The Incarnation and Questions of Suffering

Few things make a person feel so small and inept as when facing questions of suffering in the world.

First, there's the sheer breadth of the problem. No matter who you are or how carefully you've planned your life, suffering is going to hit you. Human life is tragically fragile and subject to forces well outside our ability to manage. 

Second, there's the inscrutability of the issue. It's one thing to sit in a philosophy class and discuss suffering in a detached, academic manner, but in the real world, if you've ever been pierced by pain or grief, and you slow down long enough to acknowledge the "why" questions burning within you, you know the impossibility of finding a firm answer to grab a hold of. Our net of meaning is far too small. And if you've ever sat alongside someone who's suffering, you know the difficulty of finding apt words for the circumstance—in fact, it's often best to provide nothing more than your physical presence and a listening ear, rather attempting a pithy answer for your friend's pain. 

The Incarnation: Delight in the Ordinary

Novelty. There's an irreducible element of the human spirit that craves it more than nearly anything else. 

It's why a public speaker can develop a massive following, not necessarily by speaking on a fresh, original topic, but by conveying an old and worn out subject in a new way, in a manner that makes their listeners say to themselves, "Wow, I've never thought about it that way before." 

As children, our thirst for novelty drives us to discard birthday and Christmas gifts not long after rejoicing over them, but as adults, we don't fare much better: companies make billions because we consume their latest products not so much for their utility, but for their freshness. Apple is an obvious example. 

What does this have to do with the incarnation and its effects on your life, you ask? More than you may think. 

The Incarnation and the Material World

While the great religions of the world and the belief system of secularism contain numerous positive features, I've yet to find a view of life that so ennobles and affirms the material world as much as Christianity does. 

Some religions say this material world will end, and those who live according to God's laws, or those who are enlightened, will be rewarded by entrance into a kind of etherial paradise. In these views, the present world is nothing more than a temporal inconvenience on the way to spiritual bliss, or an arena within which we're to "prove ourselves" to the God who put us on earth to test us. Other religions say that the physical world is an illusion, and the path to happiness is to "detach" from the things of the world.  

Secularism says this world was brought about through a chance intersection of time and space, with no design nor regard to human beings whatsoever. With no transcendent reality, all the things we call "personhood"—our individual personality, our love relationships, our sense of aesthetic value and humor....

20 Lessons on Civility in the Public Square from Nicholas Kristof, John Inazu, and Tim Keller

Even though we live in the United States of America, it would stretch the truth beyond it's breaking point to say our nation has ever been truly pluralistic, in the sense of our public square embodying a diverse "marketplace of ideas," where viewpoints—even those that outrage listening ears—can be exchanged freely and cordially. As Tim Keller mentioned in this article, those who sit on the thrones of cultural power—the academic, corporate, and media centers—tend to silence those falling on the wrong side of the public morality of the day. A number of white evangelical Christians are guilty of it in the past, and those holding the cultural reins today are often culpable of the same thing. We all have a long way to go in extending charity toward those with whom we strongly disagree.  

Given this critical issue, and the fact that part of my mission in Arlington (right outside our nation's public square) is to help folks learn to dialogue and engage across deep difference, I was thrilled to head up to New York City a few weeks ago and attend Civility in the Public Square, an evening with Nicholas Kristof (Pulitzer Prize winning editorialist for the New York Times), John Inazu (Washington University Law School professor, and author of Confident Pluralism), and Tim Keller (founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and New York Times best-selling author). 

Dialoguing Through Deep Difference

A baseline cultural narrative in western society is that everyone should be free to express his or her authentic self, however, matters of faith and morality should be kept private. 

But this is a self-refuting statement, because there's nothing more foundational (or authentic) to who we are than our answers to the "big questions" of life:

  • What should human life in the world look like? (What's the nature and purpose of human beings?)
  • What has knocked things off balance? (What is wrong with the world?)
  • What needs to be done to restore the balance and make it right? (What's the solution?)

Every single person–whether atheist, agnostic, or religious–has working answers to these questions, all of which must be taken on faith, and none of which are self-evident nor can be empirically proven.

And how one answers these questions (as no one can function in the world without doing so) will fundamentally affect every action and thought. There is no avoiding this.*