Comparative Views on Pain and Suffering


What we have in Christianity is a God who is separate from His creation, but He isn’t detached. He is intimately engaged even with our suffering.



I studied World Religions in college at a time when I was searching. Buddhism was attractive to me at the time. (I have written on this before in Lured by Buddha but Taken By Christ and Reflecting Back On the Path I Have Traveled, among other places.) Perhaps, the reason that I think about the comparison of Christianity to Buddhism (in particular) is that I was attracted to Buddhism once, so I am interested to read or listen to what others have to say about it.

Though I eventually gave my life to Jesus Christ and vowed to follow Him, that decision was made in the environment of a secular college. My new found faith was challenged from the start. I engaged in a constant measuring of that belief against competing views early on, and that habit of measuring Christian belief against competing worldviews continues to this day.

Though we are all susceptible to confirmation bias, I strive to put my faith to the test. While I have held tightly to “mere Christianity”, I have held loosely to denominational doctrines, peripheral views and political positions, among other things. I have “evolved” in my thinking on evolution and science, and I have spent the better part of 4+ years deconstructing my political views at age 60 (now), to identify just a couple of area sin which my views have changed.

I also have spent much time wandering in my own wilderness. I have not always been a faithful follower.  Though I have had many reasons to turn aside and have nearly been undone by my own proclivity toward sin, I have not found any worldview or way more compellingly true then what I have found in following Christ.

Since I became a believer in Jesus, I have always been keenly aware of the intersection of belief and unbelief, probably because of the environment in which I became a Christian. I was confronted from the beginning by alternative and opposing views, and testing Scriptural text against alternative and opposing views has become a force of habit.

As I do, I am reminded of certain signposts along my journey, benchmarks of enlightenment – the light bulb moments in my journey – that have marked my way. I am reminded of them again when they pop up in front of me from time to time.

I came across one reminder of an old signpost this week. It was in a letter to Justin Brierley, host of the Unbelievable? Podcast, that he read on the air. The writer of the letter commented on a discussion about Christianity in India and the native religion of India, Hinduism. Brierley read the letter, prefacing it with the questions: “Which worldview offers the most satisfactory explanation [for pain and suffering], and which worldview offers the most opportunity for healing?”

Below, I will recite from the letter verbatim and make a few comments on the the dramatically different ways in which Christianity and Buddhism  (and Hinduism) approach suffering:

“Buddhism suggests that suffering occurs because of our ignorance of reality. Christianity, on the other hand, declares that we actually know reality too well. Buddhism holds that suffering occurs because of our illusory attachment to things that are always changing, even our own identities. The solution it offers is the practice of detaching one’s self from the world through meditation. 
“The problem with this approach was made very clear to me by a brave group of men that I worked with in an addiction treatment program…. One day as I was discussing the basic differences between Eastern religions, an astute young man pointed out that the reason he was in treatment was because he had been trying to detachment himself from the suffering of the world by practicing chemical Buddhism. 
“He realized there was no difference between the 8-fold pathway and the six-pack pathway. He made it clear that he was already quite skilled at emptying his mind. He, however, recognized that detachment just made the problem worse and that true healing can only occur when he dealt with the suffering he had received as well as the pain he had caused during his life. 
“He needed to forgive and repent. It was engagement with the world that brought healing.
“It’s easy to be a Hollywood or suburban Buddhist when suffering with anxiety and depression, but when your life has been destroyed by mental health issues, drugs and alcohol, the only true solution is to fall into the arms of One who already knows your suffering, One who forgives your mistakes and loves you despite your faults. Jesus suffered and died on our behalf. We tend to concentrate on the died-for-sin part, and forget the suffering.”

What we have in Christianity is a God who is separate from His creation, but He isn’t detached. In fact, He engaged with His creation by becoming part of it. He didn’t ignore, or shy away or distance Himself from suffering. God, the creator of the universe, could have remained distant from us and our suffering, but He became one of us and entered into our pain and suffering.

I am continually reminded over the last couple of years of the creed Paul recited in Philippians 2:6-8, speaking on Jesus:

Who, being in very nature [form] God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature [form] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

God got his hands dirty. He stooped to become one of us, and He didn’t even shy away from taking on and experiencing for Himself all of the pain and suffering that we experience.

In doing this, God showed His commitment to us and His love for us. He also showed us how we can endure the pain and suffering we experience. It was “for the joy set before him, [that] he endured the cross”. (Heb, 12:2) God has set the same “joy” before us, giving us hope to help us endure.

God gave us hope that there is life on the other side of this pain and suffering by becoming human and rising from the dead. Not an endless cycle of karma (Hinduism), but imperishable life! Not personal detachment and forfeiture into the “oneness” of “cosmic consciousness”, but deeply personal engagement with the One who made us and knows us more intimately than we know ourselves. God offers us relationship and eternal life with Him.

And this is the whole deal in a nutshell: if Jesus wasn’t raised back to life, our hope is futile. (1 Corinthians 15:15-17)

The resurrection of Jesus was why His first followers were bold and willing to die for Jesus who died publicly in front of them. It’s why Paul remembered to the Corinthians the hundreds of people who saw Jesus in his resurrected body (including over 500 at one time). (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)  Knowing the futility of following Jesus if he wasn’t, in fact, raised from the dead, Paul gave his life and poured himself out for the message that Jesus did rise from the dead because he had seen it!

Unlike Buddhism, which is not rooted in any empirical, historical fact, Christianity is rooted in the historical person of Jesus Christ and the historical event of his death and resurrection. That Jesus lived and died on a Roman cross isn’t seriously questioned.

On a more spiritual level, Christianity confronts the worst of human existence – our pain and suffering – head on. Some people reject Christianity because of the problem of pain and suffering, but what is their explanation? And, more significantly, what is the solution that they offer?

Buddhism holds that pain and suffering is an illusion, and the solution of detachment. While that looked good to me in college, I had already tried “chemical Buddhism” in my younger years and knew it wasn’t the answer. I didn’t make the connection (then), but the allure of Buddhism for me was similar to the allure of the numbness of drugs and alcohol. That letter connects those dots for me.

I learned, then, that detachment isn’t the answer (and I wrote about it in Lighting Out for the Wild West). Confronting pain and suffering head on is the way forward. How we deal with it is the key. Engaging with the world and with others is part of the solution. Engaging with God is the the place to start.

We may see God as a distant tyrant in the sky, detached from humanity, uncaring and unmoving. I once saw God like that, but I was wrong. God demonstrated His love for us by coming to us, taking on a human body with all of its vulnerabilities, and sacrificing Himself to a very cruel death on a cross for us! To demonstrate for us the extent of his love and commitment.

When I decided to engage with God, to accept His offer (my life for His), He met me. Intimately.

At the root of Christianity is the message that we aren’t alone in our suffering. God who made us, who knows us intimately and who understands what it’s like to suffer is here for us, and He offers us hope on the other side of that pain and suffering. The hope he offers was demonstrated in the resurrection that we are about to celebrate a week from now on Easter Sunday. He fills our present lives with fullness, but he offers us much more. As Paul said to the Corinthians when speaking of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:19-20)

If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead….

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