The Problem of Pain And
Suffering and how it relates to God
By: Rev. John Tucker
As we live our lives, we are each struck at some time with pain or suffering either as an experience within our own bodies and minds or as empathy coincidental with the pain and suffering of a loved one. Whenever we are faced with the harsh reality of pain, be it of a physical nature or in the form of mental anguish and suffering, we must also immediately be faced with the question why? Characteristically this question has led to a questioning on the part of the righteous sufferer as to the real nature of God and on the part; of the remotely associated observer as to the sin of the sufferer. Consequently, any discussion regarding pain and suffering must deal with at least two questions, the first being; what relationship does a loving God have to a suffering world? and the second being; does righteous suffering exist and if so, why?
In order, then, for us to deal with these questions in some intelligent manner, we must have some concept of God. If we choose not to believe that the world was created by God then we are not faced with a problem of pain because pain simply becomes the coincidental misery into which chance has cast our miserable lives. If we believe that some force or spirit created, and we look in retrospect from the depths of suffering, we may contend that that spirit that created was either indifferent or evil. We are again faced with no problems other than how to escape the torture of that evil spirit. But man has characteristically held that the Creator was wise and good. C. S. Lewis said, "The spectacle of the universe as revealed by experience can never have been the ground of religion; it must always have been something in spite of which, religion, acquired from a different source, was held." (1) Lewis then contends that; man's concept of God did not come from philosophical debate but rather as a "catastrophic historical event" which revealed the essence of God's nature to mankind. The fact, then, of a loving God creates the problem of the awkward fact of pain. "In a sense, it creates, rather than solves this problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of the painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving." (2)
Assuming that we accept the premise that God created and that He is in fact, good; we have to ask why He does not make His creatures perfectly happy. "If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power or both." (3) We know however, that God has willfully limited His power so that men might have freedom of choice. Thus God created for us what many theologians call "the best possible world," James Martin contends that this is the best possible world because it prepares humans for a greater eternity, has natural laws that man can depend on, and makes human freedom apparent. (4) Perhaps, then, the true essence of the problem of pain lies in the fact of freedom of choice, which implies that there is something to choose between. This, then, demands the existence of an environment consisting of "Nature" or "Matter": something, in fact, that is neither me nor you, but is wholly neutral from either of us. Lewis said, If your thoughts and passions were directly present to me, like my own, without any mark of externality or otherness, how should I distinguish them from mine? What we need for human society is exactly what we have--a neutral something, neither you nor I, which we can both manipulate so as to make signs to each other. I can talk to you because we can both set up sound waves in the common air between us. Matter, which keeps souls apart, also brings them together. (5)
If God then in His goodness created the best possible world, in which freedom of choice is possible on the part of his creatures, and thereby created a neutral territory called Nature or Matter, through which man can interact and exercise his freedom of choice, then God must have set down some fixed rules to govern Nature. E. Stanley Jones in speaking of this concept of Natural Law said, Suppose it should be guaranteed that calamities would always strike the wicked alone, and that the righteous would always be saved, what kind of world would this be? Its laws would always be in process of suspension whenever the righteous were involved. Gravity wouldn't pull you down even though you leaned too far over the parapet--provided, of course, you were righteous. What kind of world would we soon have? Certainly not a dependable one, for in a situation about to develop you would not know whether laws would act, for you would not know the character of the persons involved. You would find out only when the thing happened. (6)
Martin likens the problem of pain and suffering to the game of football which he describes as a good game which men are eager to play in spite of the risks. The rules are rigid and have been devised to make football the best possible game. The possibility of hurt belongs to the very nature of the game as it is and the fact is that we cannot have the game without the risk. "To eliminate the risk would mean making it a different game, and one which, few would doubt, would be much inferior." (7) Therefore, to change the world so as to remove suffering would make this quite a different world. Lewis contends that ..." if you were introduced into a world which thus varied at my every whim, you would be quite unable to act in it and would thus lose the exercise of your free will." (8) Can you see how impossible it would be for each and every person to exercise his free will if all of nature bowed down to each individual will? This would not be a world of order, but rather a world of chaos.
Therefore, in light of this understanding, we are not free to declare that God sends pain and suffering on man, but rather there is that sense in which God permits pain and suffering; and that pain and suffering is not necessarily an evil, but rather a great example of God's love for us. Ladislaus Boros contends that man is unable to cope with this world unless he is able to adapt to the world. And he cannot adapt to the world without knowing at what points the world can become a threat to him. To know this requires certain signals as a warning. These signals often take the form of pain which cannot be ignored. (9) Lewis said, If fire comforts that body at a certain distance, it will destroy it when the distance is reduced. Hence, even in a perfect world, the necessity for those danger signals which the pain-fibers in our nerves are apparently designed to transmit. Does this mean an inevitable element of evil (in the form of pain) in any possible world? I think not: for while it may be true that the least sin is an incalculable evil, the evil of pain depends on degree, and pains below a certain intensity are not feared or resented at all. (10)
Thus we can see that there is a sense in which pain is not evil at all, but is necessary as a means of survival. Where then, does the evil come from that is attributed to pain? Well much of it comes from man himself. "When human souls become wicked they will certainly use this possibility to hurt one another: and this perhaps accounts for four-fifths of the suffering of man. It is men, not God, who have produced racks, whips, prisons, slavery, guns, bayonets, and bombs;".... (11) Lewis contends that when one man is going down hill, then anyone going the other way must be going up hill. By the same token, a pebble, if it lies where I wish, can only by coincidence lie where you wish it. This is not evil but it opens the door to evil. "Hostility can use fixed nature to hurt others. The fixed nature of wood that makes it useful as a beam also enable us to use it to hit our neighbor over the head. Thus when humans fight, the victory usually goes to those with superior weapons, skill, and numbers even if their cause is unjust." (12)
But cannot God do something about all of this? Indeed He can, or He would not be God. But is intervention the best thing that He can do? Probably not. Martin said, "God ... could intervene at any time if He wished. But to make a practice of doing so would produce chaos instead of order and would deprive man of that freedom of will which is essential to the development of his soul." (13) Jones, too contends, I believe he can intervene. But what I do object to is saying that God should intervene in impending calamity whenever his children are concerned; and that when he does so, it is a special sign of his being pleased with the persons involved; and that when he does not, there is something wrong in God or in them.
The Christian's answer to the problem of suffering does not lie along this line. If it did, then the Christian would turn out to be the cosmic pet. And a petted child is always a spoiled child. (14) Jones further states that the crowd mockingly taunted Jesus as He hung on the cross, crying for Him to come down if He was so righteous and trusting in God. But God did not deliver Him because He had something better than deliverance of His Son in mind. Deliverance from suffering, then, is not always the best possible goal for God's people. Martin illustrates that the parent must let the child try to stand alone and yes, even fall, if the child is to learn to walk.
Lewis in speaking of God's intervention claims that it is, perhaps, possible to conceive of a world where God intervened continuously. In such a world the wooden beam that I would use as a weapon would turn to grass, the air would refuse to carry the sound waves of a lie or insult. In fact, my mind would refuse to even think of a lie. God does in fact perform miracles, but the very concept of this demands that the miracle be extremely rare. (15)
Jones indicated that all the world would flock to Christianity if we could prove that God infallibly spared pain and suffering on the part of the Christian. But in what manner would they come? They would come as those who seek to take out a fire-insurance policy. (16) Perhaps it is the rewards and protection that have brought many people into the folds of Christianity and left them there miserable and unfruitful because they have never experienced Christ. Do we worship God for the rewards and the protection He affords us, or because it is the right thing to do? Alas, most of us would make a miserable Job.
Perhaps many of us would like to mouth the words of Job who said, "It would be better if I had never been born." To that statement, Lewis responds, If God is good then would it have been better for Him to have left the universe uncreated? This is a question which we are incapable of answering because we have no basis for a concept of non-existence. 'It would be better for me not to exist'--in what sense 'for me'? How should I, if I did not exist, profit by not existing? (17)
Lewis further contends that those who would feel this way are those who seek not a Heavenly Father, but rather a Heavenly Grandfather who in his senility desires only a good time to be had by all. If, in fact, that is what we want, then our concept of love needs to be corrected; for love is demanding and exacting. Only kindness would desire your happiness whatever the cost. But love cares for more than your immediate happiness. Love demands the perfecting of the beloved. "Love may, indeed, love the beloved when her beauty is lost: but not because it is lost. Love may forgive all infirmities and love still in spite of them: but love cannot cease to will their removal." (18) We are speaking here of the true essence of agape Love which, perhaps, only God is capable of. God must demand of us the adherence to the rules, then, if He is to exhibit maximum Love toward us. "The head of a school who enrolled his child in his own school but exempted the child from the operations of the disciplines and penalties of the school would do himself, the child, and the school a distinct and serious harm. " (19) Lewis said, You asked for a loving God; you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the 'lord of terrible aspect,' is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, not the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artists' love for his work and despotic as a man's love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father's love for a child, jealous, inexorable exacting as love between the sexes. (20)
Perhaps one of the major causes of pain lies within the sin of man, particularly with respect to his desires, which facilitates the breaking of the Law of God. Jones sees this as a problem of the "embodied spirit" who is required to deal with infinite desires in a finite and material world. (21) He claims that we are both a higher hog and a human soul at the same time. "The hog side of us loves filthy mudholes and would naturalize us there, but the soul-side of us does not really love mud and sets up its protest and cries out to be delivered. It feels the call of the Eternal. This conflict is deadly to happiness." (22) The facts seem to be clear that we cannot separate sin from human suffering. Martin said, ..." A great deal of suffering comes about because of the principle of cause and effect.... For there is a world of natural and moral law and built into its structure is the rule that if someone breaks the law then someone--not necessarily the same someone--is liable to be hurt." (23)
We must, therefore, recognize that while we can freely choose to sin, the consequences of that sin will probably result in pain for someone and that we have no choice in the type of consequence that results from our sin. (24) Jones said, This law does not ask whether you are a Christian, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist, or agnostic; break it and it will break you. The fact is that we do not break this law--we break ourselves upon it. When we break it, it throws us back a quivering, bleeding, blighted thing. This applies to groups, to nations, to races as well as to individuals. ... On a small scale and on a large scale the universe sides with good and against evil. .... This makes our universe seem very hard and unforgiving, and yet it burns into our minds the fact that this is a universe of law, and not a universe of whim and fancy and notion. We know what to expect. The school of discipline is very strict, but it is dependable. I prefer to have a dependable universe rather than one upon which we could not depend as to which side it would take. (25)
Some of the problems we face in understanding the suffering that sin produces are a result of our inability to recognize the nature of our badness. "When we merely say that we are bad, the 'wrath' of God seems a barbarous doctrine; as soon as we perceive our badness, it appears inevitable, a mere corollary from God's goodness." (26) The Bible, in fact, warns us to beware of the tendency to "judge ourselves by ourselves." What man would condemn himself: As Lewis points out, we are so blind as to mistake our rare successes for normal, and our failures, which are habitual, as our off days. (27) Perhaps man could better understand his suffering if he could smell the stench of his sin. If man is a sinner, and if God loves him, and if sin stands between God and man; then it seems natural to assume that in some sense God uses suffering and pain as a retribution that might spur a reconciliation whereby man would recognize his sin and repent. This does not imply that God must send the pain, but that He is able to use the pain as an effective tool for our sakes. "Until the evil man finds evil unmistakably present in his existence, in the form of pain, he is enclosed in illusion." (28) Lewis calls retribution, "God's megaphone." Of this doctrine, he says, No doubt pain as God's megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead to final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul. (29)
Lewis further contends that through pain God shouts out the warning to man that something is wrong. Without that warning, man would go on his merry way, never to know that he was in danger of loosing his soul. (30)
There are those who still resist the principle of Love which is presented here for they cannot pry from their minds the concept that a loving God could never send a man to that final torment known as hell. Lewis said, In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: 'what are you asking God to do?' To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is exactly what He does. (31)
But to say that God in any way desires the eternal damnation of a soul to hell is gross misrepresentation of the character of God. In fact, the Bible clearly teaches that "He is not willing that any should perish".... Lewis said, "To enter heaven is to become more human that you ever succeeded in being in earth; to enter hell, is to be banished from humanity." (32)
Thus if heaven is the ultimate abode of man, then pain has that unique capacity of proclaiming to us that we are not at home in this world. Lewis said, The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God. .... Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home. (33)
We could not now come to a close of this discussion of pain and suffering without considering the cost to God in having created such a world as this. And yet this only serves to proclaim agape Love. Lewis said, He chose...to make the great adventure and to create moral beings capable of good and evil. Love could not have done less. A human parent creates a child upon whom he can lavish his love, though in doing so he runs a very great risk of bringing into the world a child who might go astray and break his heart, yet assumes that risk, for love cannot do less. God, the Divine Parent, takes the same risk in creating us, for in the end it may break his heart. It did. The cross is the sign of it. .... And it must be that he has something so wonderful in mind in the re-creation that He took the risk of creation. (34)
Jones saw a correlation between the law and the cross which may be the only possible answer which man can achieve concerning the problem of suffering and pain. The issues discussed in this paper do not solve all of the problems, nor do they necessarily give the help that is needed. In fact, there are many problems which have not been dealt with because of the limited length of this paper. The attempt has been, however, to provide a condensation of the sympathetic approaches to the problem of man's suffering. Perhaps the best way to close is to recognize the cost to God in creating this world in terms of the cross; and to place the hope of successfully dealing with pain there, also--at the cross where God, who loves His creation so passionately, took upon Himself our penalty of death. Jones said, The cross is the reconciling place between Karma and forgiveness, between law and Love. The one upstanding beam of the cross represents the law of Karma--how straight and unbending it stands! The other beam, the widestretching one, represents the love of God reaching out arms to save and heal. These two--the law and the Love coming together makes the cross. And the cross makes them one. (35)
A Word About the Bibliography
All of the works listed in the bibliography have not been quoted, however, they have served as valuable sources of information for this author. The authors that have been quoted in this paper have, to my thinking, best expressed the general thoughts of the others in an overall nature. To the layman, I would recommend James Martin's book, suffering Man, Loving God; and also the little books by Heynen and Purkiser. For those capable of greater philosophical thought, I recommend C. S. Lewis', The Problem of Pain. And, of course, we shall all profit from the study of the Book of Job. Three excellent commentaries are listed as an aid to the study of Job. And finally, I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Dan Cochran, Dr. H. K. Neely, and Dr. G. H. Surrette for their compassionate, in depth lectures on the book of Job and the problem of human suffering.
C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain and
Suffering (new York, 1962), p. 15.
Lewis, p. 24.
Lewis, p. 26.
James Martin, Suffering Man, Loving God (Philadelphia, 1965), p. 18.
Lewis, pp. 30-31.
E. Stanley Jones, Christ and Human Suffering (New York, 1933), p. 19.
Lewis, pp. 31-32.
Ladislaus Boros, Pain and Providence (New York, 1966), p.23.
Lewis, p. 32.
Lewis, p. 89.
Lewis, pp. 32-33.
Martin, pp. 24-25.
Jones, pp. 19-20.
Lewis, pp. 33-34.
Jones, pp. 25-26.
Lewis, pp. 35-36.
Lewis, p. 35.
Jones, pp. 26-27.
Lewis, p. 47.
Jones, pp. 14-15.
Jones, p. 15.
Martin, p. 34.
Jones, p. 148.
Jones, pp. 148-149.
Lewis, p. 58.
Lewis, p. 60.
Lewis, p. 95.
Lewis, p. 95.
Lewis, p. 93.
Lewis, p. 17.
Lewis, p. 125.
Lewis, p. 115.
Jones, pp. 152-153.
Jones, p. 164.
Bennett, Miles T. When Human Wisdom Fails. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971.
Boros, Ladislaus. Pain and Providence. (translated by Edward Quinn) New York: The Seabury press, 1966.
Brena, Steven F. Pain and Religion. Springfield: Charles C. Thomas, 1972.
Cochran, Dan. Lectures on Pain and Suffering in Philosophy of Religion, Southwest Baptist University, 1970.
Cochran, Dan, H. K. Neely, G. H. Surrette, Lectures on the Book of Job, Southwest Baptist University, 1971.
Heynen, Ralph. Building Your Spiritual Strength. Grand Rapids: Baker House Books, 1965.
Johnson, L.D. Out of the Whirlwind, The Major Message of Job. Nashville: Broadman Press,1971.
Jones, Stanley E. Christ and Human Suffering. New York: The Abington Press, 1933.
____________. The Divine Yes. New York: The Abington Press, 1975.
Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962.
Martin, James. Suffering Man, Loving God. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1965.
Purkiser, W. T. When You Get to the End of Yourself. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970.
Smith, Ralph L. Job, A Study in Providence and Faith. Nashville: Convention Press, 1971.
Stevens, William W. Doctrines of the Christian Religion. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1967.