personally believe in #1 and #3, somehow, I’m feeling that our free will choices do affect some of the suffering that we experience. It seems to me that total faith requires us to be able to accept some contradictions that we simply don’t have the capacity to understand.

    In the end, the author’s 4 statements do resonate with me.

  3. I will go with 2 and 4, but, according to your review, Rice leaves out what is perhaps the number one Christian theory, which is that when we suffer, we are taking part in Jesus’ suffering on the Cross and therefore taking part in our own redemption and the redemption of the world.

    Alas, I will not be reading this book (which makes me appreciate the review all the more), because I am a fiction fiend, and I am just starting The Violent Bear It Away, by Flannery O’Connor. I believe I learned the above bit of theology from her.

    • I appreciate the comment! I think your idea might be included under option three, the idea of soul-making. I also have gained much from the work of Flannery O’Connor and often do find that fiction can bring theological truth to life in ways that strict explication does not!

      • Shameful confession: I don’t understand or even like Flannery O”Connor’s fiction, except for the anti-iconoclastic “Parker’s Back.” Her letters, though, The Habit of Being, were my biggest influence in becoming a Christian. In one letter, she threatens “in the spirit of Christian charity” to knock someone on the head with a piece of wood.

  4. Pingback: Bob on Books Best of 2015 | Bob on Books

  5. Pingback: Book Review: Suffering and the Search for Meaning by Richard Rice | Emerging Scholars Blog

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