“We know the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:21).
The Pain Dilemma
by Steven Clark Goad
Amazingly, one of my favorite chapters in the New Testament that is so full of hope also contains the verse above. How do we keep our faith in light of all the suffering in the world? Should not the famines and tsunamis and hurricanes and poverty and homelessness and AIDS and wars and cancer and birth anomalies and divorce drive any thoughtful person to as least some serious doubts about a supposedly loving Creator God?
Charles Templeton, a protégé and friend of Billy Graham at the beginning of Graham’s ministry, was so moved by an image in Life Magazine that it altered his life dramatically, robbing him of his faith. It lent a stamp of approval on all the doubts he had been visiting in his mind. The gut-wrenching image was a photo of an African woman holding up the body of her lifeless baby. Lack of rain had caused a famine and countless people were dying. He reasoned that since God was in charge of the rain there must not be a God who would allow innocents to die for lack of water and food. Templeton, the varsity to Graham’s reserve, lived into his old age without prayer or faith or hope of eternity.
Though I do not consider myself an expert on the topic of suffering, I‘ve had my share. My mother died when I was 16. She was 43. That challenged my fragile new faith greatly. The few other hardships I have had in my life pale in comparison to that African mother and others who have suffered in extremis. When I compare my life to Job or the apostle Paul for example, it has been a cakewalk. But what of those who cannot process the horrendous doses of pain in their own lives or what they see in the lives of others? How do we exonerate a good and loving and beneficent God over against the image of abject pain and suffering?
Some of us living in the USA have little vision of the daily horrors of life in third world countries. Filth. Children living on the streets. Gutters used for toilets. Nakedness. Festering sores. Hunger. Flies and rats and pestilence. No pure water. Some children are born on the sidewalks, live their lives on the sidewalks, and die prematurely on the sidewalks.
The Long View
We don’t have the mind of God to see the entire picture. When I was a boy one of our cocker spaniels got his foot caught in the garage door. My sister ran to help him. All she wanted to do was rescue him. She was bitten through her thumb for her efforts. Why? Because our cocker didn’t know the mind of my sister was to aid him. All he felt was his pain. Life is like this at times for us. Since much of our pain is self-induced, we strike out at some other cause instead of admitting we have brought it on ourselves. I think of people putting themselves in harms way constantly and suddenly when they are hurt they seem to look for someone else to blame.
Faith could not exist if it weren’t for the challenges to it. Faith is not an easy thing to obtain. It requires effort. If God protected us from our own bad choices, there would be no need for faith. Some of the greatest strengths in life derive out of hardship and suffering. The man who has just cheated on his income tax and has just abused his wife and children is not in a position to ask, “If there is a God, why is there so much evil in the world?” God has left so many clues for us so that we might find him that we often take them for granted. Some frequently use him as a scapegoat for their own indiscretions. That’s a mistake.
Finite Human Reasoning
Some reason as follows: 1) If there was a loving and generous God, there would be no pain or turmoil in the world. 2) There is much pain and turmoil in the world. 3) Thus, there can be no God. This was Templeton’s assumption, driven home by the image of the grieving mother. Another reasons as follows: 1) If there is an omnipotent God who could do anything, he would not allow suffering and evil to exist. 2) Suffering and evil exists and nothing is being done about it. 3) Thus, there can be no all-powerful God.
Life is full of speed bumps. Does this disprove God? Consider Job. Robbed of his wealth, his family and his health, with friends accusing him of sin, with a wife goading him to denounce God and die, Job cried out, “But I have not sinned to bring this upon me.” Since Job did not know the future nor could he determine the outcome of his tragedies, he is not unlike the rest of us in that regard. Judging God is like reading half of a novel and then putting the book down and critiquing the author for not presenting a climax. Job was right. He was not suffering because he was an unrighteous man. In John 9:3 Jesus noted that suffering cannot always be passed off as sinful living on the part of the sufferer. Certainly babies born deformed have done nothing to deserve that.
The Free Will Factor
We often suffer because we abuse the laws of nature. Our free wills open the door to suffering. If our wills were removed, we would become robots programmed by God never to skin a knee or harm someone else. We have the choice to do good or bad. When we choose the wrong paths, we end up often paying a painful price. Eve had the freedom of choice. She chose to disobey God. She, and we, are still suffering the consequences of that choice. And this is one of the great causes of human anguish and misery. We live in a world where those around us who make wrong decisions in life harm the rest of us who live among them.
Distress and torment can produce positive results. In Roman 8 Paul tells us all things can work out for the good of those who love God. All things would include hardships. Our primary purpose on earth is to honor God. Everything that takes us from that objective is evil. Everything that draws us closer to God is good. This view allows us to understand world events in a different, more positive, light.
The Comfort Factor
For example, it is quite possible that living in an affluent society that tempts us into caring more for the size of our HD plasma television set than we do for the spiritual growth of our children might cause a great deal of heartache. “A man’s life consists not in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). It is even conceivable that illness, loss of income, or even the death of a loved one might ultimately serve some good purposes. I reflected more on God in my hospital bed than I had in the days of my health and strength.
It is often in suffering that we experience the most powerful force in our lives. It is difficult to be arrogant when you’re slowly dying. The things that seemed so glamorous become meaningless in such crises. David said, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I may learn God’s ways” (Psalm 119:71). David experienced heartfelt grief. He lost his son with Bathsheba. He lost his beloved Absalom. He was closely acquainted with suffering. Yet he was drawn closer to the Almighty because of it.
Feeling No Pain
If God removed suffering from the lives of those who followed him, they would serve him out of self-interest. We are not promised immunity from pain. Jesus told his disciples he didn’t want them removed from the world, but to minister to the world. He told them clearly their ministries would involve hardships and great disappointments.
The Lord has not promised immunity from pain if we love him. C. S. Lewis wrote: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks clearly in our consciences, but shouts at us in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Many have been driven to repentance out suffering. That we suffer because of others is part of the price we pay for being neighbors with humanity. “For none of us lives to himself, and none dies to himself” (Romans 14:7).
Three things leap to my mind. 1) My own suffering. 2) Those who complain about it most. 3) And those who benefit from it most. I surprised myself recently for thanking God for suffering I was experiencing. Without getting into details, I had one of those “why not me” epiphanies. Though I was upset and beside myself about the physical dilemma that intruded into my life unannounced, it drove me closer to God rather than to a posture of accusing him.
Oh, yes, have you noticed those who complain the most about suffering? It is typically the well fed who are comfortable in their lives and routines. The mother with the malnourished kids will do all in her power to find the next bowl of rice. Only the affluent have the privilege and resources to navel gaze about their wardrobe or which restaurant to visit today. And third, it has often been those who have experienced the greatest suffering who have produced the most shining examples of the indomitable spirit that rises above it.
A Broken World With Imperfect Souls
We live in a broken/fallen world. Every cause has its effect. Sin results in suffering. Free will causes hardships and tragedy. Living in a world bombarded by the unwise decisions of others results in suffering. Perhaps the sin of a drunken driver will snatch the life of an innocent family, or leave a child orphaned. Whom do we blame? God? The distiller? The bartender? The man who didn’t know when to stop imbibing? The auto manufacturer? Living with others brings pain—no doubt about it. Yet living with others also brings some of life’s greatest joys and most cherished memories. Most of us, if given the choice, would choose to cast our lot with our fellows, even if we must risk a few inconveniences along the way.
Two parrots are talking to each other in a pet shop. One says to the other, “I’d like to ask why God allows all of the pain, hardship and injustice in the world?” The other parrot replies, “Aren’t you afraid God might ask us the same question?”
SIDEBAR: It is by those who have suffered that the world has been advanced. —Leo Tolstoy