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What I've Learned About God from Writing Fiction: Love & Suffering

In my previous blog post, I used my experience as a writer of fiction to engage with the question of whether God gives us free will, or whether God controls everything that happens. It was an artist’s take on a question usually tackled by theologians and philosophers. I will be attempting a similar approach today, focusing on the question of how a loving God can allow suffering. Because the question of free will is so closely linked with today’s question, I’d encourage you to go back and read the first part if you haven’t done so already (click here). Then when you’re ready, you can dive in below.



Before we get started, one more caveat:


4.)   I don’t believe all pain is suffering. Plenty of the pain we experience in life is better defined as natural consequences—you know, “If you don’t put on your coat, you’re going to be cold,” that sort of thing. This kind of pain is quite different than the suffering caused by systemic oppression or individual acts of cruelty, and equating the two does injustice to the victims of true suffering. So in this post, we are discussing undeserved suffering, not every single instance of pain or discomfort.



Question #2: How can a loving God allow suffering?



The novel I’m currently writing features a truly obnoxious character. She’s selfish, uptight, racist, arrogant, privileged, cold, and entitled. But I am so fond of her. I absolutely love this character, not just because of how fun it is to write her scenes, but because I know who she is becoming and what happened to her to make her this way in the first place. I love the entirety of her, past and present—and I have some good guesses at her future, too. I have another character who makes cowardly choices over and over again. I love him, too. Every time he makes another cowardly choice, I feel compassion, but also equanimity: his choices can’t mess up the story because I’ve got it under control, and I know he won’t always be a coward.



I love my characters—not just the kind and brave characters, but the yucky and difficult ones, too. Because I love them, I have a deep urge to protect them from suffering; I don’t want to make bad things happen to them. I feel in my guts the pain that bad things cause them; it hurts to write events like that. But as the writer of a story that I hope will entertain and inspire others, I have a higher goal in mind than just giving my characters comfortable lives. Yes, occasionally my affection for characters stays my hand; in one novel I wrote a few years ago, I had intended to kill someone off, but at the last minute, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It would have caused too much pain, more than I could bear to write. So the character lived, and the story shifted as a result. Most of the time, however, bad things still happen to my characters.



They suffer, even though I love them. But because I love them, I suffer with them.



Three weeks ago, I sat at my dining room table and wept over my computer as I wrote a scene where a woman dreams of the children she lost and will never hold in her arms again. It haunted me all night. I ached as I put my daughter to bed; my character’s grief was not my own, but I could still feel it in my chest and in my throat.



This empathic response is wrapped up in the concept of immanence (read the first post in this series to catch up). Immanence is the nearness, the presence, the intimacy of God. An immanent and loving God is deeply involved in our experiences, just like when I weep as I write a death scene, or grin when two characters touch for the first time and feel less alone. An immanent and loving God glows with joy when we celebrate a new life or a new chapter of life, aches when we feel lost and alone, delights when we laugh with our loved ones, and suffers when we are in agony from a disease. As a writer, I have to experience all my characters’ emotions in order to describe them: the heat and tension of anger, the buzzing, frantic energy of anxious excitement, the cold heaviness of grief, the heart-pounding joy of falling in love. I am affected by my characters; I am changed by them. An immanent and loving God is not outside of Creation plotting and planning our suffering; an immanent and loving God is deep in the story with us, throbbing with our emotions like they’re Her own.



Let’s go back to my character who lost her children. Yes, I could have written it differently. Her children could have lived. But I would have had to impede the free will of another character to spare them. And then it would have been a different story—and this story, the one I’m writing now, would never have happened. The whole world in which the story takes place would have been deprived. Her suffering fits into a beautiful whole.



This is different than saying, “Everything happens for a reason,” or claiming that God makes us suffer for some greater good.



To revisit the first question, if God is experiencing the flow of history in real time, honoring our free will at every step, God is not determining and causing each tragedy; rather, God is responding to each tragedy and incorporating it into a magnificent story.



Good art reflects reality; in the stories I write, senseless evil and purposeless pain do occur, because that’s what happens in real life. Free will causes suffering. Because of free will, we have rape, murder, war, poverty, child abuse, pollution, corrupt leaders, climate change, insecure attachment; the Creation myth in Genesis even connects the dots from free will to a fallen world full of things like tsunamis, cancer, and stillborn babies. (Side Note: check out this post, about halfway down, if you want a neurobiological definition of "sin," the word commonly associated with this Genesis myth.) But just like in real life, in good art, senseless evil and purposeless pain are often swept up into a larger story that makes sense of them. The sense, though—the meaning, the beauty—comes after the fact, not before. My character’s children didn’t die so that she could meet the other characters and save a lot of lives; her children died, and so then she met the other characters and saved a lot of lives.



Try this out with the suffering in your own life: Not [x] so that [y], but [x] and so then [y]. “I didn’t suffer years of depression so that I could become an empathic therapist; I suffered years of depression, and so then I became an empathic therapist.” God didn’t cause my pain to achieve some foreordained plan; God loved me so much that She insisted on making something beautiful out of my pain. This is what I mean by redemption. The pain is not the end of the story; the pain is transformed and that is the end of the story. That is art.



When I was a child, I was taught that God’s chief concern was His own glory (yes, this God was a “he”). This always felt callous and selfish to me—especially because it was paired with a determinism that taught that God ordained all suffering. If my chief concern was my own glory, and it came at the expense of others, people would call me a narcissistic jerk or worse. How is it somehow okay just because God is the one doing it?



After I started writing seriously, I gradually learned to rephrase it: God’s chief concern is to write a good and glorious story.



My job as a writer is to tell the best story I possibly can. A good story is more than the sum of its parts; it shows us something true about love or healing or growth or purpose or beauty; it inspires us; it teaches us; it changes the world. So I am working for the good of all of my characters and the good of the whole story at the same time—and yes, that is all tied up in my good, because if I write a good story, I am earning glory for myself through a reputation as a skilled writer. (Okay, glory is a strong word, but you know what I mean.) God has many levels of motivation to “write a good story” with our lives. God’s glory doesn’t come at our expense; Her glory is wrapped up in our good.



(What about the stories—or the lives—that don’t have good endings? That’s another blog post for another day. But let’s just say for now that I think our stories aren’t over when we die, and God’s storytelling isn’t limited by our mortality.)



Okay, so let’s say that God’s main job is to write a good and glorious story. How do you write a good story? You pay attention to craft.



Craft is the laws of writing. Good stories abide by the rules. Craft includes rules such as “show, don’t tell,” and “stories must have an inciting incident, rising action, a climax, and a resolution,” and “for a scene to work, a character has to make a choice that leads to a changed outcome.” People who don’t write fiction believe that the writer has unlimited power. “You can do whatever you want. You can make anything happen!” they say. Yes and no. I can write whatever I want…but I have to follow the rules.



Do the rules of craft diminish my power? I don’t believe so. I believe that the rules of craft enhance my power. They direct my power, make the most of it, improve my ability to achieve my goals. The more closely I follow the rules of craft, the more effective I am as a writer.



Let me tell you about the first novel I ever wrote. I had recently graduated with a B.A. in Creative Writing, and I had been the absolute star of the entire program. I even won an award for Best English Major of the Year. I knew I was a good writer. But I was 22 years old, and I thought I was above the rules. So I wrote a novel where I tried to break all the rules and do whatever I wanted…and it was terrible. An absolute pile of reeking trash.



So what does this have to do with God and the question of suffering? Often, we approach this question the same way non-writers approach me. “But God can do whatever God wants. God could have just stopped this suffering from happening. What’s wrong with God?” But what if God has to follow the rules of craft, too?



Think of the rules of craft as “the sun rises in the east” kind of rules, not the “you must stop at every stop sign” kind of rules—no one invented them; it’s just the way things are. Maybe God made it that way, or maybe some meta-divine logic means there is no other way it could be. I don’t know. But an open and relational theology teaches that God has chosen to abide by Her own rules—rules of love, free will, artistry, redemption, and restoration. And these rules don’t hinder God; they actually highlight Her magnificence and show off Her skill as the most glorious story-teller of all time. God isn’t self-limiting by respecting the rules; God is fulfilling God’s own nature.



When I pick up a new book and commit to reading it, it’s an act of trust in the author. By reading the book, I am trusting the author to tell a good story, to lead me through all the conflict to a satisfying conclusion—to follow all the rules of craft. I want to propose that maybe the right question isn’t, “Is God all-powerful?” or even “Is God free?” Maybe the right question is, “Is God trustworthy?” This question gets right to the heart of the security of our attachment with God. Can we trust God with this story? Can we have faith that She is going to write a beautiful ending, no matter where we are in the middle right now?



This is ultimately where my experience as a writer leads me—right to the question of how much I trust God.



The best part, though, is that my experience as a writer has increased my trust in God. I know the rules of a story; I know the rules are all about beauty. I know what it’s like to love, and to labor over the lives of the characters I love. And I know I can trust an Artist who is committed to beauty.


_____



I have always struggled to explain how my experience of writing fiction has shaped my spirituality and my belief in the trustworthiness of God. I hope I’ve finally done it justice here. Writing stories is an act of worship for me, a profoundly meaningful activity that brings me closer to God. It’s a form of spiritual connection, and a way of experiencing God that aligns with my identity. If this has been helpful for you, I’d ask you to consider what spiritual truths you might be able to glean from your own passions, vocations, skills, and unique experiences. I’d love to hear them; feel free to email me at karyn@karynreschcounseling.com.


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