This life is one of suffering to some degree. Now, no one enjoys suffering, and we often spend the majority of our lives avoiding it. God promises us a complete end to suffering if we die in His grace – so why does God allow so much of it in this life? Suffering helps keep us from sin and becoming dangerously satisfied with this life, but suffering is not just for making Heaven more attractive. I believe that suffering prepares us for Heaven in a way that a life of ease could never do.
There seem to be a lot of folks who glide through a life of sin and never really have to face up to it. Some people who “get saved” continue in a life of lukewarm mediocrity afterwards. Then there are those who truly repent and then suffer for it. What gives? Why does God allow this evil state of affairs? This is not just a modern problem either – Asaph asked basically the same thing in Psalm 73. As I was pondering this the other night I thought of some of the books I have read about mountain climbing and I think I might have stumbled upon something worth considering.
To Climb High
Mount Everest stands over 29,000 feet above sea level – about the cruising altitude of a jet airliner. The oxygen level at this altitude is so low that if someone were taken directly from sea level to the top without acclimatizing they would die within minutes. But even the lower elevations are merciless. Climbing on Everest has been described as climbing the stairs of the Empire State building all day every day for a week while breathing through a stir straw (and with a couple tires slung on your back!). If that weren’t bad enough, the temperature can get to 100 degrees below zero with 100 mph winds that scream like a freight train across the ice – yet the inside of one’s mouth can sunburn from radiation reflection from the snow. At the higher camps one rarely eats or sleeps.
It should come as little surprise, therefore, that it took 31 years and 13 deaths before the first climbers managed to reach the summit in 1953. 50 years later nearly 6,900 ascents have been made just over 4,000 different climbers. Nearly 250 have died, many of their bodies remain frozen in the ice of Everest’s slopes. Well over 10,000 men and women have tried to climb Everest with 100’s of more are being added every year. These hopefuls are now paying around $65,000 each – just for a shot at spending a few minutes on top of a big rock.
Because It’s There
What are these people thinking? Why would want to do this to themselves? A common response is, “If you have to ask, you won’t understand.” George Mallory’s proverbial answer was even simpler: “Because it’s there.” (And so is Mallory – his body was finally discovered in 1999). What is it about climbing that inspires people to risk safety, soundness, and security (the very things normal people spend most of their lives pursuing)? It can’t be fame (most people could not name any mountain climber nor cite any climbing records). It can’t be money (few get rich climbing mountains). No, it is something else – and the danger seems to make it even more enticing.
There is a very true sense in which mountain climbing is its own reward. The focus, strain, and unique achievement . . . it’s all very life-affirming in a dangerous sort of way. So is the desire to attain to singular achievement. Incredibly, even after 50 years records are still being broken. In 2013 one climber (Kenton Cool) summited Nuptse, Lhotse, and Everest in one push from Base Camp – the first time this had ever been done. Yuichiro Miura set a new age record summiting at 80 years old. David Liano summited Everest from the South face one day, then descended and summited via the North face 8 days later – a double summit that had never been accomplished before.
Even after 50 years, Everest continues to offer barely-possible challenges to those with the will to attempt them.
Now for a little thought experiment. Imagine a person who is in love with the mountains. After years of climbing he finally gets a shot at the highest point on earth. He sacrifices much as he saves up over a year’s wages for expenses. He trains his body harshly, submitting it to extreme levels of discomfort and pain just to make it a little bit stronger than it was the day before. He makes the trip, hikes for a week to base camp and spends nearly a month climbing up and down between camps, pushing a little further each day until he is in position for the summit bid. He is rarely comfortable, and hasn’t slept or eaten much in the last 24 hours. He has lost nearly 40 pounds since beginning the assent. His mind is addled from lack of oxygen. On summit day he gets up at 3am, climbs for 10 hours straight, and finally takes the last grueling step – there is nowhere else to climb. He has made it to the top of the world.
Now imagine a second person. He likes the mountains, somewhat (at least they are better than the burning desert). He prefers watching TV or playing video games all day. Then out of the blue he gets an offer to take a helicopter trip to the summit of Mount Everest (I know you can’t really do this, but work with me here!). Having nothing better to do he takes the trip, is dropped off on the summit, takes a look around, and then flies away.
Here is the interesting thing: both people stood on the summit. Both had the same view. But who do you think had the greater experience? The climber of course. All that pain and striving made reaching the goal all the sweeter. Without it, the experience would have been virtually unremarkable.
Echoes in Eternity
I think that perhaps it is the same with life. Bravery, endurance, trustworthiness – these things are celebrated features of good character. Yet without some fear how could there be bravery? Without pain how could there be endurance? Evil and suffering provide the means to make us good and joyful. This life is both the testing and training ground for eternity. We all know people who have glided through life without having their character molded by hardship – how often do they turn out to be heroic? Those in heaven who “just got by” are (like the helicopter guy) not going to have the same amount of joy as those who were willing to suffer for it (like the climber). Yes, they will both be in heaven and they will both have “joy to the full” – but those who strive harder will have more (both might have “overflowing cups,” but that does not mean their cups are the same size). Likewise, the one in hell whose life and desires were molded by a life of sin will suffer more than the virtuous pagan when that enjoyment is gone.
Thus I think that at least part of the answer to the question of suffering and evil in this life has to include the fact that everyone (whether in heaven or hell) will ultimately be rewarded for how they lived their life. Although one’s final destination is determined by one’s response to Christ, one’s experience of that destination is determined by what one does in this life (2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 20:12-15). From a total perspective, this stage of life is just a blip when compared to the endlessness of the afterlife. The joys and sufferings of this life are therefore also blips – but they are important blips that make us who we are and who we will be forever once death seals our fate.
Don’t get me wrong – I hate suffering (which is why it works). If God gave me the choice of whether or not to suffer every day I’d probably never choose suffering. If I had the power to end the suffering of others I would probably do it. But that is because I am weak and lack the total perspective God enjoys. If all suffering in this life ended, I think we would all, ironically, suffer for it . . . forever.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
(Tennyson, “Ulysses” – written a few weeks after the death of his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam)