Truth We Can't Handle

Michael Metzger

Colonel Jessep was right about a few things. Setting aside his gross arrogance, Jessep was correct in correcting Lieutenant Kaffee. There is a luxury in not knowing some things. There is truth we cannot handle. For Christians, the question of why God allows suffering is one of those truths. The practice of Lent helps us recognize this.

“A Few Good Men” is a good film with a great final courtroom scene. Jack Nicholson plays Colonel Jessep, a tough Marine who enjoys playing God. Tom Cruise is the pretty boy lawyer Daniel Kaffee who thinks he’s entitled to answers. Jessep: You want answers? Kaffee: I want the truth! Jessep: You can’t handle the truth!

Colonel Jessep then lectures Kaffee on how the real world works. “I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know…” It’s tragic that Jessep’s arrogance obscures the fact that he’s essentially right. Some truth is beyond human comprehension. There are some things we’re not entitled to entirely understand. Suffering falls into that category.

Suffering is largely unfathomable because it predates human existence. In eternity past, Lucifer instigated an ill-fated insurrection (Isa. 14 & Ez. 28). He lost, but God suffered the loss of a third of his heavenly hosts. There lies the origin of suffering. But why did Lucifer do this? God offers no explanation. He casts Lucifer and his fallen lot to earth. The presence of evil explains God’s warning regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Its fruit is “forbidden knowledge.”1 The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way: “The ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ symbolically evokes the insurmountable limits that man, being a creature, must freely recognize and respect with trust.” Adam and Eve have to respect their limits, trusting that God has a greater responsibility than they can possibly fathom.

The presence of evil in the garden also reminds us that suffering is part and parcel with creation. We witness this when Adam and Eve are told to take and eat to live. God establishes that the human body is renewed by the death of plants and fruit. Apples and herbs suffer death when plucked or pulled from the ground. God didn’t have to renew life in this manner. He could have made a world where winking, walking, or worship was sufficient to renew the human body. He didn’t. Suffering renews life.

And so we see the suffering of Christ renewing creation. The faithful angels find this fascinating. Peter writes that “the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow” are “things into which angels long to look” (I Pet. 1:6-13). Longing to look is fine. We simply have to accept that there are limits. Moses for example longed to see God’s glory. The Lord said he couldn’t. God knew that if Moses – a fallen man – saw his full glory while on this side of eternity, he’d be vaporized. Moses could see God’s goodness, but could not look directly at God’s face, “for no one may see me and live” (Ex. 33:20).

In this life there are limits to what we can learn. We only know “in part” (I Cor. 13:12). In eternity we’ll see God “face to face” and know fully. We’ll fully fathom suffering. Until then, we trust that God has a greater responsibility than we can possibly fathom. Like the angels, this unfathomable reality should wow us.

God’s glory is one of many “wows” in scripture. “Wows” are wider and deeper than finite humans can fully comprehend. They fill our hearts with wonder, producing in us worship – what the angels do day and night. Suffering, like God’s sovereignty and his election, are all “wows.” In our modern age, we often try to fully explain these mysteries. Enlightenment thinkers assume there are no limits to what we can learn. In modernist churches, believers consider these questions more as problems requiring a solution than mysteries calling for trust. Enlightenment syllogisms always fall short. This soaks the “wow” out of worship. For instance, the question is not why God allows suffering but, rather, what do we get out of it? The answer is wow, recognizing there are limits to what we can learn. The practice of Lent helps us recognize this.

Lent dates from the decrees of the Council of Nicaea in 325. It was considered a time of restraint and remorse. Restraint is recognizing there is truth we can’t handle. It keeps us from hubris. We’re a little over halfway through Lent 2013. It runs from February 13 to March 30. If you aren’t yet practicing any restraints, it’s not too late to start.

Nor is it too late to reframe an understanding of suffering. Even though it’s largely beyond human comprehension, the “wow” can be recovered when we see suffering as connected to the doctrines of election and salvation. We’ll consider that next week. In the meantime, remember that the angels are not wrong to long to look into suffering. Nor are we. It’s healthy, as long as we recognize the limits that Colonel Jessep noted. There is truth we cannot handle. Christians recognize God has a greater responsibility than we can possibly fathom. We live by faith – but not blind faith. We’ll continue feeling our way into the mystery of suffering next week.

1 Roger Shattuck, Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography (Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997)


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  1. A timely challenge, when there is an inclination to only emphasise the first 5 words of this verse
    Philip 3:10 That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; (KJV)
    Though we have the assurance
    2 Cor 1:3 Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; 4 Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. 5 For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ. (KJV)

  2. I look forward to your commentary.

    Love suffers long I could not comprehend suffering until I could comprehend how high, how wide, how deep, and how long is the love of God.

  3. We usually think that death entered the world through the fall but your article rightly points out that plants died to feed Adam and Eve. God could have made them without any limits (no need for food or sleep) which is what I believe Angels have.

    Suffering is part of the learning curve we all have to go through. Thanks for reminding us of that need.

  4. Hi Mike,

    I shared your post with a student who takes a materialist/atheist stance. Thought you and your readers might find his response interesting. Here it is:

    Hey, thanks for sending this along, Jerry. I think it does a good job summarizing a pretty popular Christian perspective on suffering. I have a couple thoughts:

    1. To say that God has an unfathomable higher plan is an ancient and irrefutable answer to suffering. Irrefutable, I say, but not necessarily correct–merely “impossible to disprove,” as, I contend, claims about His existence and attributes are. So in itself I don’t find it terribly compelling. I’d want to know–what evidence is there of this higher order? If we’re only seeing one piece of the jigsaw puzzle, say, what convinces us that there IS an entire puzzle worked out in the divine understanding? What makes us look “beyond” what we see on Earth? I take is his answer is probably something like “faith in God’s word as revealed in Scripture,” but since I obviously don’t believe the Bible to be the word of God, I’m afraid our discourse has to end there…

    2. Does the human intellect ever really accept its ignorance? Or will we always push forward, looking for answers? It’s funny–I actually agree with Christians to an extent about this, as I think a question like “Why is there suffering?” can’t exactly be answered in the way we want it to be. I might say–“Well, animals evolved responses of pain as protection against harmful environmental elements,” but that doesn’t really say Why. To the real “Why” question, I’d have to say it’s a cosmic accident–there is no answer in the sense that you want it, no “good reason” to explain the existence of suffering. It just is. So Christians and I agree that there is no answer to be found on Earth.

    Where I suspect we might disagree is about whether it is worthwhile to seek such an answer. Though I doubt there is one, I take the Socratic position–since I’m not sure of my own doubt, and I think the search itself may well improve me as a person, I think it’s a worthwhile question to fully consider. But this author seems to disagree with me–he wants to put limits on the extent to which we ask questions like this, dismissing certain bold approaches as “arrogant.” I’d like to ask him whether Job is arrogant to demand a response from God. I suspect that Job is “proud” in an all-too-human way, but I also think that this is precisely what God means when he says that Job has been “right,” against the friends. So, ironically, I suggest that we seek an answer whose existence I doubt, while the Christian view is to abandon the earthly search for a higher truth of whose existence they are assured.

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