Why Must We Suffer?

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

MANY FACTORS TODAY IMPACT how we feel about ourselves and life. We wonder why bad things happen to good people. We question the existence of an all-powerful, benevolent God in the face of seemingly insurmountable evil and social unrest. America is embroiled in doubt and fear, depression and anxiety, hopelessness and a loss of meaning; caught in a national angst we have not seen since the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Great Depression. Some of us turn to psychology and psychiatry, hoping medication and talk therapy will cure our misery. Others turn to “religion.” Tragically, many Americans try booze and illicit drugs, and some choose to end their life. What is the answer?

How Could You?

I sat, alone, quietly, wondering what was about to happen. Misery had brought me to this place. I was so sick and tired of myself, yet I had no idea how to change me. And what if I cannot change? Would I be able to live, period? Perhaps you or someone you are close to has been at this point. My complaint, for lack of a better word, was simple: God, how could you? Why did you give me this life, this complete mess. I felt impotent and alone. Nothing thrilled me anymore. Not. One. Thing. I decided to find out why, or die. Why am I lost and alone, confused and burdened? I am so tired of hearing my own voice―especially the one in my head that never seemed to stop making excuses for my circumstances. It is quite unsettling to give one’s self an ultimatum. What happened to the hour I first believed? I saw the face of Jesus at age 13, and asked Him into my heart and my life. There was an unambiguous call on my life to serve as a pastor or teacher of the Word. Finally, my raison d être.

But things did not go “according to plan.” Life got complicated. I got lost on the way to my calling. I’d never really been happy in life, but at least I wasn’t a nihilist. My belief that something matters, no matter what that something is, seemed to propel me toward hope. A chance to see the horizon. Light. There has to be light, right? And doesn’t that light illuminate, reveal? Like that new GE light bulb, giving the best light, filtering dull yellow light to give incredible color contrast and whiter whites for exceptional clarity. That’s what I needed. Exceptional clarity. Let’s get real here. My life did not seem to be “exceptional” and I had absolutely no “clarity.” Instead, I was kneeling in my bedroom, alone, broke and broken, asking God, “How could you do this to me?” How could a Christian lose hope. Lose the horizon? Give up the reigns to a task master like substance abuse?

I didn’t stop there. I wanted to know why my grandmother and father got cancer. Why my father lost his dad when he was only 13 years old. Why he contracted COPD, emphysema, and chronic hypoxemia? When he eventually needed supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day, he said to me, “Well, this is the beginning of the end.” Shortness of breath robbed him of his many favorite activities: woodworking, painting, gardening, landscaping. No longer could he ride his lawn tractor without suffering compression fractures of lumbosacral vertebrae. He had stopped smoking after his heart attack at age 55, yet he still suffered the horrific medical consequences. He passed away in 2014 from pneumonia. Why God? He’d quit smoking decades ago. Why is he gone now that I finally have a life worth living? Why isn’t he here to see the amazing turnaround I’ve finally made? He’s not here to see me preparing for ministry. God, how could you? Thankfully, I am not prone to thinking this way any longer, but it took some exegetical research for me to determine the best way to address these issues without blaming God, my father, or others.

If God Loves Us, Why Must There Be Pain and Suffering?

If God loves us and is an omnipotent and benevolent God, why does He allows pain and suffering. These questions are not limited to skeptics and nonbelievers; they haunt many Christians as well. Surely, He can rid His creation of wars, murders, torture, sickness, tsunamis, earthquakes; He must be capable of arresting evil, right? This issue has stymied believers and non-believers for centuries. Richard Dawkins sees universal suffering as an indictment against the existence of a loving God. Further, he writes, “There is no good case to be made for our possession of a sense of right and wrong having any clear connection with the existence of a supernatural deity” (1). Dawkins believes theodicy (the “vindication” of divine providence in the face of the existence of evil) must keep theologians up at night. However, he provides no further evidence of this claim. Second, I and many other theologians and biblical scholars I know, are not suffering from insomnia over the conundrum of evil in the face of a “good” God.

Dawkins says it is “…childishly easy to overcome the problem of evil. Simply postulate a nasty god – such as the one who stalks every page of the Old Testament. Or, if you don’t like that, invent a separate evil god, call him Satan, and blame his cosmic battle against the good god for the evil in the world. Dawkins’ detractors see the foregoing comment as a straw man fallacy, especially because Christian theologians and biblical scholars do not claim that the issue of evil is easily overcome, nor do they believe Satan is “a separate evil god,” responsible for the existence of evil in God’s creation. Designating one cosmic power “good” and the other “evil” presupposes a third element for making the evaluation, namely an objective standard (or “measuring stick”) of good and evil. For the terms of “good” and “evil” to be meaningful, they must be linked to some objective standard, but “…then this standard, or the Being who made this standard, is farther back and higher up than either of them, and He will be the real God” (2).

C.S. Lewis writes, “Each [entity] presumably thinks it is good and thinks the other bad. One of them likes hatred and cruelty, the other likes love and mercy… Now what do we mean when we call one of them the Good Power and the other the Bad Power? Either we are merely saying that we happen to prefer the one to the other, or else we are saying that one of them is actually wrong, actually mistaken, in regarding itself good” (3). Lewis argues that no created being can be intrinsically evil or love evil for evil’s sake. He contends that there is no way that an evil being can stand in the same relation to its evil that an ultimate good being can stand to its goodness. He adds, “Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. There must be something good first before it can be spoiled” (4). Augustine of Hippo postulated that evil has no existence of its own; instead, evil is the absence of good.

I understand this conclusion sounds a bit counterintuitive. So, let us take an exegetical approach to the origin of evil. When God created the heaven and the earth, He paused and saw that it was good (Gen. 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25). On the sixth day, after surveying all He made, God said it was very good (1:31). When we read the account of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, we see no mention of God creating anything bad, corrupt, malevolent, ugly, or wicked. Yet, in Genesis 3 we are introduced to the serpent tempting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The serpent, which had not been previously mentioned, suddenly comes on the scene and becomes a major player in the fall of man and introduction of original sin. So, good is morally “prior to” evil such that evil is damaged goodness and love of evil is desiring evil as though it were good. Natural laws and libertarian free will are necessary conditions for a variety of valuable relational situations (within humanity and with God).

Lewis believed pain is “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” emphasizing pain’s capacity to shatter our illusions of self-sufficiency. But this is not a dyed-in-the-wool formula; pain only sometimes shatters our false sense of self-sufficiency and at other times drives us farther from God, depending on our response. Further, Lewis did not make sweeping generalizations about the purpose of all pain, although some interpreters mistakenly represent him as doing so. Moreover, Lewis did not address “evils” such as natural catastrophes that wipe out hundreds of people without giving them a chance to reorient toward God; nor did he engage human wrongful acts like the torture and murder of children who cannot respond productively to the pain. To be sure, however, God can work redemptively with pain when it does occur. There is simply no guarantee that all persons, even when pain exposes their insufficiency, will choose relationship with God.

If the universe is as scientists say it is, then what scope remains for statements about good or bad, right or wrong? What are we to conclude about evil and wickedness? If moral statements are about something, then the universe is not quite as science suggests it is, since physical theories, having said nothing about God, say nothing about right or wrong. To admit this would force philosophers to admit that the physical sciences offer a grossly inadequate view of reality.

Created Selves and Reality

As a created self, a finite personal being possessing intelligence, will, and agency, Satan’s true good would have been realized by accepting his place (as Lucifer) in creation, which he refused to do. We human beings are also created selves who must either accept our nature and ultimate destiny in God or craft for ourselves a destiny apart from God, which Lewis sees as “a free choice.” Essentially, a series of accumulative moral choices in which “good and evil both increase at compound interest” (5). It is inevitable that left unchecked, bad temper, jealousy, narcissism, selfishness, and other spiritual or character defects, gradually get exponentially worse and become Hell when projected out over an eternal future. Finding our true selves, then, is a matter of letting God heal and transform us spiritually. But God will never force himself upon us. He will not ravish, He can only woo. As perfect love, God can do nothing less than will our true good. Lewis said, “He cannot bless us unless He has us” (6).

Concluding remarks

We all hear the question so many typically ask, “Why would a loving God send someone to hell?” Yet, the truth is, people send themselves there. If you see someone walking toward a cliff and you yell to them, “Wrong way! There is a cliff ahead. You’re going to fall off and die if you don’t go the other way.” But if the person foolishly responds with “I’ll take my chances”, “I don’t believe you”, or “All roads lead to safety,” then he or she ends up falling off the cliff and into the abyss, who sent them there? They did! I wrote a poem during my active addiction that looked at the excitement and the peril of living my life right up to the edge of the abyss. Certainly, God did not want me to push myself away from Him, coming closer and closer to the cliff. He wanted to rescue me from myself, but I had to make the first move.

Lewis said a “Cosmic Sadist” might hurt us, but he could not do positive things such as invent or create or govern a universe. To hurt us, the Cosmic Sadist might bait traps, “…but he’d never have thought of baits like love, or laughter, or daffodils, or a frosty sunset. He make a universe? He couldn’t make a joke, or a bow, or an apology, or a friend” (7). It is goodness that is original and fundamental and evil that is derivative and parasitic. I, as Lewis, remain confident that the Christian worldview explains evil and suffering better than other worldviews explain it. Evil occurs within a total world context that includes other important phenomena that cannot be adequately explained by an evil source. The problem of evil itself, as Lewis indicated, can be credibly formulated only if these other realities are assumed. In the final analysis, when Lewis lost his wife Joy, he did not waiver one bit in his faith in God. His theory that pain is a catalyst for spiritual reorientation (a belief he articulated frequently and that many of his readers took as categorical) encountered the hard fact that sometimes we just have to endure pain that seems to serve no particular purpose.

Footnotes

(1) Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York, NY: First Mariner Books, 2008), 135.
(2) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1952), 43.
(3) Ibid, 42-43.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Ibid., 132.
(6) Albert Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus (London, UK: SCM Press, 2000).
(7) C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (London, UK: Faber and Faber, 1961), 65.

Many Questions Remain About Youth Substance Use Trends

December 15, 2020

The following is from the web blog of Dr. Nora Volkow, Executive Director of NIDA.

The results of the 2020 Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey of drug use and attitudes in middle and high school students were released today, with the encouraging news that the alarming rises in teen vaping both of nicotine and marijuana seen in prior years had leveled off, although use remained high. But as with so many other efforts in 2020, the MTF survey was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. And we are left at the end of this tumultuous year with many questions about how circumstances have affected youth, their substance use, and their mental health more generally.

The MTF survey is ordinarily conducted from February until May, with the results released later the same year. This year, schools closed in mid-March before the majority of the students could be surveyed, leaving the University of Michigan researchers who conduct the survey with a smaller-than-usual sample—11,821 students in 112 schools. Although only a quarter the size of the usual sample, it remained nationally representative and contained much valuable data.

Generally, the 2020 MTF showed continued low levels of most forms of substance use among teens, including very low levels of opioid use despite the devastating effects opioids have had on all older age groups including young adults. However, there are other indications that the evolving addiction and overdose crisis is directly affecting youth. For example, a study by CDC researchers just published in the Journal of Pediatrics shows increases in suspected nonfatal overdoses involving stimulants (a category that includes prescription stimulants, cocaine, and methamphetamine) in children and teens between 2016 and 2019. MTF shows decreases in use of prescription stimulants in 10th and 12th graders but a trend toward increased use among 8th graders. It will be important to closely monitor adolescent stimulant use in future MTF surveys.

The MTF data collected at the beginning of this year reflect a certain point of relative normality before the COVID-19 pandemic threw all our lives into upheaval, including the lives of teens. As we seek to understand adolescent substance use in this new reality, we look to research to answer many important questions on how the stresses of the pandemic may have affected substance use by teens. For example, it is important to investigate the consequences of social distancing and virtual classes on adolescent drug experimentation and use, since those are strongly influenced by peer pressure and group dynamics. NIDA has issued supplemental funds to existing grantees to help study the impact of the pandemic on adolescents’ risk of substance use; their access to prevention and treatment services; and the pandemic’s effects on families. Future research, including the results of next year’s MTF survey, can help us understand how school closures and lockdowns affected adolescent substance use.  

Although research has suggested that the pandemic’s stresses have increased many forms of substance use in adults, it remains to be seen whether reduced ability to interact with peers or other sources of drugs may be a mitigating factor in youth. There is already evidence that reduced commercial availability of vape products during the pandemic may be affecting teen vaping. Researchers at Stanford and University of California San Francisco captured self-reported vaping habits of 2,167 teen and young-adult e-cigarette users in May, two months after the national emergency was declared and after MTF stopped gathering data for the 2020 survey. Over half of the respondents reported changing their use of vaping products, with 68 percent of those reporting that they had reduced their use or quit. Inability to purchase the products was one reason cited.

2020 has posed many urgent questions for science. Finding out the different ways the pandemic and other stresses of the year have affected young people is a high priority. Adolescence is an important period of social and emotional development, and the pandemic has disrupted many of the processes that impact that development. NIDA research has pivoted to ensure we address this unique time in history as we pursue scientific solutions to the impacts of drug use and addiction across the lifespan.

Rising Stimulant Deaths

From the Blog of Dr. Nora Volkow,
Executive Director
National Institute on Drug Addiction

November 12, 2020

Although we often talk about individual drugs and drug use disorders in isolation, the reality is that many people use drugs in combination and also die from them in combination. Although deaths from opioids continue to command the public’s attention, an alarming increase in deaths involving the stimulant drugs methamphetamine and cocaine are a stark illustration that we no longer face just an opioid crisis. We face a complex and ever-evolving addiction and overdose crisis characterized by shifting use and availability of different substances and use of multiple drugs (and drug classes) together.

Overdose deaths specifically from opioids began escalating two decades ago, after the introduction of potent new opioid pain relievers like OxyContin. But actually, drug overdose deaths have been increasing exponentially since at least 1980, with different substances (e.g., cocaine) driving this upward trend at different times. Overdose deaths involving methamphetamine started rising steeply in 2009, and provisional numbers from the CDC show they had increased 10-fold by 2019, to over 16,500. A similar number of people die every year from overdoses involving cocaine (16,196), which has increased nearly as precipitously over the same period.

Although stimulant use and use disorders fluctuate year to year, national surveys have suggested that use had not risen considerably over the period that overdoses from these drugs escalated, which means that the increases in mortality are likely due to people using these drugs in combination with opioids like heroin or fentanyl or using products that have been laced with fentanyl without their knowledge. Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid (80 times more potent than morphine) that since 2013 has driven the steep rise in opioid overdoses.

During the last half of the 1980s, when cocaine surged in popularity, many overdoses occurred in people combining this drug with heroin. The recent rise in deaths from co-use of stimulants and opioids seems to reflect a similar phenomenon. According to a recent examination of barriers to syringe services programs published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, staff at some programs report that increasing numbers of individuals are injecting methamphetamine and opioids together. Some also report that individuals are switching from opioids to methamphetamine because they fear the unpredictability of opioid products that may contain fentanyl (even though methamphetamine may be laced with fentanyl too).

Much more research is needed on the co-use of stimulants and opioids as well as how their combination affects overdose risk. Unfortunately, death certificates do not always list the drugs involved, and when they do, they may not always be accurate about which drugs principally contributed to mortality, making it difficult to know exactly the role opioids and stimulants play in mortality when people deliberately or unknowingly take the two together.

Overdose is not the only danger. Persistent stimulant use can lead to cognitive problems as well as many other health issues (such as cardiac and pulmonary diseases). Injecting cocaine or methamphetamine using shared equipment can transmit infectious diseases like HIV or hepatitis B and C. Cocaine has been shown to suppress immune-cell function and promote replication of the HIV virus and its use may make individuals with HIV more susceptible to contracting hepatitis C. Similarly methamphetamine may worsen HIV progression and exacerbate cognitive problems from HIV.

Efforts to address stimulant use should be integrated with the initiatives already underway to address opioid addiction and opioid mortality. The complex reality of polysubstance use is already a research area that NIDA funds, but much more work is needed. The recognition that we face a drug addiction and overdose crisis, not just an opioid crisis, should guide research, prevention, and treatment efforts going forward.

Find Help Near You

The following can help you find substance abuse or other mental health services in your area: www.samhsa.gov/find-treatment. If you are in an emergency situation, people at this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: 1-800-273-TALK. Or click on: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. A step by step guide on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member on the Treatment page.

Narcotics Anonymous National Hotline: 1(877) 276-6883.