CreatureKind Corner: Why do Animals Suffer? One Response and Three Recipes

By Margaret B. Adam

Here are two question we've received recently:

  1. I’d say my biggest struggle in my faith has been around the question of ‘Why such INTENSE suffering of innocent animals? How can a GOOD God allow that?’ (We can make some sense of our suffering in that it builds character, etc, but when it’s so intense and to such innocent ones, it really becomes a source of doubt for so many believers who deeply care about animals).
  2. A more complex question that is asked often of me and I have no answer (and probably no one else does, either): If God cares for even the sparrow, why does he allow such suffering of the animal kingdom, since animals are incapable of intentionally committing sinful acts?  They were the victims of Adam and Eve’s actions but are innocent themselves.
Photo: Jane Pearce

Photo: Jane Pearce

Why do animals suffer? It’s a big question—an ancient, continuing, and persisting question. We have no divine FAQ page about God’s intentions. We have no single, simple, satisfying answer. As humans, we are bound to the limits of our creaturely capacities to interpret scripture, but we can do so in conversation with the church’s rich heritage of teachers, preachers, ministers, and heroes of the faith. These resources provide a wealth of approaches to the challenge of living faithfully today.

Perhaps we should start a series of CreatureKind Corner Questions solely on the theme of suffering! For starters, we’ll offer just one approach to responding, and we'll offer it in the form of a conversation between “Someone with Great Questions” and me, Margaret B. Adam, a CreatureKind Christian theologian and ethicist.

Someone with Great Questions:

Why does God let animals suffer? In fact, why does God let any creature suffer?

Margaret B. Adam:

God is perfect compassion.

SWGQ:

That’s not even an answer! Again, why is there suffering?

MBA:

Scripture and Christian tradition describe human suffering in a variety of ways. Sometimes it seems that sin causes suffering, directly or indirectly, to the sinner and/or to others. Sometimes, it seems that suffering serves as a learning experience. Suffering can seem like punishment or abandonment. Much of the time, suffering seems inexplicable, unjustified, unnecessary, even cruel.

SWGQ:

OK, but that’s about humans. What about animals? They don’t deserve to suffer, do they?

MBA:

It’s true that scripture and tradition have chiefly considered human creatures’ suffering, with occasional observations about the rest of creation that also cries out for the relief of cosmic redemption. In our context today, we are also considering animal creatures and the rest of creation (earth, skies, seas, and plants). Let's see if what we've thought about human suffering helps us consider animal suffering.

We may be able to identify reasons for some human suffering, but it is difficult to deny that countless people suffer for no apparent reason.

The presumption that only guilty people should suffer, while innocent people should not, fails to account for:

The variety of ways of suffering:

  • pain experienced in pursuit of desired goal
  • stomach virus, pneumonia fatal cancer
  • loneliness, depression, total abandonment
  • some fear and anxiety, overwhelming fear and anxiety
  • shorter- and longer-term thirst and hunger
  • vulnerability to human and nonhuman predators
  • guilt, empathy, spiritual crisis, unforgiven sin
  • prejudice, objectification, oppression, slavery

Which kinds of suffering do we think God should disallow?

The fact that we cannot assess guilt and innocence very well:

  • It is difficult to determine the intention, desire, remorse of others.
  • It is difficult to ascertain the mental and spiritual capacity of others.
  • There are few standards for evaluating extenuating circumstances.
  • There are few shared standards at all for evaluating ethical accountability.
  • Legal standards are insufficient for assessing Christian virtue.
  • States of sin and grace may be known only to God.

How do we judge who deserves to suffer and who does not?

The fact that a vast web of sin and accountability complicates cause and effect:

  • The Fall, original sin, and systemic sin narrate far reaching ramifications of sin.
  • In the midst of systemic sin, it can be impossible to avoid causing suffering.
  • It can be difficult to locate who is (most) responsible for particular suffering.
  • Individuals and groups contribute to suffering indirectly as well as directly.
  • It is difficult to escape entirely from social structures that cause suffering.
  • It is difficult to gain the perspective necessary to recognise our own culpability

These factors all complicate the intuition that innocent human creatures should not suffer, and guilty human creatures should suffer. Likewise, nonhuman creatures are enmeshed in the systemic sin of unredeemed creation; they suffer and they are not detached from causes for suffering.

Creatures suffer. There are lots of reasons. We know some of the reasons; we can't figure out all the reasons.

We do not know enough about God’s relationships with nonhuman animals to assert much about nonhuman animal sin, but we can see that animals suffer greatly. Innocence does not seem to be any more of a protection from suffering for nonhuman animals than it is for human animals. As far as we can tell, suffering is an integral part of what it is to be a creature in the world as we know it.

SWGQ:

That’s depressing. I thought you said God is compassionate!

MBA:

Indeed, I did. As does scripture and the whole of the church across time and place. Not only is God compassionate, God is ultimate compassion. God is the creator of all. Nothing is greater than God; nothing is more than God; God is goodness itself. Creatures have limits and flaws. They are better and worse at compassion, depending on the moment. God is infinite and perfect. God does not change from somewhat compassionate to extremely compassionate, in response to variations in creaturely suffering. God is already, always, in every way, the completeness of unbounded compassion.

SWGQ:

But, how can God be compassionate when God ignores suffering?

MBA:

God's knowledge, wisdom, and attention is boundless—unlike ours—so we probably cannot claim that God ignores suffering. Perhaps a better question would be, ‘How can we know God’s compassion if we don’t see God fixing the suffering around us?’

SWGQ:

Yes! Animal predators rip their prey to shreds. Droughts, famines, and wars lead to painful animal deaths. Factory farmed animals know only suffering, as products for human consumption. What good is God’s all-encompassing compassion if it does not free creatures from intense suffering here and now?

MBA:

This is a tough one. Let's take a time-out for considering some animals who are not suffering at the moment.

Recipe for a Respite from Despair

  • Cuddle an animal close at hand.
  • Borrow a neighbour's pet for cuddling.
  • Gaze at photos of sloths sleeping, giraffes eating, cows nursing calfs, and sheep frolicking.
  • Watch this adorable video.

SWGQ:

I did that. I'm still struggling with God's compassion in the face of intense creature suffering.

MBA:

Yes. Most people who think about it also struggle.

It requires some humility on our part to accept that there might be more going on than we can see and understand. God, who is creator of all, is the creator of time and space. God is not contained by or governed by time and space. The scale and scope of God’s reconciliation of creation far exceeds our knowledge and imagination. Scriptural stories repeatedly show the people of God in despair, asking God for rescue and relief. In Job, the Psalms and Lamentations, sufferers thrust their pain and despair at God, expecting immediate and effective responses. Sometimes, comfort comes quickly. Sometimes, it seems not to come at all, and the cries to God grow in intensity, through generations. Even when it seems that God is no longer listening, God’s people turn to God and hold God accountable for the promise of peace and reconciliation. So, we have strong precedents for praying to God to release animals from suffering and for lamenting to God about the perpetuation of that suffering.

SWGQ:

I don't want to rend my garments or scrape my skin with potsherds like Job. How am I supposed to lament?

MBA:

You might try picking out a psalm verse and rewriting it to fit the circumstances. See “Recipe for a Psalm of Lament.”

SWGQ:

Now I'm mad at God.

MBA:

Yes, that's an important part of prayer.

I think that time and space are a big problem here. What good is the peaceable kingdom if it is not happening now? Yes, Jesus Christ, fully human creature and fully God, suffered and died to transform creation’s suffering and death into eternal life. But our hope in that transformation can falter in the face of creaturely suffering this minute.

Still, Christians claim that God is greater than suffering and death, God is greater than the limitations of time and space, and God is certainly greater than our faltering faithfulness. The horrors of torture, species extinction, genocide, and factory farming animal abuse will never lessen God’s complete, perfect, unchangeable compassionate. Nothing—not sin, not death, not suffering, not time or space—can separate creation from God’s undiminishable, infinite, loving compassion. God’s compassion overrides all pain and loss. God redeems creation from abuse and heals all of creation’s wounds. God is present with all those who suffer. The the completion of creation is the end of creaturely use, abuse, and suffering.

SWGQ:

Hmmph. It sure doesn't seem like it.

MBA:

This is where our part comes in. We can be signs of God's ultimate comfort to come by offering what comfort we can now, and we can call others to be comforters, by our words and our example.

Countless heroes of the faith have witnessed to God’s constant compassion and have proclaimed God’s care for those who suffer, care that finds its fulfilment in the redeemed creation. The call for witnesses and proclaimers continues, and the need is great. Those of us who are called to be missioners of God’s compassion to animal creatures can proclaim the life without suffering yet to to come, by working to decrease suffering now. Humans do not themselves make the new creation happen; encouraging more people to become vegan will not speed up the arrival of God’s peaceable kingdom (God is not dependent on human effort or created time). But, Christians who place their hope in the resurrected life can share that hope by becoming compassionate companions (in a humanly imperfect and limited way) of those who suffer. We can witness to a life in Christ that does not require the torture and death of animals in order for humans to thrive. We can anticipate creation’s healing by resisting creature abuse. We can share with our brothers and sisters in Christ our faith in God’s compassion that exceeds the limitations of social eating habits, church budgets, and taste preferences, by proclaiming God’s presence at the table, in the kitchen, at the slaughterhouse, in the pig gestation crate.

So, one response to the question, 'Why does God let animals suffer?' is to proclaim God's perfect compassion.

God loves all of creation with divine, boundless, compassion. God does not let creatures suffer forever. We do not need to know why creatures suffer or when suffering will cease in order to proclaim, in word and deed, God’s peaceable kingdom to come.

SWGQ:

Well, maybe. I'll think about it and get back to you with more questions.

MBA:

Sure. If you get hungry in the meantime, here's a recipe for a quick summer meal.