I recently underwent some rather invasive medical exams that required me to spend some time in a medical facility. Lying in a hospital bed staring at the ceiling and waiting to see the doctor forced me, once again, to philosophize about the big questions of life and death. A lot of people go to great lengths to avoid thinking about such disturbing subjects as suffering and death; I am unable to avoid it because I cannot not philosophize! God made me a reflective person by nature.
While I lay impatiently in that cold, uncomfortable bed I thought that this will very likely be the same scenario when I die. That is, I imagine my death might involve lying in a hospital bed, staring at the ceiling and waiting for some medical procedure to be performed. Several years ago when I was deathly ill with a rare bacterial infection the doctor placed me in an intensive care unit with a number of elderly patients who were also critically sick. I distinctly remember that I couldn’t sleep that night because the elderly lady whose bed was close to mine kept struggling to catch her breath. I saw firsthand in that intensive care room what awaits all of us when we grow older.
The existential reality is that no one gets through life without facing the stark reality of suffering. There is no exit from this impending dilemma. If you’re born into this world, then you will also suffer and eventually leave this world at death. The older I get, the more I’m aware that this fate awaits me. Yet while we all know intuitively that this is the unalterable human condition, it seems that many people refuse to contemplate their death. I can understand that there are many reasons to want to avoid thinking about the dreaded end of life. But accepting reality and reflecting upon suffering and death can produce some powerful positives in one’s life now.
Here are a couple of ideas to consider when pondering the reality of suffering and death:
1. God’s Possible Purposes in Suffering
There is arguably no more difficult topic than suffering when it comes to explaining the ways and whys of God. But maybe suffering is the best way—even possibly the only way—for God to get people’s attention and for people to grow both spiritually and morally. God seems to care more about his people’s character than their comfort; so suffering is a critical part of God’s plan to transform his people. Also, suffering cracks the illusion people often hold that we are in control of our lives. The short answer to a thorny issue is that God allows suffering because of the greater goods that result from it.
2. The Inevitable Reality of One’s Death
As scary and unnerving as it is to think about one’s death, good things can be derived from such reflection. A possible benefit is that such contemplation may serve to change the way a person chooses to live life now. For example, if faith and family are the most important things in life, then the person can ask whether those values are being reflected in the way one is actually living. In other words, if a person knows where they want to end up at the end of life, then they ought to be certain they are on the right track to get there. Even Christians, who believe in an afterlife, still understand that they have only one mortal life to live here.
Suffering is a complex and splintered issue. No one answer can truly suffice when it comes to providing a theodicy (justification for evil and suffering in light of God). But in my latest book, 7 Truths That Changed the World, I share several different ways in which Christian thinkers have sought to address this deeply challenging subject.