Book Review – Peter Kreeft’s “Making Sense Out of Suffering

Many questions arise during one’s lifetime.  Perhaps one of the most significant questions centers in the topic of suffering and pain.  People do suffer and people do have pain.  This is a fact that is supported by much evidence.  A person does not have to look far for the evidence.  The main question is, why?  Why do people suffer and why do they have pain?  If there is a God and He cares for people then why does He allow people to suffer and to experience pain?  This type of questioning has led Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, to address the problem of suffering.

Kreeft’s book is an excellent source for anyone pondering this great mystery.    He does not claim to have all the answers.  He does offer his guidance as his readers attempt to tackle one of the hardest and toughest questions in the world.  Vanauken states in the forward of Kreeft’s book, “To be wise is to be discerning between the false and the true, to be balanced in judgement, to be, in fact, very sane.  A wise man, indeed, if you can find one, is a good guide amidst the claims of the experts” (vii).  Kreeft comes across as both an expert and a guide.

The problem of suffering is an apparent one.  Kreeft remarks that before a reader finishes his book that thousands will experience pain and suffering.  Among the great thinkers of the world stand Jesus and second would probably be Buddha.  A young prince, Gotama Siddhartha, was faced with the question, why do people suffer?  Siddhartha better known as Buddha made observations concerning pain and suffering which caused him to make a decision that launched Buddhism.  He calls these the four distressing sights.  The first sight was a sick man.  The second sight was an old man.  The third was a dead man.  The fourth sight was a sanyassin.  A sanyassin is “one who has renounced all worldly possessions … to become wise” (3).  Gotama became a sanyassin after he renounced his palace and princedom.  He became no wiser from while living a life of ascetisism.  So he alienated all the other sanyassins except five, which became his disciples.  He then proclaimed he was Buddha and stated his Four Noble Truths.  The first was that life is suffering.  The second was that the cause of suffering is desire.  The third is that the way to end suffering is to end desire.  The fourth is that the way to end desire is the Noble Eight-fold Path of ego-reduction.  The goal was Nirvana, which Buddha claimed would end suffering.  Kreeft’s examination of Buddha thoughts on suffering was educational and at the same time thought provoking for the reader.

The question, “Why does one suffer?” has generated many untrue explanations.  Kreeft takes a standpoint centered in Christ.  God is the only one who knows why people suffer.  Faith in Christ is the only answer that can satisfy the soul of man.  Kreeft tells stories from real life accounts of suffering and pain.  He identifies the case against God as, “ How can a mother trust and love a God who let her baby die?” (9).  Kreeft goes on to release four secrets that are often concealed in the lives of Christians.  The first is that almost every Christian will at one time or another be angry at God.  The second is when a Christian believes he or she is full then he or she is empty.  When he or she thinks that he or she is empty then he or she is full.  It is a paradox that can only be explained in realm of spirituality.  God is at work in the life of the believer.  This is a major key to understanding suffering.  If we cannot fully understand God then we cannot fully understand suffering.  The third secret is that a Christian’s faith is often made up of the intellect and the intellect fails in understanding God.  The fourth secret is that the Christian is not exempt from the same moral problems as non-Christians.  Kreeft makes a powerful illustration in including a letter from G. K. Chesterton.  Chesterton  answered a question concerning what was wrong in the world.  He simply stated “I am.”

Kreeft not only identifies the problem but he relates to fellow sufferers.  Kreeft listed who he was addressing in an attempt to demonstrate that this book was meant to be inclusive.  He shows humility in discussing this topic.  He goes on to explain that his book is not full of answers but a book to help others along the journey of understanding.  Kreeft goes into dialog with his readers on several occasions in order to place himself with the reader and not above the reader.  He does not like to be alone on the subject matter and relates that two minds are better than one.  He adds that this is a trait that he uses often in his writing.  He explains his method.  He relies on experience and believes in simplicity.  He is very personal and uses “I” a lot.  He relates himself to Augustine.  He emphasizes journey and quest instead of questions and answers.  He invites the reader to take the journey his or herself.  Kreeft identifies three areas of evil. They are suffering, death, and sin.

Kreeft states ten easy answers which some choose to hide behind.  He states that the answers are not sufficient and just give a quick fix type of solution to a complicated subject.  He claims that these are popular answers but an eleventh one that he states later in the book is not popular.  The first easy answer is that there is no God.  The second is that God is a fairy tale God or demythologism.  The third is psyschologism.  The fourth is old (polytheistic) paganism.  The fifth is new (scientific) paganism.  The sixth is dualism (two Gods).  The seventh is Satanism.  The eight is pantheism.  The ninth is deism.  The tenth is idealism.  Kreeft briefly describes each one of the easy answers and tells why he believes that they are insufficient.  Perhaps the best statement in his book offers hope to those who fail.  He states, “There is only one thing to do with failure: learn from it, turn your failure into a beginning of success.  Back up and start over.  Often the fastest way ahead is to go back” (44).

After exploring the possibilities of the ten easy answers Kreeft goes into dialog once again with his reader.  He has stated the problem and returns to it with the needed ground work completed in order move onto a deeper level of understanding.  The light comes when he explains that the truth cannot be known unless God reveals it to us and that God has a providential plan to save the whole world through Christ (51).  If God is in control (and He is) and if He has a plan (and He does) then is everything that happens apart of His plan?  Kreeft ends chapter three with a series of questions for his reader concerning who is in control.  Kreeft suggest that one should look for clues instead of answers.  In the chapters four through seven Kreeft explores several clues.  Chapters six and seven are where the meat of the book is found.  Kreeft tells about the prophets and the origin of suffering.  The clues point to the one who has all the answers.  The clues “itch” forward to Christ.  The ultimate pain and suffering was demonstrated by God’s one and only Son on the cross of Calvary.  “The answer must be someone, not just something” (129).  Christ is the answer.  Kreeft said it this way, “Jesus is not God off the hook but God on the hook” (140).

In the presence of the answer the reader is still presented with another question.  What is the difference now?  Kreeft explains that because the saints are believers in Christ and believers are His Body and because God is still at work in the Believer, he or she shares in Christ suffering.  St. Theresa said that everything was grace.  Therefore because everything is grace suffering too is grace.  Jesus is the needed explanation.  Remove Jesus from the issue of suffering then our knowledge of God becomes questionable.  Humility and Gratitude are the marks of a mature Christian.  When a Christian understands suffering in light of sharing with Jesus’ pain then anger, resentment and worst of all pride can be avoided.  Kreeft remarks that we do have eternal life and that is plenty to be grateful for.  Faith is the way to joy.  It is the way to heaven.  It takes total surrender in order to become a disciple of Christ.  It is in emptying out that one becomes full.  Kreeft explains in a simplified way what Kenosis is and how the believer can follow Christ example.  One of many quotations from C. S. Lewis is found directly after Kreeft comments on this topic.  “What is outside the system of self-giving is not earth, nor nature, nor ‘ordinary life,’ but simply and solely Hell” (154).

Kreeft again enters into a dialog with his readers in chapter nine.  The result is an unfolding of two problems along the journey or quest.  One is the intellect.  The other is the will or volition.  However, the will has to be handled through the grace of God.  The mind can explore and find data that can support the intellect.  There are basically two types of intellectual thinking on the subject of pain and suffering.  One is the rational or logical way of thinking.  The other is a deeper modern way of thinking.  Kreeft devoted chapter ten to dealing with the deeper modern way of thinking.  He lists and explains seven things that the modern mind seems to overlook.  He states that the Christian has to fight to get these points understood by others.  First what is the greatest good or summum bonum?  Second is the loss of faith in ultimate meaning.  Third is the forgetfulness of heaven and hell.  Fourth is the forgetfulness of solidarity.  Fifth is the forgetfulness of original sin.  Sixth is the forgetfulness in the vicarious atonement.  Seventh is the forgetfulness of justice.

In conclusion the book is excellent.  Kreeft leaves the reader with bad news and good news from the Bible.  The bad news is that all have sinned and the wages of sin is death.  The good news is that God gives eternal life through faith in Christ.  The greatest adventure is to be a Christian.  All of the clues found in the book were meant to point the reader to Christ.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book especially the sixth and seventh chapters.  I found the introductory information concerning Buddha educational.  There is good meat in this book that can satisfy hungry hearts.  I will continue to explore more clues on my own in order to be a “good minister of Jesus Christ” (I Timothy 4:6).

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