The Greatest Form of Self-Deceit by Howard Chang

I met Jane as she was being rolled on a gurney into the operating room of the hospital for the placement of a feeding tube through her stomach. Jane was not much older than me, but in the poorest condition of any patient I had ever seen. She was born with an acute form of cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that overtook her at birth and robbed her entirely of the ability to communicate, either by verbalization or by the movement of her limbs. Her body was severely crippled, and she had spent the entirety of her life bedridden. Recently, she had also acquired a complicated bacterial infection that threatened to kill her if she was not treated properly.

As I stood alternating my gaze between Jane and the clock on the wall, Dan, one of the main nurses aiding Jane’s procedure, abruptly blurted out a question with such shameless and jocular audacity that I was unable to muster any sort of meaningful reply.  “Where is your God now?” he asked. And as Jane lay there on her gurney—her gaunt, crippled body contorted in rebellion against her diseased brain—it appeared to all of us that Dan’s point was well-taken.

Dan was one of those older gentlemen whom young adults like me could still call “cool.” He had a somewhat cynical but cheerfully self-confident way of speaking that always made you feel like life was more humorous than terrifying. People like him always seemed to know so much about the horrors of this world that they learned to deal with undignified human suffering in the most dignified way they knew how: to accept it, and then to laugh at its absurdity. However, to challenge or attempt to resolve the mystery of the supernatural and His/Her/Its involvement in human suffering was a fruitless and exceedingly laborious task. Suffering simply is. Life is simply unfair. This is not necessarily a pessimistic worldview, but a realistic one bred from the harsh experiences of a full life in a bleeding and broken world. 

As much as I respected Dan, though (and still do), I’ve never quite found it within myself to take his outlook of acceptance as a final answer. Some may say that once I live long enough, I’ll see that Dan’s humble resignation and his ability to laugh at the senselessness of human suffering constitute the most viable way to deal with the sheer unfairness of life. We the fortunate do what we can to help the unfortunate, and we leave the rest up to the Fates that dictate who gets to be well and who gets to be sick. To that end, Dan was doing his part—he was a damn good nurse, and he cared for patients in remarkable ways. That was his response to Jane’s suffering, and that was enough.

Like Dan, I realized after hearing his question that I had grown tired of intellectual skirmishes with friends about God’s culpability in cases of suffering as dehumanizing as Jane’s. I borrowed my “answers” straight from the philosophies of some of the world’s best theologians— yet, more often than not, they did little to convince my skeptical friends of the outrageous claim that God existed and cared deeply about people like Jane. To them, it didn’t matter how logically compelling my answers were, how well I could recite Dr. William Lane Craig’s moral argument[1] for the existence of God, or Dr. John Lennox’s heartfelt exposition[2] of the hope of God in the lives of hurting people. Rather, the poignant reality of unjustified evil was sufficient for them to assert that God just wasn’t their “thing,” no matter what anyone said. I felt that way about Dan. I saw many in the form of this nurse who dealt with life as it was handed to him, a man who avoided talk about even the possibility of God’s reality in a place as dismal as the operating room where Jane lay.

The commonality between Dan’s worldview and my own was that each helped us get through the heart-wrenching scene in front of us. For Dan, Jane’s condition was just the way things were—she got unlucky; God probably had nothing to do with it. But as much as I tried to believe this, I simply couldn’t. My view was that God didn’t want her to be that way. The questions I kept asking—i.e. Why would God not do something about it already?—were irrelevant to Dan.

Nearly every worldview is able (to some degree) to propel us through life’s most harrowing tragedies. When Dan and I contemplated the unfairness of Jane’s condition, for instance, both Dan’s worldview and mine were adequate to get us through that moment of discomfort, each in its own way. Perhaps this is one of the reasons we have become a pluralistic society, where every worldview is deemed respectable and sometimes even “true” for those who maintain them. Truth is becoming less a singular reality and more a matter of personal taste. Dan’s truth works for him, and mine works for me—so be it. Dan and I may well have been joined at Jane’s bedside by a Buddhist monk, a reformed Jew, a conservative Catholic, an ardent atheist—and we all would have found a way to cope with the scene before us.

However, worldviews must not be evaluated solely based on how well they explain the problem of human suffering, or even how effectively they assuage our feelings of anger, sadness, or guilt when we are confronted with circumstances as dehumanizing as Jane’s. Worldviews do not exist merely for the intellectual or emotional benefit of those who believe them; they cannot merely be a private matter.

Indeed, here lies the crux of the issue: Worldviews do—and indeed must—dictate the way that we act and respond to the suffering of others. We are dishonest with ourselves if we attempt to confine the consequences of our worldviews within our own minds and prevent them from spilling out into our actions towards people in need.  For Dan and I, what mattered most was not how our worldviews allowed us to grit our teeth and bear the tragedies of life such as Jane’s suffering (any plausible worldview does that much), but rather how they influenced the way we behaved as we exited the doors of that operating room, never to see Jane again.

Dogmatic naturalists might assert that Jane’s life had no purpose, that she was less valuable than those who are healthy enough to actually be able to do something. When they are utterly honest with themselves, dogmatic naturalists cannot avoid the logical conclusions of their worldview: that it would be better pragmatically for Jane’s family and the hospital to cease spending thousands of dollars trying desperately to sustain the life of someone who cannot contribute to human society. Jane’s life is but a mishap in the otherwise forward-moving process that Nature has initiated to promote the development of the human species.

But worldviews collapse when they force people to live inconsistently with what they believe to be true. The view that life is objectively purposeless collides violently with the sharp pangs we feel when we see people like Jane and do whatever we can to try to make them well. The view that the value of human life should be judged based on merit betrays the rare forms of unconditional love we show to those who can never earn it. The view that suffering is merely an illusion that can be overcome by the self-purging of all desire clashes vehemently with the very realness of human emotion that remains with us no matter how actively we try to exorcise it from our beings. The view that each person’s worldview is “true” in its own way conflicts fundamentally with the zeal with which we hold that genocide is wrong or human equality is right.

My most distressing thought upon leaving Jane that day was precisely that I had been living inconsistently with my own worldview. I believed that God created Jane and that He loved her, and that I was to go out and love the outcasts like her whom God cherished as much as the saints and angels. But recently my busy college life reflected little compassion for others, and, consequently, forced me to question how much I actually believed about God and his concern for suffering people all around me.

Jane reminded me that the greatest form of self-deceit is to believe strongly in a worldview which we ourselves fail to live. The imprint that Jane left on my heart will remain with me for a long time. Although she wasn’t able to utter a single word to me during the half hour I stayed with her in the operating room, in her silence she somehow let me know that my life should reflect the hope I had in the God who loved her more dearly than I could ever imagine.

The reality of undignified suffering will continue to stir me, as I believe it should for anyone who is brave enough to believe that there is a God who unequivocally hates evil. Even dogmatic naturalists often admit that undignified human suffering is fundamentally wrong.[3] But for those of us in particular who see beyond the constraints of materialism and peer audaciously into the realm of God’s reality, we have an additional responsibility that we cannot pretend does not exist. This responsibility is to live consistently with our belief that God hates evil and requires us to give all of ourselves to the pursuit of justice and healing in our world. To love the Shepherd means to feed His sheep.[4] For Christians, the greatest form of self-deceit is to profess this love without performing it.

For the rest of us, we must be courageous enough to place our worldviews on trial and ask whether our lives genuinely reflect our most deeply held beliefs, particularly regarding issues as pressing as human suffering. If not, perhaps it is time we stop deceiving ourselves. Perhaps a new worldview is in order.

[1]  For an abbreviated version of Dr. Craig’s moral argument, see the section entitled “3. The Moral Argument Based upon Moral Values and Duties” at: www.reasonablefaith.org/the-new-athiesm-and-five-arguments-for-god

[2] For Dr. Lennox ‘s full speech at the Veritas Forum, see http://johnlennox.org/jresources/the-loud-absence

[3] Granted, dogmatic naturalists who do follow the logical conclusions of their worldview will admit that undignified human suffering is not objectively wrong because moral absolutes do not exist. I do not know many who remain logically consistent in this respect

[4] John 21:15-17. In this Scripture, Jesus asks his disciple Peter three times whether he loves him. Each time, Peter confesses his love for Jesus, and each time Jesus replies by asking him to “feed my sheep.” There are multiple live interpretations of this passage, some of which restrict the meaning of “feed” and “sheep.” I have taken the liberty to interpret “feed” as “to aid/ care for,” and “sheep” as including both Christians and non-Christians.

Posted on June 9, 2015 .