Where can I run with my sadness? Where can I bring my anger, my pain, my questions? Should I doubt you? Should I fear this world? Or, refusing fear, fight back? Why do the wicked succeed? Why do you permit evil?
My heart breaks with fathers and mothers who go to bed now with empty arms. Who no longer brace for their little ones’ hugs — who will never again relish the smell of their hair, the warmth of their breath, the music of their laughter, or the hint of a smile in the making… I ache at the thought of brothers and sisters whose hearts break over an empty bed in the next room, an unnatural silence; who have questions without answers, a lump in their throat that will never go away. Lord, draw near. God of all comfort, embrace them with everlasting arms… I don’t even know what to ask for. Be God to every child who fears, to every victim of trauma, to every mom and dad and grandparent who fears. Bless the teachers. Restrain the evil.
I do not understand you. I do not claim to know your ways.
But I trust you. I know, from my inmost being, that you are good. I can’t contemplate your Son’s Cross without sensing your love. You did not stand aloof from our suffering and pain, but plunged into my world, our world — and into death — with a suffering that knows no bounds. Your sympathy is not theoretical. You felt our loss, suffered our agonies, endured our pain without measure. You understand each loss of this week in ways I cannot comprehend.
I worship you, even as I ache for unnamed friends whose hearts are broken.
My world is fallen. Infected with evil. Grip me in the palm of your hand. Lift my eyes to heaven. All I know is I’m not home yet. This is not where I belong. I know. Some problems will not be erased this side of heaven.
[Theodicy: our struggle to keep faith with God in light of human suffering. How can a loving God allow such pain? This is from Four Letter Words, published last year. The chapter is called PAIN. This book will be free on Amazon Kindle (readable on any tablet, computer, or smartphone) from December 16-December 20, the maximum Amazon allows, in hopes that some can be blessed, comforted, and strengthened in their faith during this difficult time.]
A Biblical Christian Theodicy
For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. (Romans 8:22)
We are emotional beings, so we feel pain in ourselves and others. I felt pain when my friends’ baby died, and when I saw suffering Africans in a jungle hospital. Other people suffered, yet I felt pain. I’m glad I have that ability even though sometimes it can be overwhelming. It weaves our hearts together.
Without emotions, I don’t think there would be a problem of pain. We’d be like robots. We would interpret pain simply as a warning against potential damage. And we wouldn’t worry much about the fairness of it all.
Think of this: if Christians did not put forth a “good” God, then we wouldn’t have to justify him in light of evil and pain. Not all religions develop a theodicy; only those that teach God is good. If you knock the “God is good” corner off the so-called Inconsistent Triad, you no longer have a problem.
So would you rather have us say that God is bad? Or has ice in his veins? If you dethrone the Christian God on the basis of the problem of pain, then what are your alternatives? Do they offer comfort in your pain? Do they alleviate your pain? Do they make better sense of your pain?
I’d rather be optimistic enough to believe in an all-good, all-powerful God and struggle with the problem of evil than to kick a corner off the triangle. I’ll stay more upbeat that way.
The underlying premise of the Inconsistent Triad is that a good God owes us a pain-free existence. This makes me ask why. Why does the fact that something hurts obligate God to make it stop hurting? Why? By what logic does God owe us either painlessness or pleasure? Must he create a world in which every source of pain dissolves before it does its damage? Knives that cut bread but not fingers? Fire that cooks meat, but not flesh?
C.S. Lewis nailed it when he suggested most of us don’t want a Father in heaven, we want a Grandfather in heaven, “a senile benevolence… whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’.” He then points out that true love transcends our puny notions of “niceness.”13
Lewis is right. The angels who fly around God’s throne do not cry out, “Nice! Nice! Nice!” They cry out “Holy! Holy! Holy!” God is not nice; he is a consuming fire.14 He is holy. And he is love. What does that mean? Lewis answers,
You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked… is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way… but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds…15
Sometimes true love permits pain for a greater good. Any parent who has mourned the look of betrayal from their freshly vaccinated infant understands. The therapist who made me move my shoulder after surgery understands too.
What if we couldn’t feel pain? What if God did the very thing we beg him to do—“God, make it stop hurting…”—then what? Doesn’t pain alert us to danger? to evil? to wounds?
Pain motivates healing action.
Without pain, you wouldn’t yank your hand out of a fire, or smuggle your children out of an abusive home. There’s a sense in which we should thank God for the ability to feel pain. That does not mean we should seek it, or enjoy it, or like it. It means we should listen to its message and act accordingly.
But what about senseless pain, like the Holocaust? Or inter-tribal genocide? Or terrorism? These fall under the category of evil, and we’ll take them up in the next chapter. But for now, let me lay out the consistent view of suffering that emerges from Scripture.
The Bible treats suffering as an alien invader. It was not part of God’s original creation; it wasn’t his original story arc. Pain entered later, when sin and evil entered. No death, no sorrow, no suffering, and no pain existed in God’s good creation. The biblical authors never blame God for the problem of pain. God didn’t create evil or the suffering it birthed.
We brought that on ourselves, collectively speaking.
So, the authors of Scripture add that, when evil galloped into the world, suffering and death rode in on its back. St. Paul explains, “by one man sin entered the world”—referring to Adam—and he adds, “and death by sin” (Romans 5:12).16
Ultimately, Scripture reveals a God who did not stand aloof from the problem of pain; he became human without ceasing to be God, and submerged himself in the depths of pain like no other human before or since. Isaiah prophesied of Jesus on the Cross, “Many were amazed when they saw him—beaten and bloodied, so disfigured one would scarcely know he was a person” (Isaiah 52:14, NLT). Please don’t think Jesus used his God-powers as a narcotic to deaden his pain. Jesus encountered the problem of pain in its fullness as a man—without resorting to his divine powers (Philippians 2:5-8).
No matter how much you hurt, you are never alone. God comes alongside you and is ready to embrace you with an empathy that knows no bounds.
There is no other belief-system that offers anything like this—not animism, not naturalism, and not monism. Because evil and suffering are alien invaders, God can remove them without altering our essential humanness. Plus, God can purge the universe of evil without purging it of humans. Whew!
Even more, God understands the problem of pain through direct experience. “Since he himself has gone through suffering and temptation, he is able to help us when we are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18, NLT).
No other religion even comes close. No other God-became-man suffered and died as our sin-bearer. No other god satisfied the demands of cosmic justice relative to evil, while providing the final solution to the problem of pain.
If you don’t like the biblical answer to the problem of pain, do you have a better one?
One last observation before I outline some talking points.
Pain is Temporary
Pain is temporary. I know, I know: my friend, Toni, just finished her twentieth surgery for chronic back pain. I’m sure her pain doesn’t feel temporary. Pain never feels temporary. I’m writing this chapter ten days after my five-year old son underwent surgery. I can’t describe how slowly time crawled during that procedure. Life shifted into slow motion. My wife and I would have gladly traded places with him. We couldn’t stand to think of him suffering, and it seemed like forever.
Days later, however, a fog has gathered over those memories. It has grown thicker every day. I can only imagine what heaven will do to our memories of pain.
Evil and its offspring, pain, cannot be understood fully within time. One day, our limited temporal horizon will give way to an eternal perspective and we will say that God has been better to us than we ever imagined or deserved. Through the centuries, Jesus-followers have found comfort in God’s astonishing promise: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
How could a hunted, slandered, tortured, persecuted Roman prisoner like St. Paul call anybody’s affliction light and momentary? I don’t know what you feel like when you’re hurting, but for me, pain feels heavy and forever.
So God invites us into a secret way of understanding it: set your pain in an eternal context.
From the standpoint of eternity, even a lifetime of pain is light and momentary. This does not minimize suffering. It does not deny that our suffering can be intense and even brutal. Scripture just puts the problem of pain into a larger context—an infinite one. Christians believe in everlasting life. We will be with God forever in heaven, with no more pain, no more sorrows, and no more tears. Pain does not have the final say. It does not win in the end. God overcomes it.
That belief carries us through.
Some people turn bitter, wondering why God created us knowing we would fall. Perhaps he saw our indescribable blessings in eternity as far outweighing the momentary difficulties of time.
But it gets better.
The most amazing part of Paul’s statement is that our afflictions produce something: “a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” I’m not sure of all that it means, but it sounds awesome. It offers a hope that no other system promises: suffering isn’t wasted. No tear is wasted. God keeps track, and it all means something.
Whatever else it means, the problem of pain means that our eyes are fixed on God, who “comforts us in all our tribulations” (2 Corinthians 1:4). What if pain is the natural outcome of not yet being with God? What if it is a necessary corollary of living outside of heaven? Perhaps pain motivates us to emotionally disinvest in time—at least a little bit—that we might invest more in eternity. No, it doesn’t make life hurt any less. It just makes the pain a little more tolerable. That’s a good thing.
—— # & ! $ # + % —-
1. No one gets to complain about the problem of pain who doesn’t work to solve it.
Ask your friend, “What have you done in the last month to help solve the problem of pain?” Reducing the world’s suffering has eternal significance. The causes of world missions, digging wells, teaching agriculture, building jungle hospitals, running rescue missions, serving as a Salvation Army bell-ringer, and providing ministry to the poor and oppressed are near to God’s heart. Jesus takes it personally when we feed or shelter “the least of these” (Matthew 25:35-45).
If you want to put your treasure where your heart is, you can donate to dozens of worthy causes from Sudan to Cambodia through a highly respected organization called Samaritan’s Purse.
2. The world hurts. It is unjust and unfair, but only because we willfully rejected God as our rightful ruler and king.
We live in a fallen world and bad things happen to all (1 Corinthians 10:13; James 1:2; Matthew 5:45). We’ll think through that factoid and return to the Inconsistent Triad in the next chapter.
3. God can bring good out of bad.
No other system offers this kind of hope for those who suffer (Gen. 50:20). Joseph suffered tragic losses, but God used him to save countless lives from starvation and to lead innumerable Egyptians to the worship of the true God. If Joseph’s suffering resulted in multitudes being fed on earth and going to heaven after earth, was it worth it? You decide. Joseph never understood his pain until the end of his story. I have a feeling we won’t either.
Though God can and does bring good out of bad, it’s usually not a good thing to say when your friend is actually going through suffering. It’s better to draw near, offer a listening ear, pray, and shut up.
4. Stretch your friends with this question:
Christianity offers a God who felt the fullest measure of human suffering, a Savior who comforts us in our suffering, a global mission to alleviate suffering, final justice for those who cause suffering, and a coming world that abolishes suffering… What does your system offer?
5. Offer to pray for your friend’s pain.
Then pray out loud, right on the spot. This isn’t about being right. It’s about touching lives with the love of Jesus and serving others in his name. If your friend doesn’t want your prayer, don’t be indignant. Ask if it’s okay to pray for something else, like genocide or famine or persecution around the world. Make sure your prayer is loving and brave.
13. C.S. Lewis. The Problem of Pain. London: Geoffrey Bles: The Centenary Press, 1940. p. 28.
14. Hebrews 12:29; Isaiah 6:3; 1 John 4:8,16.
15. Lewis, ibid.