Interview with

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Audio Transcript

Pastor John, there was a recent discussion online among non-Christian philosophers. It started with an old Woody Allen line he once said in a movie. He said this: “If one guy is starving someplace, it puts a cramp in my evening.” The quote raises this question: Can a person truly experience happiness without ignorance and apathy of the suffering of others? To be completely insensitive to suffering in this world is to be a sociopath. If you were completely sensitive to the suffering of others, you would die of grief from the collective suffering of the world. If, in order to be empathetic, you cannot enjoy dinner with a starving child staring at you near the dinner table, yet you can eat dinner normally if that starving child exists behind a wall, then it seems ignorance is an important requisite for happiness. So here’s the question, Pastor John: Does my happiness require ignorance, or even apathy, toward the suffering of others?

I doubt that I have a fully satisfying answer to this, even for myself. And I am not sure there is a theoretically satisfying answer that deals in quantities of knowledge and apathy and happiness. I suspect that the answer to this question is found in becoming a kind of person in the image of Christ who learns how best to love within the limitations in this world of suffering.

Reconciling Sorrow and Joy

But having said that — I am not sure there is an answer — here is my best effort to say something helpful. At least, this is what I preach to myself.

1. Rejoice and weep.

First, the way I have approached this question in the past is to note what Paul said in Romans 12:15: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” And there are people who are weeping right now, and there are people who are rejoicing right now even in our own circles, not to mention the millions who are weeping and rejoicing around the world. My answer to that paradox has been that Christians are always sorrowful at one level and happy at another level. And we give expression to the one or the other according to whether we are at a wedding or at a funeral — even though we know at the wedding that a family is at the hospital right now with a dying wife and mother. We will be there in a few hours, probably, but we are not going to ruin the wedding.

One of the most important pastoral verses in the Bible is 2 Corinthians 6:10 where Paul says that he is “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” That is what I mean by saying that Christians carry in their souls a sadness in this life that never goes away. And they carry a joy in this life that never goes away. So that is my first observation from Romans 12:15 and 2 Corinthians 6:10.

2. Suffer within your reach.

Here is a second set of thoughts. The parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10 is relevant to the issue of dealing with the suffering of the world that is far away and near at hand. Jesus tells the parable in response to a man’s self-justifying question, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) because he realizes he can’t love everybody the way he loves himself. And so, he is trying to figure out, “Well, who don’t I have to love like this?”

“Christians carry in their souls a sadness in this life that never goes away. And they carry a joy in this life that never goes away.”

And Jesus doesn’t like that question. He is not happy with the way this man posed the question. So he tells the story of the man who is beaten and left for dead on the side of the road (see Luke 10:25–37). The priest goes by on the side and doesn’t help, and the Levite goes by and doesn’t help. And a Samaritan stops, and he helps him. And Jesus ends the parable like this: “‘Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor’ — he switched the question — ‘to the man who fell among robbers?’ [The man] said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You go, and do likewise’” (Luke 10:36–37). And that is the end of the story. He is not going to deal with his man anymore.

In other words, it seems like you don’t solve the problem of the commandment, “Love your neighbor,” by figuring out who qualifies and who doesn’t — like, “Who can be excluded? Who are my non-neighbors? Good, I don’t have to worry about them.” Rather, you become the kind of person who can’t pass by on the other side of the road when there is suffering within your reach. Take the opportunities to love and serve at hand, and you will prove to be the kind of person that God wants you to be.

Jesus healed people in his paths. He didn’t heal the American Indians. And he didn’t heal the Chinese. And he didn’t heal the people in India in his day. He healed the ones who cried out along the road who he could reach out and touch. And then, with a clear conscience, he sat down and feasted with the publicans, because even there he was a physician meeting with people because he loved them, and he wanted to do them good even at their parties. So that is my second cluster of thoughts around Luke 10, the parable of the Good Samaritan.

3. Accept your finitude.

Here is one more set of thoughts: Yes, it is necessary that we be ignorant in order to be happy. But what I mean is that it is necessary that we accept our finitude. Only God is not ignorant. Only God knows all the suffering in the world. If we knew all, we would be contenders for deity. And we know what happens to contenders for deity: They lose. So, ignorance — accepting our finitude — is essential for our creaturehood and, therefore, for our happiness.

The reason God can be infinite in knowledge and infinite in happiness is that only God has other infinite attributes that make it possible for him to handle infinite knowledge. Only God has infinite wisdom and infinite goodness to see how all the suffering of the world will someday fit into a plan to make sense of it all. We don’t. We don’t have that capacity. We therefore can’t handle that kind of infinite knowledge.

Becoming More Like God

So in our case, I would put it like this: The more our knowledge of suffering increases — and today, it does — the more the other God-like attributes must increase, not to make us God, but to be more like God. The other God-like attributes have to increase, lest we be crushed under the weight of simultaneous, multiplied empathies or hardened with self-protecting indifference. These other attributes that I am thinking about are things like greater capacities for mercy, greater capacities for compassion, a growing grasp — this one is really essential — of biblical truth that gives some meaning to the suffering of the world, even the suffering we can’t reach, and what is happening to people out there and what meaning that might have. If these other God-like attributes don’t increase in us in proportion to our awareness and our experience of suffering, we are going to be overwhelmed.

So, in the end, my sense is that we should all immerse ourselves in the life and the teaching and the work of Christ so that we learn with him in real experience what it is to be sorrowful and yet always rejoicing, always seeking to spread that joy to as many as we can.