Suffering and the Search for Meaning

Suffering and the Search for Meaning: Contemporary Responses to the Problem of Pain

A book contemplating contemporary responses to the problem of pain.

Reviewed by Marcos Blanco, editor-in-chief, South American Spanish Publishing House, Oeste, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In Suffering and the Search for Meaning, Richard Rice, professor of religion at Loma Linda University, revisits the old question of theodicy­ the attempt to justify or defend God in the face of evil. His book is driven by one central question: How can ideas about suffering help those who face the expe­rience of suffering? Far from writing a cliché-filled book, Rice interweaves his sound, scholarly training with a deep pastoral concern while he tries to make sense of suffering.

Although suffering denotes a prac­tical problem, it also has a theoretical side. While it is true that “sufferers don’t need explanations” in the face of tragedy, they need theoretical explana­tions over time. Theoretical models are a map to help the suffering understand their situation in relation to general human experiences and then find a way to cope. With this purpose in mind, Rice surveys seven widely embraced views: the perfect-plan theodicy, the free-will defense, the soul-making theodicy, the cosmic-conflict theodicy, the openness-of-God theodicy, the process theodicy, and the theodicies of protest.

He identifies, classifies, describes, and compares these different theo­dicies, showing their strengths and weaknesses. As an interesting detail, Rice distinguishes Ellen G. White as one of the main proposers of the so-called cosmic-conflict theodicy and quotes Gregory A. Boyd’s estimation that she “integrated a warfare perspective into the problem of evil and the doctrine of God perhaps more thoroughly than anyone else in church history” (80).

Beyond this philosophical back­ground, the author presents examples of people who went through painful, life-changing experiences, showing how these theoretical models helped them overcome their personal trag­edies. Rice’s call for a personal practical theodicy takes a very helpful biblical/ pastoral approach, emphasizing the Cross as the hermeneutical key of human suffering. Finally, Rice lists some central convictions drawn from his personal perspective on suffering: (1) God is Lord and God is love; (2) suffering is real and suffering is wrong; (3) God is with us when we suffer; and (4) suffering never has the last word.

The main contribution of this book is the description and analysis of the different perspectives on suffering. Rice not only provides a masterful summary of the different views; he also impartially answers most of the many questions each of these views raises. His defini­tion of a practical theodicy, however, is controversial. Rice fosters an eclectic approach, suggesting that the subjective experience of the individual hermeneuti­cally governs the decision about which theodicy is the best one. He even uses the French term bricolage to describe the result of this “practical theodicy.” In his own words, a practical theodicy “pulls together strands from various theodicies, even those that seem incompatible on a logical level” (142). Notwithstanding, it is difficult to see, for instance, how a Calvinist/deterministic approach can coexist with a free-will approach in the same theological background.

Pastors, chaplains, care providers, counselors, theology professors, and anyone concerned about suffering should read this work since suffering is arguably one of the most pervasive human conditions.

--Reviewed by Marcos Blanco, editor-in-chief, South American Spanish Publishing House, Oeste, Buenos Aires, Argentina.



Every pastor, chaplain, and church elder will profit from reading Richard Rice’s Suffering and the Search for Meaning.

The author examines the positive and negative aspects of theodicies. The term theodicy was coined by the seventeenth-century German thinker Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. A theodicy “is an attempt to justify, or defend, God in the face of evil. . . . It is common for people today to use the word to refer to any thoughtful interpretation of suffering” (20).

Rice explains a number of theo­dicies. While this is important for caregivers to understand, the writer emphasizes that “what they (the suf­ferers) need is compassion. Instead of burdening them with theories, offer them a listening ear, a sympathetic touch, something in the way of con­crete, practical assistance” (21).

In the preface Rice says, “Knowing what thoughtful people have to say about suffering can help us under­stand what suffering people are going through. So, in spite of our efforts and our hopes, suffering never makes perfect sense” (10).

One theodicy may make some sense to one and not to another. For that reason a caring person must not think that one approach will fit all.

Sufferers often develop their own personal practical theodicy. This may consist of many fragments from a number of theodicies, including past experiences and religious beliefs. “The fragments that people pull together from here and there as they search for ways to respond to suf­fering may lack perfect logical coherence and yet provide personal strength and reassurance” (142).

Religious people may lay respon­sibility for suffering at the feet of God. Rice says, “We should never view God as the source of suffering. It not something God wants for any of us. When we suffer, there is nothing to be gained by trying to find specific divine purpose or reason for it. . . . We should never assume that our suffering is something that God intends for us” (98, 99).

The author believes everyone should form his or her own personal practical theodicy. He shares four perspectives that form the bedrock of his own:

  1. God is Lord and God is love.
  2. Suffering is real and suffering is wrong.
  3. God is with us when we suffer.
  4. Suffering never has the last word.

His fourth perspective is based on the Cross and Resurrection. Without the resurrection of Christ, the cross has no meaning, and the plan to restore and renew the world and God’s creatures is a sad failure. Jesus’ suffering on our behalf, followed by His resurrection, looks beyond suffering to the day when all our tears will be wiped away. Until that day, God’s promise to never leave or forsake us, even in suffering, means that suffering will not have the last word either now or beyond.

As a pastor, I am challenged by Rice’s following words: “It is not enough to consider only their suffering and my suffering. A practical theodicy must take into account your suffering as well” (155).*

Suffering will hopefully cause the careful reader to critique his or her funeral methods. Entering into the suf­fering of the grieving avoids any effort at proselytizing and allows a person to engage a unique personal practical theodicy.

—Reviewed by Larry Yeagley, a retired pastor, chaplain, and author residing in Gentry, Arkansas, United States.

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Reviewed by Marcos Blanco, editor-in-chief, South American Spanish Publishing House, Oeste, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

November 2014

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