The Problem of Pain

I just finished reading both The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis and thought I would share some of my thoughts and his about this sometimes very problematic area for Christians.

Often we think that if God was good, he would want to make us happy and if he were almighty, He could do what He wanted. And if we aren’t happy, then God is either not good or not powerful, or both. This is what we mean by the problem of pain. But there are some flaws in this reasoning. For one, it assumes that our definition of good and God’s definition of good are the same; that our idea of a favorable outcome and His are identical.

Lewis says, “On the one hand, if God is wiser than we His judgment must differ from ours on many things, and not least on good and evil. What seems to us good may therefore not be good in His eyes, and what seems to us evil may not be evil.

“On the other hand, if God’s moral judgment differs from ours so that our ‘black’ may be his ‘white’, we can mean nothing by calling him good; for to say ‘God is good’, while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say ‘God is we know not what’. And an utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying Him.

“The Divine ‘goodness’ differs from ours, but it is not sheerly different: it differs from ours not as white from black but as a perfect circle from a child’s first attempt to draw a wheel. But when the child has learned to draw, it will know that the circle it then makes is what it was trying to make from the very beginning.”

Another major flaw that we find when we want God to make everything “good”, is that we completely remove the fact that He has given us free will. Are you familiar with the term “mutually exclusive?” That means that A can happen or B can happen, but A and B cannot both happen and if A happens, B cannot happen. In terms of what we are discussing here, God doing what He wants and what he wants only and us having free will are two mutually exclusive ideas.

It is also mutually exclusive to say we have free will, and that there will be no one who makes decisions that will hurt someone else. If we all are acting for our own best interest, then by definition, we are not acting for the best interest of anyone else, or to say it more plainly, we are acting in a way that may bring hurt or distress of some kind to another.

Lewis says it this way, “When souls become wicked they will certainly use this possibility to hurt one another; and this, perhaps, accounts for four-fifths of the sufferings of men. It is men, not God, who have produced racks, whips, prisons, slavery, guns, bayonets, and bombs; it is by human avarice or human stupidity, not by the churlishness of nature, that we have poverty and overwork. But there remains, none the less, much suffering which cannot thus be traced to ourselves. Even if all suffering were man-made, we should like to know the reason for the enormous permission to torture their fellows which God gives to the worst of men.”

You see, by wanting God to make everything in this world “good” we are saying that “We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves,’ and 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’. Not many people, I admit, would formulate a theology in precisely those terms: but a conception not very different lurks at the back of many minds.”

But, when we try to reconcile the problem of human suffering with a God who is good and loving, we struggle, because we don’t understand what it means for God to be good and loving in a true sense. You see, love sometimes is painful. When we truly love someone, we want the best for them, and sometimes the best for them is for them to go through something that changes them. An alcoholic going through rehab. An abuser seeking counseling. A sinner being remade in the Image of God. God does not exist for the sake of man. We exist for the sake of God and He uses pain in our lives to alter us and craft us into the people He created us to be.

But why does that have to be done through pain, you might ask. Two words: the Fall. You see, God made us in His image, but because He gave us free will, Adam, the first man, and through him, all of us, chose to sin and become separated from God. But couldn’t God have stopped it or at least taken it away? “It would, no doubt, have been possible for God to remove by miracle the results of the first sin ever committed by a human being; but this would not have been much good unless He was prepared to remove the results of the second sin, and of the third, and so on forever.” The reality is this, “man, as a species, spoiled himself, and that good, to us in our present state, must therefore mean primarily remedial or corrective good.” When we feel pain, we know something is wrong and we want to correct it. Pain calls us to pay attention. It is in those moments that we often think that God is cruel. We don’t understand when we see good, decent people falling on hard times. We don’t get it when people who are working hard to follow Christ experience tragedy that they don’t deserve.

And yet, it is in those moments of our deepest pain that we are most aware of the fact that we need God. And as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death and come out on the other side we see just how much we have grown through the valley.

But once we are out of the valley, and no longer feeling the pain, how long is it before we are right back to depending on ourselves?

It is in these moments that we really start to see how God uses the pain in our lives to get our attention.

Lewis shares this story about His own battles with this. “I am progressing along the path of life in my ordinary contentedly fallen and godless condition, absorbed in a merry meeting with my friends for the morrow or a bit of work that tickles my vanity today, a holiday or a new book, when suddenly a stab of abdominal pain that threatens serious disease, or a headline in the newspapers that threatens us all with destruction, sends this whole pack of cards tumbling down. At first I am overwhelmed, and all my little happinesses look like broken toys. Then, slowly and reluctantly, bit by bit, I try to bring myself into the frame of mind that I should be in at all times. I remind myself that all these toys were never intended to possess my heart, that my true good is in another world and my only real treasure is Christ. And perhaps, by God’s grace, I succeed, and for a day or two become a creature consciously dependent on God and drawing its strength from the right sources. But the moment the threat is withdrawn, my whole nature leaps back to the toys: I am even anxious, God forgive me, to banish from my mind the only thing that supported me under the threat because it is now associated with the misery of those few days. Thus the terrible necessity of tribulation is only too clear. God has had me for but forty-eight hours and then only by dint of taking everything else away from me. Let Him but sheathe that sword for a moment and I behave like a puppy when the hated bath is over—I shake myself as dry as I can and race off to reacquire my comfortable dirtiness, if not in the nearest manure heap, at least in the nearest flower bed. And that is why tribulations cannot cease until God either sees us remade or sees that our remaking is now hopeless.”

This reminds me of a video I saw a few years ago. It is called “God’s Chisel.” A young man named Tommy wants God to make him into the person God created him to be, but that creating requires God to chisel away at the parts of his life that need to be changed. And it hurts. But God doesn’t stop chiseling away because the point is for people to see God and not Tommy. Consider a surgeon who works to remove a cancerous tumor in surgery—the act of cutting wouldn’t be considered “good” or “kind” in and of itself, being cut is painful—but we want the surgeon to keep cutting away until the entire tumor is gone. God will use pain in our lives to “cut away” that which needs to be removed from our lives in order to make us into the people who He created us to be.

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