This story would be a far more interesting if I could write about an injury playing rugby for my beloved Wales or while skiing at the Winter Olympics. Alas, no. It was an injury sustained playing badminton in the local sports hall that led to the investigations that discovered prolapsed and degenerative disks. Within three months of the initial injury, the pain in my lower back and my legs was excruciating and unceasing. I was unable to sit or stand for longer than a few minutes. I was stuck, quite literally, lying on a sofa all day, unable to go to work or to socialise outside of the house.
My eyes filled with tears as the words echoed the emptiness and frustration I was feeling. Is life really worth this pain? During a lengthy recovery, which included hospitalisation for two months, my view of these big questions of theodicy began to change. I saw that the mystery of suffering was far less important than the mystery of love.
On returning to ministerial work in churches in Cardiff, Wales, I came to realise that the most joyous smiles often mask terrible pain and tragedy — bereavement, divorce, illness, disability, addiction, or chronic pain.
At some point in our lives, each of us has to face suffering. Whilst none of us are given the option of rejecting suffering, we are blessed with the choice of the path that we take through the dark night of our pain. Slowly, but surely, I began to re-wire my ways of viewing the world, as I embarked on a journey of forging meaning from the apparent meaninglessness of suffering. This was certainly not an easy process, and involved soul-searching, tears, and prayer. I was convinced, though, that the one thing that we have left through any amount of suffering, great or small, is a choice of how we react to what we are enduring.
Held as a hostage for many years in a dark room in Beirut, Brian Keenan recalls how he made a candle from small pieces of wax and string from his clothing fibres. Light, of course, does not avoid darkness.
Rather, it confronts it head-on. Ten years on and I am still unable to sit or stand for long periods. Much of my life is, therefore, spent pacing around rooms even during meetings or lying down while I prepare lectures or sermons. I also use icepacks, heat patches, and a tens machine on a daily basis. Through the whole experience, though, my view on suffering has changed radically.
No longer do I regard suffering as something that stops life from being lived. Instead, I aim to find hope and meaning in those small, seemingly insignificant areas of life that I took for granted before my injury — in nature, in friendship, in family, in laughter, in the arts, in memories, and so on.
Most of us, after all, are like flies crawling on the ceiling of Sistine Chapel — we are unaware of the depth of beauty and joy all around us. I can truly say, then, that God has been vividly present in my pain. Not that he wants us to suffer, either directly or indirectly. Rather, he is present in our suffering, helping to redeem and transform it. As the Old Testament shows us, God suffers alongside the persecuted, imprisoned, and victimised.
As such, he can meet us in our afflictions, bringing meaning and hope at the most unlikely times. While awaiting execution in his prison cell, he reflected on everything that he would miss in life because of this injustice. In this state of anguish he composed a work titled The Consolation of Philosophy. She explains that the size of the earth is only a speck compared to the heavens, that most of the earth is uninhabitable, that human societies are scattered remotely.
It is not just cosmic space that dwarfs human achievements, she continues, but also cosmic time. Even if Boethius does gain some temporary fame during his life, that would be absolutely nothing when compared with the eternity of time.
The lesson that we learn from Lady Philosophy is that, like Boethius, each of us is isolated within the limitless space and time of the cosmos, with no hope of making any meaningful or lasting impact. For someone like Boethius who is approaching death, maybe this will be a little consoling.
So what if you are about to die: in the larger scheme of things your life does not amount to much anyway. But, for the rest of us who are not facing imminent death and have normal hopes and dreams, the brute reality of cosmic insignificance can be discouraging.
Why should I strive for anything if I am a mere imperceptible twitch within the infinite body of the cosmos? Contemporary French philosopher Paul Ricoeur — offered a solution to this problem of cosmic insignificance. That is, while I cannot grasp my personal significance within the incomprehensible cosmic timeline, I can still find my spot within American history, for example, and even more so within my family history.
I know how this country was founded, how my ancestors got here, what my grandparents and parents did with their lives, and how all this has shaped me. Thus, we invent a historical narrative of our human past which is larger than our individual selves, yet much smaller and more manageable than cosmic space and time. Does Ricoeur successfully solve the problem of cosmic insignificance?
Without question, my personal knowledge of history does help clarify who I am and how I fit into the world around me. Thus, when I think about my spot within human history, I do not feel like an isolated being adrift in an unfathomable cosmic ocean.
But while this may temporarily distract me from my sense of cosmic insignificance, it does nothing to change the reality of the limitless cosmos. When I reflect on human history, I may feel at home, but the instant that I gaze at the stars, all of human history itself seems miniscule by comparison. The entire human legacy is confined to an infinitesimally small region of space for an infinitesimally small period of time, just as Lady Philosophy explained to Boetheus. Try as I might to keep my focus on human history, the stars return each night to remind me once again of my true limited place within the cosmos, and the sense of cosmic insignificance returns.
The story of Job from the Hebrew Bible explores another challenge to the meaning of life. Job was not obsessed with death like Gilgamesh, discouraged by futility like Sisyphus, or overwhelmed with insignificance like Boethius. Job is a wealthy and morally decent herdsman with a loving family, and he owns a large stock of sheep, oxen, camels, and donkeys. Then everything changes for the worse. His animals are stolen, his servants are burnt to death by fire from the sky and, worst of all, his children are killed in a tornado.
Job himself is infected with itchy skin boils, which he scratches with a broken piece of pottery. In a display of sorrow, he rips his clothes and shaves his head. Three friends stop by for a visit and at first do not even recognize Job because he is so disfigured from his illness. One friend argues that people suffer when they forget God and, so, Job must have abandoned God at some point in his life. Another argues that people suffer when they commit some moral offense, and no one can fully know all the things that God finds evil.
Job insists, though, that he did nothing wrong. Finally, God himself appears in a thunderstorm and sets the record straight: God is infinitely great, Job is virtually insignificant and, so, Job has no right to complain. The problem raised in the story of Job is how we explain human suffering. While all suffering is inherently bad, it is only a specific type of misery that casts a serious shadow over the meaning of life.
Suppose I pick up a hammer and intentionally hit myself on the foot with it.
The explanation of my suffering is clear and there is no moral mystery to be solved: I have no one to blame but my foolish self. This is a rule of life that I understand and accept, no matter how miserable I make myself. Suffering of this sort, then, poses no real threat to a meaningful life.
This new release of Gerhard E. Frost's classic The Color of the Night includes eighty-six short reflections inspired by the biblical Job. Each reflection begins with. Editorial Reviews. About the Author. Gerhard E. Frost was a well-known author, public speaker, Bible teacher, and seminary professor. His other books include.
It may not even be so bad if you intentionally hammer away at my foot, so long as you are arrested and convicted of assault. Even though I am in pain, I can be consoled by the fact that justice has been done and you are held accountable for my suffering. So, even unjustified suffering like this will not necessarily make my life meaningless.