Transformative Suffering

by Joel Watts

KeatsI’ve been thinking a lot lately about suffering. From time to time, in classes I teach the question is raised, “Why does God allow suffering?” To that end, I’ve turned to writing a short work that I want to use in those times. This is part of it.
Theosis (becoming a sharer in God’s nature, 2 Peter 1.4) is the goal of the Christian life, but suffering is the process by which we are transformed from our present state into the ideal. We cannot think of suffering as evil, even from a naturalistic standpoint. The Grand Canyon was carved over millions of years by the constant friction of the Colorado River (or rather, a flowing waterway only recently named the Colorado). This friction caused erosion, working with wind and other natural forces, to create one of the most spectacular views in the world. This suffering is not viewed through the minute changes wrought by nature, but by the result and thus is not mourned. Rather, we can now examine it as something praise worthy, with many finding proof of God’s majesty in the mere sight.
It is rather more difficult to suggest that suffering endured by humans, and sometimes caused by humans, can ever produce [ene_ptp]something as magnificent as the Grand Canyon. It sounds almost clichéd to say that the agony that is sometimes human existence is “all apart of God’s plan,” and yet, we cannot hide from the fact that God is ultimately sovereign. What I would refrain from doing, however, is suggesting specific instances of suffering — war, rape, murder, loss and gain — are part of God’s plan. Rather than attempting to discern patterns in God’s plan, or hoping that “everything will work out all right” for us before we die, we must assume that the will of God is concerned with a wider audience than us.
Suffering does have a reason, more so than just the cause afforded by Christian theologians. Suffering is to transform us, to recreate us through love into something else. The great 19th century English poet, John Keats, would unknowingly agree with certain Christian theologians in calling this process “soul-making.”
The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is ‘a vale of tears’ from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven — What a little circumscribed, straightened notion! Call the world, if you please! ‘The vale of Soul-making.’ Then you will find out the use of the world. (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it.) I say “Soul making.” Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence — There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions — but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. Intelligences are atoms of perception–they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God — how then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them–so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each ones individual existence? How, but by the medium of a world like this?
This point I sincerely wish to consider, because I think it a grander system of salvation than the Chistian religion — or rather it is a system of Spirit-creation — This is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years — These Materials are the Intelligence — the human heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind) and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming the Soul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity. I can scarcely express what I but dimly perceive — and yet I think I perceive it–that you may judge the more clearly I will put it in the most homely form possible — I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read — I will call the Child able to read, the Soul made from that school and its hornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways! Not merely is the Heart a Hornbook, it is the Mind’s Bible, it is the Mind’s experience, it is the teat from which the Mind or intelligence sucks its identity–As various as the Lives of Men are–so various become their Souls, and thus does God make individual beings, Souls, Identical Souls of the sparks of his own essence…” – John Keats, April 21, 1810
St. Irenaeus would write,

For after His great kindness He graciously conferred good upon us, and made men like to Himself, that is in their own power; while at the same time by His prescience He knew the infirmity of human beings, and the consequences which would flow from it; but through His love and His power, He shall overcome the substance of created nature. For it was necessary, at first, that nature should be exhibited; then, after that, that what was mortal should be conquered and swallowed up by immortality, and the corruptible by incorruptibility, and that man should be made after the image and likeness of God, having received the knowledge of good and evil.[1]

The concept is the same. Life is made for the creature in order to learn to be like God. This “soul-making” theosis is highlighted and promoted by John Hick (1922–2012) in his work, Evil and the God of Love (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). Hick’s work has demonstrable flaws, as highlighted by Stephen T. Davis’s 2001 3-point rebuttal (Encountering Evil, A New Edition: Live Options in Theodicy, Westminster-John Knox). My proposal will attempt to avoid, for now, the proposal by Hick, and subsequent rebuttals, because I stand apart from him in several key areas. First, I do not believe universalism is a necessary component of Irenaean theosis. Universalism is simply another side of determinism. Second, I do not accept that humans are going to evolve into a “God-consciousness” but simply, that we are to be transformed through the process of suffering into holiness and thus be perfected and able to speak to God face-to-face. Further, I do not believe in free will, although I hold to free choice as the more humane experience.[2] Finally, theosis is not merely an individual enterprise, but one afforded to the whole species corporately. It is part of the human condition, aiding our human flourishing.
My premise is simple: that suffering is the process by which God transforms us, individually and corporately, into a holy creation able to share in the divine nature. Suffering is not limited to grand exhibitions of evil, but is the all-encompassing actions of those things forcing us to be human. It is friction. It is erosion. It is entropy. It is building only to be destroyed. It is love and loss, good and evil — and all experiences in-between. Suffering by its definition are those events in our lives and in the life of the species that is used to move us from existence as the human animal to the beyond-existence as holy creatures adorned with the presence of God.
[1] Irenaeus, Ad. Her.
[2] Free choice allows for the ability of the human to choose within a set number of options.

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