As part of the Explore God series, this Sunday I preached on one of the hardest and oldest questions of life: Why could a good God allow pain and suffering in the world? Entering into this question was challenging. My years on this earth don’t feel sufficient to answer this from my own experience, but God’s Word provides us a way forward.
spoiler alert: this is a long post–audio above if you prefer.
Why Does God Allow Pain and Suffering?
When we consider the big questions of life, there is no question more laced with emotion, more difficult to reason out than this one. The question is an intensely existential and intensely personal. The existential, the over-arching question, comes to us through our news feeds and phone screens. It’s terrible suffering that shouts that the world has gone mad, that people slaughter people, that there is a tremendous force that creates tsunamis and earthquakes. We look at those screens from our comfortable couches in our climate-controlled houses and we feel a sense of dread and burden. How could a good God allow such terrible suffering? Can evil and darkness and light and good co-exist in this world, and if yes, who is the force behind that?
But this question is also intensely personal. If we haven’t staggered under the weight of the existential question already, we then consider our own lives. We trace the wounds of our own histories—abandonment, rejection, loss. We think of the physical and emotional pain we carry from our story—whether that source of pain is one terrible night, an unexplained illness, a loved one gone too soon. And once again we reel under the weight, because now we carry our own pain in one hand and the pain of the world in another, and it the world is colored now in shadows.
It’s at this intersection—between the big question of pain in the world and the personal question of pain in our life—that we stand. But we stand together at the intersection with one powerful, life-changing weapon—hope. If there was not hope for something, you wouldn’t be sitting here tonight. Hope that there truly is meaning in it all is what makes us go on, makes us get in the car and drive here tonight. And what I hope we’ll learn together tonight is that Christianity isn’t a religion that shies away from pain, but actually provides a way to bear pain and live in hope. Romans 5:2-5 declares that
“we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
When we don’t have hope, the weight of suffering—be it your own suffering or the suffering in the world—makes us close up. In order to survive, we close in on ourselves. We see the world as a threat and people as enemies. Our comfortable couches and climate-controlled houses become our command center for operation protect thyself. We build our bunkers with insurance policies and side-impact air bags and double locks and background checks and IRAs. Our media feeds our fear that something violent and random and horrible could happen to you or your children, and there’s nothing you can do about it but fear everyone and everything, numb and distract yourself from the big questions, and keep the world at arms length, pretend your way through life into you slowly slip into death.
Except of course, that you come to die and you forgot to live.
The problem of pain is for everyone, no matter what you believe or don’t believe. The real question is, will you have the courage to look for meaning in suffering, to walk your soul past the fear and the shock and the sadness of it and see what’s behind that, to dig a little deeper into some beliefs and discover that there might be something more there than just the weight and the fear and the shrinking back from life.
So here’s what I can’t do, nor would I try: I can’t make sense of it all. I can hardly answer the “why” question the way it’s posed. It would be foolish to attempt to answer a question definitively that every religious leader, philosopher, artist and thinker from the beginning of time is not able to answer. I can’t answer why for the big problem of suffering or for the personal problem of your pain. What we can do together is seek to understand how our own beliefs have developed around pain, and seek to gain perspective and perhaps even experience a shift in our own hearts by facing it head-on together, and I’d like to address it both from a rational and emotional perspective. I want to attempt to speak to your head and then to your heart. Although we are not beings that can be dissected in this way, my hope is that you may be able to enter this question in the general way that you approach the world, and all of us tend to do that from either a logical or emotional perspective.
First let’s take this question rationally. If we were to simplify the equation that many of us live by to it’s very base, it would look something like this:
Pain is bad.
No pain is good.
Pain makes us sad.
No pain makes us happy.
But yet in 2014, more than ½ million Americans ran marathons, willingly pushed their bodies and spirits to the limit, felt those last few miles of pain, and felt the joy of overcoming and succeeding, might I even say suffering. If the following matrix is absolute truth, why would we ever run 26 miles??
Of course, we probably would say something like, a controlled pain is different than evil, different than suffering inflicted on the world. It’s the loss of control plus the pain that makes our “no pain is good” matrix feel like absolute truth. But here’s what I would submit to you for your consideration. Is it possible that joy and pain are NOT mutually exclusive? Is it possible that the opposite of pain is not joy, as if the two were light and dark, one never existing without the other?
The problem is that when we live out of this formula, we must spend enormous amounts of energy and time in self-protective mode, to make sure we can avoid pain. The bigger problem is that we can’t avoid pain, and when we finally face it, whether loss or illness or violence, whatever is both painful and inexplicable, we are disintegrate like wet jello, nothing of substance or strength to hold us together, or we build ourselves an even more stony wall, keeping life at arm’s length to avoid any further pain, becoming hardened and indifferent to the world’s problems. Elie Wiesel once said, “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”
So that formula doesn’t seem like the one with life in it.
Is it possible that a meaningful life requires tension and suffering? Is it possible that the very thing we try to avoid the most is actually the place where new life can be born? And if so, how can we enter into that question of “can there be a good God and pain in the same world?, or maybe more pertinent “can there be a good God and pain in my world?”
And when we look to scripture, what we won’t find is God explaining himself and explaining it all. If our ability to enter in is hung on “why” we are going to find ourselves coming up short again and again, no matter which direction we turn. To look for the complete “why” to all suffering is to look into darkness without any light, and what you will find is just darkness. God does not provide a diagnosis of all pain but he does provide an answer in his own way, on his own terms.
Here is where faith enters in. Faith is the courage to feel the pain and the darkness and to refuse to simplify life down to this equation. Faith looks beyond the pain to ask not “why” but “what can I do with this?” And hear is where Christianity does not shy away from pain in any respect.
Faith is peace without all the answers. Faith is trust without answers. Faith is the choice we make that says, I can enter this darkness without a light or I can enter this darkness with a light—I can fool myself for many years into believing I do not have to enter into this darkness but 100% of us will die. There will be an end and we cannot be indifferent to that or avoid that, so instead, what if we followed the light and see where it takes us.
So the intellectual approach to this question is “is it possible for joy and pain to both be present?” and if so, “how?”
Here is where this whole thing hinges on Jesus.
Jesus entered into pain for our pain, and he experienced the very worst kind of suffering not for our “comfort” but for our healing, our transformation, and for the hope in a future where the whole word is transformed. This isn’t about a band-aid on the world’s pain, but a whole different way of even seeing what suffering is. The bible doesn’t shy away from the truth of suffering at all.
Jesus endured pain so that our healing was possible.
He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. 4 Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Jesus endured suffering and doesn’t just console the world with it, but will eventually transform the whole world through it.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” 5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”
So if we were to simplify it down to one statement we could say on faith is true, I would submit this one for our intellectual argument:
We can’t always answer why, but we do know that pain has eternal ramifications.
Pain is the driver that brings us to ask the big questions. Pain shakes us out of distraction and indifference and forces us to engage with life and with death. It’s pain that has the potential to create the most despair or the most hope. Pain is a catalyst that speeds us toward meaning, and it’s often only when we cry out in our hearts for someone to help because we cannot bear it alone anymore that we move toward engaging with the cross of Christ. 2 Corinthians 4:17 says “for our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”
So now we move into addressing pain and suffering from an emotional standpoint as we close today. For those of you who engage on an intellectual level, this isn’t for you. This is for those of you who feel like you could crawl out of your skin, because you’ve been protesting this conversation with “if you only knew how I feel”–for those of who are enduring some loss and pain right now and it’s all you can do to keep it together as you sit there, who maybe can intellectually agree that pain has eternal ramifications, but aren’t sure you can live another day with the weight and the suffocating feeling of the loss or shame or regret or anger you are bearing.
The Bible gives permission for remembrance and lament.
The book of Job is a story of suffering, a man who lived a life of comfort and security and then lost all of it—family, wealth, health. It’s a 42 chapter book—but chapter 3 begins with these haunting words:
“I opened my mouth and cursed the day of my birth.” He goes on to say: “I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest, but trouble comes.” The Bible is full of the deepest words of pain, loss, misunderstanding and hardship. God doesn’t shy away from our grief and we don’t need to either.
When we won’t remember the suffering, we often can’t remember the good either. A hardened heart is hard toward everything, not just the memories and people that it hates most.
No one can understand your pain like Jesus can, and no one can transform your pain like he can.
Jesus suffered in every way imaginable. He was betrayed, abandoned, mocked, beaten. He was misunderstood and undervalued. He despaired of his life because of the dread of what was coming. He experienced physical pain at the hands of humans who he knew were so misguided and so lost. He experienced emotional anguish as he bore the sins of the world and cried out asking where God was in the darkness. He was stoic at times but not on the cross. He knows every kind of evil the world can bring into your life and he says, “take heart. I have overcome the world.”
God does not order evil but he can use it for redemption.
The story of Joseph is full of pain, long-suffering, heartache and misunderstanding. Yet at the end of Joseph’s life, when God had made clear some of the redemptive purposes of his suffering, Joseph was able to declare: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” God can do exceedingly more with the worst in our lives than we could ever do with the best.
Pain has eternal ramifications. Will you allow the truth of suffering and the hope of transformation to enter into your story, even without knowing every why? Then you have stepped into faith.