People talk about 'the problem of suffering,' but there is no problem of suffering. To be precise, there is no one problem of suffering - there are many different problems of suffering. This is one good reason why there is no one answer to the problem which satisfies everyone.
There are many problems of suffering, and many answers - some of which are a good and effective response to some of the problems, and none of which (in all probability) are an adequate answer to others of them.
In this article, I'm not attempting to go into any detail. I am simply aiming to outline the areas and clarify the questions.
When people start to talk about the problem of suffering, there are some basic questions we need to ask - and we need to ask these questions before we attempt to formulate a reply.
There may well be other questions, but these are some of the most immediatly obvious areas we need to think about.
What is the problem being raised?
In particular, is the problem about...
These are very different questions, with very different potential responses. But people who pose the problem of suffering are often unable to say which question they are actually asking. (In my experience, after giving them time to consider, they usually say that the extent of suffering is the main issue for them, but one or other of the other three is also of interest. Do other people find the same?)
When is the problem being raised?
Apart from providing a context for the questions of motivation and identity, the answer to the question will provide some essential parameters within which any answer must be provided.
The context will determine, among other things:
Why is the problem being raised?
From the work I have done so far, it appears that there are five basic motives. The first four are common; the final one is much less common.
Can anyone suggest any other motives which ought to be considered?
Who is raising the problem?
My basic assumption in this work is that for a response to be helpful, it must be appropriate to the individual asking the question. In other words, it must be relevant to their situation and address their concerns within a framework and set of values which they are familiar with and give credance to.
We have already addressed some of the questions of identity in considering the motivation: are we interacting with a believer who is suffering or seeking to help others, or a non-believer who is seeking to demonstrate that such a God cannot exist?
Apart from the question of their motivation, people differ greatly in their theology and their pracical involvement. I assume that a doctor or social worker who is committed to fighting suffering will need a different response to someone who has no commitment other than to their own personal avoidance of suffering.
What else do we need to know? Do men and women need different responses? Do the responses which make sense to people change as they get older, or when they have children? Does it matter how they vote, or their level of educational attainment? How do their religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds affect the response? Does a sense of guilt or personal responsibility affect the response? Does it make a difference whether people feel their life is stable and mainly predictable, or chaotic and unpredictable?
And, in thinking about the question (or the suffering which prompts it): is it current; and is is recent, or something which has been lived with for a long time?
We make assumptions, which we are frequently unaware of.
When dealing with any difficult question, there are often important details which are not spoken (perhaps, cannot be spoken) for many possible reasons. So we should also ask...