What Good is Suffering?

The modern-day Revolution is primarily a rejection not merely of the Christian social order but of God himself. He is, after all, the ultimate object of insurrection. And what is the nature of God’s supposed crime against humanity to warrants such rejection? The most common complaint lodged against him is that he allows pain and suffering in the world, and therefore he must be a cruel God. In light of the accusation we must honestly ask ourselves, is this a valid charge or a mere pretext?

We all experience some degree of suffering throughout life. This is an unavoidable fact of our human existence. And because there is suffering and yes, evil, many people conclude either, a) that God does not exist or, b) then he must be some kind of cosmic sadist bent on torturing hapless souls for no apparent reason. There is another side to the story, however, which is that human beings also enjoy an abundance of the good things that sustain life and give much happiness and joy besides.

We occupy a world of gratuitous abundance which too often we take for granted. The rains fall to water this fertile earth, thus providing us with food, fibers for clothing, medicine and much more. Then consider the countless natural resources which make our technical civilization possible. We have family, teachers, and friends who nurture us and enrich our lives. Most of all, the gift of life itself was bestowed liberally upon each one of us with no cooperation on our part. What about the particular talents, abilities, and creative drives not to mention the countless material goods that we enjoy and find fulfillment in? Consider the gift of time itself which provides us ample opportunity to grow and develop those talents? Do these things also not come from God? If so, he must be a very poor torturer, indeed.

Oddly enough, it is the very people who so frequently indict God as the cause of evil and suffering who then seem to forget that he is the primary cause of all those countless good things which make life so agreeable. I never heard anyone complain because the sun rose this morning or that fresh water flows out every time they turn on the kitchen tap. In fact, such people could not even exist to voice their complaints without the constant care and beneficence of the One who keeps them in existence. Yet instead of giving God any credit for making and managing this magnificent world that so generously sustains them, they routinely attribute this profusion of beautiful bounty to “natural causes” and leave it at that. So God gets the blame when anything goes wrong, but he is totally ignored so long as things are going just fine, thank you. That sounds more like a cosmic scapegoat than a cosmic sadist to me.

Apart from the rank ingratitude coming from such people we cannot entirely dismiss their complaints. Suffering is very real to the human condition and it cannot be completely ignored. It seems to strike randomly and very unfairly at times. Yet the problem of pain and suffering as evils in the world is not a question which stands in isolation but becomes integrally entwined in the very nature of our human free wills. We ourselves are quite capable of making choices which may lead to suffering, perhaps not initially but in the long run. By our own actions we often cause others to suffer needlessly. God is not some puppeteer who “wills” our lives as foregone conclusions but rather he permits each one to actively participate in making decisions which may potentially impact the destinies of many people. We not only have some say in the course of our personal lives but also in the course of history. The decisions we make today are bound to bear eternal consequences, not only for ourselves but for persons we may never even know. In fact, we can have a profound effect on those who do not even yet exist, or who might never come to exist if it were not for us.

The inescapable fact is that pain, anguish, and suffering are very often a part of that puzzling equation called “free will,” and this personal pain often guides the decisions we ultimately make. I can personally attest to this reality, for my own existence is the result of great sufferings which many others before me had to endure. It seems that many good things are born from suffering, though one can’t know at the time what these gifts might actually be. My own story goes back over 150 years to the early years of the American Civil War.

No intelligent person today would deny that the racial slavery which infected our nation from its inception was a great evil as well as being an odious blot on our history. But institutional evils like slavery back then, or abortion today, do not simply ebb away in the mists of time. It takes human action, inspired by Divine grace, to remove such entrenched evils when they become rooted in any society. And such action may require a great deal of pain and suffering in order to achieve its positive end. In this case, the removal of slavery entailed a terrible war which tore our nation asunder over a period of four bloody years, claiming over 600,000 lives in the process.

The early spring of 1862 was a pivotal moment for my great-grandfather Aaron Pierson, a 21 year old private in the Union Army of the Mississippi, commanded by General Ulysses S. Grant. The previous autumn Aaron, with many of his friends and neighbors in Noble County, Indiana, heeded the call of President Abraham Lincoln to enlist in the cause to preserve the Union from inevitable breakup. Aaron and his regiment, the 44th Indiana Infantry, now found themselves in southern Tennessee near a place called Pittsburg Landing on the bright and beautiful spring morning of April 6. Being on the near left flank of the Union line they may have heard faint echos of musket fire as they prepared their breakfast. In fact, Rebel troops were swarming unexpectedly into the camp of General William Tecumseh Sherman a mile or so to their right. Within hours they too were caught up in the bloodiest battle of the war to date, raging around a country church called Shiloh ─ meaning “peace.” But there was nothing peaceful here over the next two days as cannon roared incessantly while men wearing blue or gray slaughtered one another in a terrible orgy of blood, claiming some 23,000 casualties.

The 44th Indiana was positioned on that battle front near a peach orchard fronting a sunken wagon road where the heaviest fighting raged. Bullets whizzed through the air with such intensity that the soldiers referred to a nearby patch of trees as the “hornet’s nest.” Fire once, reload and fire again. Unlike modern weaponry, each shot had to be loaded directly into the muzzle of the gun, a process that might take 30 to 40 seconds ─ a seeming eternity when bullets are flying past your head even as artillery shells are exploding everywhere. At times, the smoke in the thick woods became so dense that you had no idea who or what you were shooting at. Later on the intense cannon fire actually set a part of those dry woods on fire and the agonized screams of wounded men being roasted alive added to the chaotic, apocalyptic din.

Imagine the terror seizing the heart of a 21 year old farm-boy as the hours crept by in this hellhole of death and destruction. In full view of such inhumane carnage one would be sorely tempted to forget one’s humanity altogether. Confronted by an implacable enemy the whole meaning of life was suddenly reduced to “kill or be killed.” Pvt. Pierson knelt down behind the limited cover of a hickory tree to re-load his firearm. He bit the top off another paper cartridge, pouring a load of black gunpowder down the muzzle. He noticed that his supply of cartridges and lead mini-balls was starting to feel rather light. “What might happen when the ammunition ran out,” he worried. Sunset was still hours away and his hoard of cartridges might not last till then if this pace of fighting continued unbroken.

Aaron now grabbed his ramrod inserting it into the barrel of his musket to tamp down and pack the powder when suddenly he sensed a problem. Looking up and peering intently into the haze of smoke he caught the vague outline. A red-bearded soldier, wearing what appeared to be a butternut jacket, charged wildly towards him. Aaron could not make out whether a bayonet was affixed to the muzzle of the man’s gun but he clearly heard that unnerving Rebel yell as this ox of a man bore down on him. There was no time to insert a mini-ball in his gun barrel. Within seconds he would be a dead man if he did not act quickly. Raising his musket, with metal ramrod still protruding from the muzzle, he cocked the hammer. A silent prayer, “God help me,” flashed through his mind. Fewer than 15 feet separated Aaron from his attacker when he desperately squeezed the trigger. The ramrod exploded out of the barrel of his weapon and pierced the chest of the man in butternut, who stopped in his tracks with a fearsome, dazed expression on his face. He froze for a second or two before falling, like a great tree in the forest just before it crashes into the ground. Pvt. Aaron Pierson, stunned and not fully comprehending what had just transpired, closed his eyes tightly. He heard the agonized groaning of a man in his death throes. Gasping breaths continued for a few more seconds followed by an eerie silence, as if the noisome battlefield had itself somehow drifted far away.

It took Pvt. Pierson a half minute or more to open his eyes and gaze on the man’s lifeless corpse. Blood oozed out of the terrible cavity from which his ramrod still protruded like some makeshift dagger. The dead man’s eyes were frozen wide open, a look of terror still visible in them. Aaron glanced round for his companions but the 44th Indiana had already begun a cautious retreat toward the river landing a couple of miles to the north. Suddenly in grave danger of being captured by the enemy, he turned and ran to catch up with his unit, all the while trying to erase the image of that dead Rebel soldier from his bewildered mind. Would God ever forgive him for the terrible thing he had done to that man? In battle it is one thing to kill at a distance of 100 or 200 yards where the foe remains anonymous and indistinct. In fact, one is never entirely sure whose bullet it was that felled an opponent. But to kill a man at close range becomes psychologically very personal. It weighs far more heavily on the soul when one hears the moan of death and witnesses such a fearful grimace permanently etched on the victim’s face.

Aaron would never forget that man in butternut until his dying day, some 42 years later. The circumstances of his death had forged a kind of bond that could not be broken or forgotten. Although he would never learn the man’s name he could never forget that destiny had conspired that their lives should cross so fatally on that 6th day of April in 1862, or that one should live and one should die. Of course, it might have been the other way around, in which case I would not be here today relating this story.

In the late autumn of 1862 Aaron Pierson was medically discharged from the 44th Indiana in the small town of Columbia, Kentucky. He was by then quite ill ─ and some 350 miles from home. (Two thirds of Civil War deaths were caused by disease; only about one third resulted from battlefield wounds.) By this time the war might have been ended Had McClellan’s peninsula campaign to capture Richmond not been botched. Instead two and a half more years of increasingly bloody conflict lay ahead. What was God thinking? Enough life had already been lost.

Historians often pose these kinds of “what if” questions. True, if the Civil War had been ended during that summer of 1862 hundreds of thousands of lives would have been spared. But the larger objective and needed result of this war between brothers would most likely have remained undone, namely the ending of slavery. If McClellan had succeeded a compromise peace might have patched up the Union and even kept slavery out of the territories, Lincoln’s only stated objective. But in Missouri, Kentucky, Texas, and other slave states the terrible bartering of human flesh would have continued unabated. Surely, God desired that total, and not just partial freedom should serve as the American standard, yet the only way that would happen was through more suffering and warfare. The slave empire had to be totally demolished, not simply pruned if in fact “all men are created equal.” So was it God or the hard heartedness of the politicians and leaders of that slave empire that caused the war’s continuation with its escalating toll of suffering and death, even more so among their own people than their enemies?

Meanwhile, Pvt. Aaron Pierson, now discharged and very ill, began the long weary trek back to his family’s farm in northern Indiana. Each day he became weaker from the intestinal disorder which had occasioned his release, a condition quite common among soldiers living in the field. Somewhere near Muncie, Indiana his strength gave out entirely. At this point a compassionate family took him in and gradually nursed him back to health. Throughout those winter months their daughter, Phoebe McCaulley, played a special part in Aaron’s recovery. A year later she became Aaron’s wife.

Eventually Aaron and Phoebe would parent 12 children who might otherwise never have come into existence had that man in butternut been but a few seconds quicker during the great battle at Shiloh. Likewise, if Aaron had not suffered the painful stomach disability that secured his release from the army, he and Phoebe would likely have never met. My grandfather Estil, one of Aaron’s 12 children later married my grandmother, whose parents were Bohemian refugees from an oppressive Austrian Empire. They had 10 children of whom my father was the fifth. I myself am one of eight children so you can see that by now there are hundreds, possibly a thousand or more of us living today who would never have known the great gift of life had Pvt. Aaron Pierson been killed by that rebel soldier in butternut on that fateful April day in 1862.

For me this fact reopens the whole question of suffering. Is suffering, evil, or even death itself pointless or do these things serve some real purpose in God’s scheme for the world and for mankind? True, God permits terrible suffering and at times may even cause it to afflict us. But to say that he is a sadist or even a monster in doing so is to take a very short, limited, and even myopic view of reality. Today I can fully appreciate that by forfeiting his life in such a terrible manner, that Confederate soldier in his own strange way contributed to my existence today. For that, I must be grateful to him as well as to my great-grandfather. God’s ways are mysterious indeed. Aaron Pierson might well have given up on God in that peach orchard at Shiloh, Tennessee even as men lay wounded and dying all around him. The terrible vision of that man he shot with a ramrod likely haunted him for the rest of his life. Many have in fact lost their faith in God entirely on a battlefield, as was dramatically witnessed a century ago in the aftermath of the First World War.

Instead, Aaron Pierson chose to embrace God rather than to blame him, thankful that he had been spared for another day to smell the lilacs and revel in the many small joys of life. He later studied to become an ordained minister of the Gospel in the Methodist Church. The Rev. Aaron Pierson later baptized his children, including my grandfather, in the river and became chaplain of his local Indiana chapter of the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic), a fraternity of veterans from that bloody fratricidal war that finally ended American slavery. He continued to suffer from his intestinal ailment acquired during the Civil War yet he never wavered. He carefully implanted the values of faith, honor, honesty, and integrity in all his children.

God had a plan in mind for Aaron Pierson which today continues bearing fruit through the lives of the thousand or more descendants who can trace their lineage back to this singularly cheerful yet unobtrusive little man who believed in a cause deeply enough to wager his young life and future on it. He survived the great battle but carried its pains and scars with him until the day he died in 1904. Though he never looked upon the grandchild, my father, who was not born until 1912, yet we can marvel today at the profound legacy he left to those subsequent generations whom he never saw!

So now ask yourself, is suffering some pointless exercise which has no real value or is it an instrument which God wields like a skilled surgeon to heal his sickly patients? Suffering is a means of spiritual rebirth today just as it was 150 plus years ago. For my great-grandfather faith provided him not only consolations but more importantly a deeper understanding of the truth, obtained through the medium of suffering. Pain invites us to turn towards God for the strength, not only to endure the momentary trial, but also to realize its ultimate value. After all, God himself came into this world so that he too could experience pain and suffering in solidarity with his suffering creatures, and what his suffering yielded was nothing less than mankind’s eternal redemption.

We can, of course, turn away from God in our bitter complaints when confronted by suffering. We can blame him when things go wrong, to our way of thinking. That choice is ours alone. But if my great-grandfather had chosen the path of blaming and rejecting God in those deepest days of suffering rather than embracing them as a part of his own path forward, I would not be here today relating this beautiful story of hope and fulfillment. And, as they say, the rest is history.

Francis J. Pierson   +a.m.d.g.

 

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