Scrubs and Suffering

Dr Cox: That was a coincidence.

Laverne: What?

Dr Cox: That knife. It just happened to go in at the exact right spot, you do not get a win for dumb luck.

Laverne: Look. If that’s the way you choose to see the world, then so be it. But don’t you dare try to take this away from me. I’ve been coming in here every day for twenty four years, watching children die and seeing good people suffer. And if I couldn’t believe that there was a bigger plan behind all this well I just wouldn’t be able to show up tomorrow. So just stop it!

Dr Cox: I’m sorry.

Laverne: It’s OK. You’d be surprised how many bad things happen around here for a reason.

Dr Cox: Well I wish I could believe that.

Photobucket

Photobucket


This religious-y interaction from Scrubs is the culmination of an ongoing argument between Dr Cox (the ultimate pessimistic sceptic) and Nurse Laverne Roberts (born again Christian) about whether or not the suffering they see each day in the hospital has any greater purpose. It is also the last conversation Laverne’s character has before she is randomly killed in a car crash in a depressingly ironic plot twist.

I’ve put this conversation up because I want to critique Laverne’s position. This is a very common kind of sentiment that I hear among both Christians and people who believe in some vague spirituality, and I think it is very lame for Christians to think like this.

The bible is clear that evil is a foreign intrusion into the world that God made and that God hates it. Suffering and all other bad, sad and painful things are things that don’t belong. Time and time again, the bible testifies to the fact that suffering is random, unjust and even meaningless. Job and Ecclesiasties show up the random nature of suffering, and the prophets make it clear that many people suffer due to unjust oppression of others.

A lot of Christians have trouble pulling together different threads.
There is the fact that God – the trinitarian God – is in control of all things (c.f. Colossians 1:15-18). There is the fact that bad things happen all the time. There is the fact that sometimes bad things can have eventual positive outcomes. The standard way of pulling these threads together goes something like: “God is in control of everything, including everything that happens. Therefore he is in control of all the bad things that happen. Therefore he lets the bad things happen. Sometimes this will have eventual positive outcomes. Sometimes there are no positive outcomes, but that’s OK because we can trust that God has a good reason for doing everything.” Like Laverne, suddenly its OK for us to tolerate suffering, because there is a bigger meaning behind it that we can’t see.

Being a very amateur theologian, I don’t really know how to go about arguing my case, except to say that I think that this way of thinking is rubbish. But I should probably try to justify myself a little. Here are some key arguments that I hold to:

1. If you are a Christian you will know that in Genesis 3 humans rebelled against God and opened the door for evil to enter into the world. Suffering is a consequence of this moment in history. There are cosmic implications: all of creation has been thrown out of order so the earth itself causes suffering – drought, floods, earthquakes etc. We are vulnerable to disease and the decay of our bodies. We are also personally reponsible for the suffering of other people. We inflict pain on each other all the time with our selfishness and greed, that blinds us to the needs of others.

2. God does not go around endorsing unjust evil as part of some master plan. The suffering that God endorses throughout the Old Testament is part of his judgement on rebellious human beings – individuals and communities, who abuse others and reject their creator.

3. Following on from this, human beings are not pawns that God sacrifices along the way to achieve his master plan. There was only one who was sacrificed in this way – God himself, in his son. This was the only case of planned suffering and it was necessary to free the world from all the evil it had brought upon itself.

4.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.
1 Corinthians 15:20-28

Jesus is reigning over his world, but he is still in the process of putting his enemies under his feet. Yes, evil still exists and wreaks havoc, but it is not because God has endorsed it. It is because God is still fighting the battle, if you will. The resurrected Christ is reigning until all his enemies are destroyed, ending with the death of death. God does not endorse evil. He is trying to kill it.

5. Just because there are sometimes positive outcomes from bad things doesn’t mean that God has endorsed them. That just means that God, or sometimes even ourselves, have the ability to use horrible things for an eventual good.

In summary God hates evil and God does not use evil as a ‘tool’, however God can make good things happen in the aftermath of horrible things. The way that we deal with evil is not by redefining it as part of God’s plan, but by looking forward to the day when Christ returns, victorious over death and ending suffering forever.

I’ll end this off with a couple of disclaimers. RFirstly I’m not a theologian, and maybe one day I’ll disagree with parts of my argument and need to rework them. Secondly this is written primarily to argue against a Christian view that I disagree with. So if you aren’t a Christian and you have some problems with the broader Christian worldview and you want to argue against that, you might be missing the point. I may not respond to your arguments here – there are other forums for that kind of thing.

Advertisements

26 thoughts on “Scrubs and Suffering

    1. tibbycat

      I think if there’s one thing that God can’t (or won’t) do is make us love him. We have to ourselves choose to love him or not at all. It can only be real love if it’s a choice. If it were something he made us do then it wouldn’t be love but would be slavery and would be something quite horrible.
      So in that sense it is a battle. He could snap his fingers and make everyone love him, but would a God who is love want to do that? Hell no. For it wouldn’t be love to do so. It’s like if you love a girl, now you can kidnap her and keep her locked in your basement against her will to try to make her love you, but if you really loved her would you really do that? Hell no! It would have to be her choice or it wouldn’t be real (and would be something quite evil instead of love).

      Reply
      1. dumsum

        I’ll give my reasons for thinking the current situation is a bit iffy, however I will admit I don’t really know an alternative. But God, being God, should be able to figure out a way to have both freedom of choice without suffering. One can’t argue that people choose suffering, because there are people who suffer and people who don’t, yet everyone willingly rejects God (supposedly). Therefore suffering is arbitrary and thus unchosen (in general – I’m ignoring masochists etc).

        Furthermore, evidence suggests human emotions are absolute. You don’t need sadness to understand, appreciate, and feel happy, for example. Similarly you don’t need hate to make sense of love. People are perfectly capable of loving without hating, and this love is no less real than the alternative. I’m not suggesting not giving people the choice, but a world in which people are so able to find a reason to hate suggests to me that the whole thing is a bit iffy, and that other explanations make far more sense (that life is a fight for survival and nothing more).

  1. etimodnar

    I mostly agree with you. I think you raise some very valid points. I do not believe that God endorses evil. But I will argue that God intends for circumstances in our world to happen, in order to bring about good.

    For example, when a person murders someone, that is clearly human sinfulness at work. When a hurricane destroys a village and kills hundreds, that is the earth being subject to sin. But, “the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it” (Rom 8:10). And it is God, after all, who “sends lightning with the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses.” (Psalm 135:7).

    My point is that human sinful and God’s sovereignty somehow work together in a way that means God is not evil. And I suppose that comes about because God is God. When he intended Joseph to be sold into slavery, his intentions – unlike those of Joseph’s brothers, were good (for the saving of many lives). When events happen that are seemingly unjust and evil, we should take God’s perspective on it. That is:

    1a. It is God’s right to take human life. When a hurricane kills hundreds, or someone is murdered, they are now dead and it is God’s doing. Is that wrong of God? No! Because it is his right to take away life.

    1b. Furthermore, it is part of the penalty of sin that we die. We all have sinned and fall under its curse. We all deserve to die. This makes God just.

    1(caveat) God has brought relief from this punishment in the person of Jesus. Death is not the end for those who put their faith in him. The same person who subjects us to death, will also raise us up from the dead to new, eternal life.

    2. I don’t really have a point 2 :/

    I mostly agree with you. But I do firmly believe that God intends suffering for good. We are not pawns, so it is not unloving and remote of God to cause us to suffer.
    In the case of Christians suffering, I would argue that in suffering, we have “the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil 3:10). Clearly for us, suffering has a purpose.
    For non-Christians, it is part of being under the curse of the fall, which God has subjected us to. And somehow, God is involved: he cares and loves his people, yet he is also just and Holy.

    I’m not a theologian either. But saying that humans are responsible and leaving it at that is not satisfying for me. Check out Psalm 88. The psalmist clearly blames God for his troubles saying “you have…” “you have…” It’s very moving. I believe we need to hold human responsibility in one hand, and God’s sovereignty in the other. My concern with your post, is that is seems to dim the view on God’s sovereignty and how he does use suffering for his own end. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Anonymous

      We need to talk more roboustly about sin. We need to be more nuanced when we throw something like “human responsibility” out there. And we need to repent of our modernism, and allow a place for evil in a discussion like this.

      Humans are AGENTS and VICTIMS of evil.

      a. First humans
      – arrogantly asserted independence from God
      – opened the door for Evil
      b. Evil
      – infects every part of God’s world
      – leads to death and conflict
      c. Every human since
      – has bought into Evil by seeking
      independence from God
      – is enslaved to Evil

      I’m assuming why Spally didn’t talk about God’s soverignty isn’t because she has a dim view of it, but because, actually, it is a different issue. That God can use suffering for his own end is different point.

      God’s plan for the is to sum up all things in Christ Jesus (Eph 1-2). Which will mean an end to the pain and suffering and death that has been inflicted on this world.

      Also, to argue that God has a specific, personal plan is to miss the point. It’s also not what the Bible says.

      M

      Reply
      1. etimodnar

        I don’t think I was arguing for God having a specific plan for each person. :/ I cannot see where I gave that impression from my comment.

        That God can use suffering for his own end is tied up in Laverne’s theology, so I think it’s something that ought to be addressed as we examine suffering, responsibility and sovereignty. It is a different point, but it’s tied up in the OP and we’d be doing ourselves a disservice by ignoring it.

    2. Alison Post author

      Hey Kat

      I agree with all of your numbered points but I still don’t agree with the fact that God intends for evil to happen to individuals so that good can come out of it. I just don’t see it in the bible. I think it is clear that God lets death and pain happen, but like you pointed out, I think this is because God is judging a rebellious humanity. I don’t think it is because he is using it to grow us and teach us life lessons. Just because we happen to learn things or grow through difficult circumstances doesn’t mean that God has ordained these evil things to happen. It just means that God is powerful enough to make good come out of the bad.

      The way that you read Romans 8 is different to how I read it – I always thought that “the one who subjected” creation to frustration was not God, but humanity or sin – whoever is the one who caused its “bondage to decay” that is talked about in the next verse. When I read that chunk of Romans 8, I interpret it as a frustrated and broken world, not fulfilling its purpose but instead in bondage to sin and waiting, along with God’s people, for Jesus to return and finally liberate it.

      Passages like Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15 are the ones that ultimately shape my argument. Evil is named for what it is – the enemy of Christ and his creation. I don’t think I am compromising god’s sovereignty here. God is clearly sovereign over the world he created and the foreign evil in it. Jesus has defeated evil, sin and death, which we saw in his resurrection. The evil that still exists in the world is not remnant evil that God is keeping around for his own personal use. It is remnant evil that will be finally disappear when Christ finishes defeating his enemies (1 Corinthians 15). God is totally sovereign!

      So I think that when Laverne says that stuff when the kid gets stabbed, I think she is wrong. The kid didn’t get stabbed because God wanted to show the doctors where the tumor was. The kid got stabbed because evil is in the world. The kid also had a tumor because evil is in the world. And God can use these stabbings and tumors to bring him glory, but I think it is a mistake to say that God ordained for a stabbing or a tumor like that to take place.

      When we say “God is in control” I don’t think that we should interpret that as “God has ordained every little moment in time to unfold the way that it does, so we should just trust God even when we don’t understand why our suffering is so painful”. I think it means “God has defeated his enemies on the cross and in his resurrection, he is coming to restore justice and nothing can stop him. Look forward to the day when suffering disappears!”

      Reply
      1. etimodnar

        I agree that individual plans are not in the Bible. It is frustrating when people are all “God’s plan for my life blah blah blah”. So I’m on board with that. And I’m also on board with God being powerful enough to bring good out of the suffering we are under (again with Phil 3:10).

        In looking at the suffering of non-Christians, I wouldn’t take Laverne’s perspective, because as you’ve said, it’s God broad judgement upon the world. He has given us over to our sin. But at the same time, he still allows things to happen. He is still involved in order for good to come out of it. He is still involved in order to keep humanity from being totally depraved. When Satan is tormenting Job, Satan only goes as far as God allows.

        I guess I’m trying to walk the mid ground of God is in control – God has a broad purpose – God loves individuals – God is judging humanity – Evil happens and is an enemy of God.

        And I suppose my way of resolving this is to say something along the lines of: death is evil and God’s enemy, but God uses it for his own purpose in judging humanity. And the same for all humanity. I don’t want to say that there’s an individual plan for every single person. But I do want to say that God is involved in the lives of every individual person to either bring them to salvation, or to execute his judgement upon them. Which are the two broad categories God uses anyway.

      2. Anonymous

        When Paul wrote Phil 3.10 did he mean that our suffering has a purpose?

        Matt

      3. etimodnar

        I think the point of that passage is that everything that made Paul awesome to the world, he considers a total loss compared to knowing Jesus and being like him. Suffering is something that Jesus went through, and it’s something that we’ll face that as Christians, will make us more like Jesus because we’re following in his footsteps.

        Suffering is not all the same though. Some people suffer because they are persecuted, some suffer in other ways. And it is not suffering itself that makes one like Christ, but our attitude (which is being transformed by the Spirit) as we go through it. God uses suffering to make us like Christ. In suffering we have fellowship with Christ. That we are united with Christ is the point. But a sub-point is that suffering is something that God uses to that end.

        What do you think?

      4. dumsum

        Individual plans are in the bible for…certain individuals. Jesus ring a bell? Less obviously, Jeremiah 1:5. Of course that doesn’t refer to any of us specifically, but to say individual plans aren’t there is incorrect. Moreover, the few churches I attended in my time found a somewhat reasonable way to link these examples with other parts of the bible to end up with the doctrine of “individual purpose”. I’m sure I could do it myself if I tried hard enough (and therein lies the problem).

        But I do agree with “He has given us over to our sin” being biblically accurate. The issue is with why this was the choice in the first place, which is NEVER explained, aside from “this is just the case”. Let’s face it, deep down nobody -really- wants to live as a christian. The choice is equivalent to being put between the proverbial rock and hard place.

      5. etimodnar

        “Let’s face it, deep down nobody -really- wants to live as a christian.”

        *raises hand tentatively*
        I do. I’m really looking forward to a world without sin – and when I am no longer sinful. Where I will be loved perfectly and will be able to love perfectly forever. I think about how much I really, truly love and feel loved by my fiancé and it blows my mind. And that’s only a taste of what Heaven’ll be like!! And I really do enjoy living in order to honour God. I liken it again to my fiancé, I love doing things that he likes! It makes me happy that he is happy when I make him a yummy dinner, or give him hugs! I love making him happy. And I love making God happy too!!

        Maybe you’re projecting your own experience and feelings on to the rest of us?

      6. dumsum

        Projecting? I’m merely sharing my experiences and what I learned from the pursuit to explain why they were happening 🙂 By no means do I use those experiences as premises in my arguments against certain claims (biblical or otherwise), they were merely used as motivation to actually investigate things in a reasonable and justified way. In this case my feelings were correct, but believe me, that’s a rare thing. Life is incredibly unintuitive 🙂

        I long for a day that christians actually do the same with their own experiences, positive though they may be.

      7. Anonymous

        Simon, I think those examples you quote are actually exceptions to the rule than examples of it. Jesus, Jeremiah etc. played a unique role in God’s grand plan to bring everything under the lordship of Christ. This book was very helpful in my thinking on that: http://gfriesen.net/sections/will_of_god.php

        Matt

      8. dumsum

        Oh I was merely pointing out that the statement “individual plans are not in the bible” was false – because these are examples of that very thing. I wasn’t suggesting for a second that the bible states that God has a plan for every individual, just that it’s possible to manipulate these examples together with other passages to arrive at that suggestion.

  2. Anonymous

    Oh, I absolutely love the Lizzie Bennet Diaries and I’m so excited now that we’re coming ever closer to the first proposal!!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s