On Trials

Certainly, the problem of evil is philosophically persistent and even more certainly is it emotionally difficult. I think that the problem of evil has multiple solutions many of which are true and many of which are entirely compatible with one another. And though I find the problem interesting and though the problem in some way bears upon this post, I think that it can be put aside for the purposes of what follows. Whether the problem of evil has a solution or not, here we are and we face struggles, trials, unfair horrors, and nature-inflicted deformations of personhood and body. The question is this, “How shall I respond?” I don’t mean this in some insensitive way, where I claim that all difficulties are actually a good thing. Evil is evil. I mean it in this precise way:

Whatever difficulties we are facing, no matter how terrible or inexplicable, are exactly the difficulties that we are facing. This means we must face them until death ends our difficulties or until we overcome them. It is not comforting to have this knowledge, it is simply the fact of the case in question. If you or I face an obstacle, trial, or trouble, it must be faced.

Again, I offer here no explanation for one’s sufferings or attempt to justify why they happen in a way that makes God seem good or evil seem less bad. I also do not mean to say, “Tell people who are suffering right now that God is testing them.” I am attempting to bring an issue to the foreground concerning the difficulties that we face as individuals and as a species. When we face various trials and look for metaphysical explanations or emotionally satisfying warrant for our going through them, we can ignore the problem at hand. Questions like “Why am I facing this?”, “Has God forgotten me?”, “Couldn’t this have been stopped?” have their place and often have answers. Even Jesus asked them. But the issue I wish to tackle is the way we face these trials when they come. The trials could be anything. Take these examples or any number of similar ones:

  1. A sad diagnosis with a worse prognosis
  2. A terrible accident
  3. Sudden loss of career
  4. Harmed by somebody’s incompetence
  5. Trouble raising children
  6. A wrongful accusation (or a correct one)
  7. Being tempted to sin, cheat, steal, or avoid blame for wrongdoing
  8. Having terrible and dangerous enemies
  9. Being oppressed
  10. Being born in unfair circumstances

Our approach to trials will determine whether or not we can make it through them with grace, character growth, or by leaving the world a better place. I am recommending this experiment as a personal solution to the problem of evil, pain, and suffering. The solution is somewhat simple, though probably not easy. I simply mean to agree with yourself in advance to do this: treat difficulties as tests. In other words, when any trial comes, immediately approach it with an attempt to improve oneself through the trial. You’ll note that the word “trial” is practically a synonym for test, but I think that in modern usage, trial to simply means “hardship.” Please excuse the apparent tautology.

The principle is contained in Stoic format in Aurelius’ Meditations:

Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces— to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it— and makes it burn still higher.” – Aurelius, Marcus (2002-05-14). Meditations: A New Translation (Modern Library) (Kindle Locations 1117-1120). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

What the emperor is saying is that when the human organism is operating at tip-top capacity, it is capable of turning obstacles into fuel for moral improvement. The notion is Biblical in the highest sense, in that the author of Hebrews says that Jesus learned this lesson:

(Hebrews 5:7-8 ESV) In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. (8) Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.

Again, this isn’t meant to be some theological explanation for why we suffer. It is meant to offer an approach to personal suffering that prevents us from being overwhelmed, which provides us with a mindset aimed at overcoming evil with good.

Conclusion: In Practice
How does an approach of this sort actually work out in life? I propose that when you wake up in the morning remind yourself of the character you wish to have and the goals you wish to achieve. Then, no matter what comes throughout the day, instead of losing your temper or giving in to despair ask yourself questions like those listed below and change your habits and add to your knowledge accordingly.

  1. Is this a problem I caused?
  2. Is this a problem I can solve?
  3. Do I need to make a course correction?
  4. How can I make the most of this situation?
  5. How can I help people make it through this?
  6. How do I feel about this moment and are these feeling useful?
  7. How could I have been better prepared for this moment?
  8. What is the best and wisest thing to do right now?

Secondly, I propose that when you go to bed at night ask yourself what you learned throughout the day and how you could have done the day better.

These two rather simple steps will no doubt seem daunting and even exhausting at first. But I think that this sort of Stoicism is precisely attuned to human nature and our need to make progress. Seeing ourselves as the project and the outcomes around us as a gymnasium for personal growth has the ability to add some transcendent value even to our most mundane tasks. The world is not merely a gymnasium for moral improvement, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t that at all.

Any thoughts about this topic? What results have you had trying to approach life’s struggles this way?

Appendix 1: Clarifying the Model
The test model of difficulties does have support in the psychological literature (see Carol Dweck), in the religious literature (see almost every religious text), and in the traditions of Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Platonism (they often saw trials as a gymnasium or the soul). It also might have some support in your personal experience in school or preparing for a new position at work. Learning how to perform a new skill, though difficult and perhaps causing you to become sleep deprived is worth the struggle and sometimes full of joyous anticipation of the future you prepared for.

What I am not saying is that in every circumstance our difficulties, trials, and sufferings are tests from God or that they all have cosmic meaning. The Bible says that a great deal of suffering in the cosmos is meaningless (Romans 8:20-21). I am saying that because our trials come no matter what, we have to deal with them. Thus, if we wish for life to improve our character, a tool for coping with trials is to approach them as tests. Tests offer insight into where we are strong, what we care about, what our weaknesses are, and just like tests in other endeavors, they offer stressors that may indeed make us stronger somehow.

This is difficult for somebody born with a bone disorder, who loses a loved one, loses a job, goes to jail for one bad decision, or loses a limb (or several). I have no doubt of this. On the other hand, if you survive such things, then here you are. Nobody else can face the world or your struggles for you.

It would be a mistake to adopt this perspective for yourself and then to tell people as they suffer, “I sure bet you can grow from this.” On the other hand, if this experiment has positive results for you, it would similarly be a mistake not to help others adopt a similar stance toward difficulty and suffering.

Appendix 2: New Testament Support for Treating Difficulties as Tests
If you are not a Christian, feel free to skip this section, but I do think it could help you. If you are a Christian, here are a few passages of Scripture which exemplify this perspective on difficulties:

  1. Rom 5:3-5 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, (4) and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, (5) and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
  2. Heb 12:5-11 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. (6) For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” (7) It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? (8) If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. (9) Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? (10) For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. (11) For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
  3. Jas 1:2-4 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, (3) for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. (4) And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

So, as an experiment treat your difficulties as tests which prepare you for a more pleasant reality. Even death, in Christian perspective, is an evil which God’s Son experienced. Hell, your difficulty could be a temptation to sin rather than some horrible struggle with physical pain or emotional suffering. Even count your bad habits as opportunities or tests.

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