“The fact is, life has been found to be more meaningful for many who are in pain, than for many in pleasure. Prior to the problem of pain is the frustration of meaninglessness even when every comfort we pursue comes within reach.” Ravi Zacharias
One of the biggest barriers to believing in a compassionate, all-powerful God is what has been called the “problem of pain.” As a friend of mine said, “What father, if he had the power to do so, wouldn’t save his child from suffering?” Many people refuse to believe God exists because the idea doesn’t square with the suffering they see in the world. Others say it’s possible there is a God, but that He’s either powerless to stop the evil and suffering in the world, He’s indifferent, or He created the universe and then walked away from it.
Yet suffering is crucial to your development as a strong and compassionate man.
Why is there evil and suffering in the world? If God is good and all-powerful, why has He allowed the Rwanda massacres, the Holocaust, 911, or devastating tsunamis? Why do innocent people die?
These are tough questions that have vexed me personally for years (as they should you as well). I once heard someone address the Problem of Suffering with, “Oh, that’s easy,” just before she proceeded to regurgitate the stock answer from her church. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. There are no easy answers to these, some of the most challenging and important questions in the universe! Any answer we can come up with is incomplete, as there are some things we just can’t know—whether one believes in God or not. The clay cannot always know the purpose the artist has in mind as it’s being fashioned (it just knows it’s getting thrown around and pounded a bit more than it likes). A logical answer also does little to comfort someone who is suffering. Even so, there are some explanations that provide starting points for a deeper understanding.
Many refuse to believe God exists because the idea doesn’t square with the suffering they see in the world. Others say He’s either powerless to stop the evil and suffering in the world, He’s indifferent, or He created the world and then walked away from it.
Let’s tackle these questions one at a time. Keep in mind, however, that you must find answers for yourself and seek to make sense of it all for your own life. You can have “all” the answers tucked away in your mind, but these will topple like a house of cards when tragedy strikes close to home if you do not have deeper answers written in your heart. Ultimately, some answers can only be found by living life with its sunlight and shadow, and through compassion on others in their suffering, feeling their pain.
Some of the world’s greatest thoughts regarding the presence of evil and suffering came from the late C.S. Lewis, a one-time atheist turned Christian scholar. You may know him as the author of children’s books and the ensuing movies such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the other Chronicles of Narnia. He was also the author of several non-fiction books, including The Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity, and A Grief Observed. His works are considered classics today and are widely quoted. But there is something you should know about Dr. Lewis.
Lewis had wonderful answers to some of life’s biggest questions. He was eloquent and systematic in his defense of the Christian God. But Lewis did not open his heart to love until late in life when he met his soul’s completion, a woman named Joy Davidman. Indeed, as her name would suggest, his marriage would bring joy into Lewis’s life he had never known before. These were the most sunlit moments in his life. The two became like young lovers, sharing a passion and ecstasy of a lifetime in a few short years. Like all good things, however, even this could not last forever. Lewis knew when he met Joy that she was dying of cancer. A brief remission gave them a few years to share together. When she died, Lewis was devastated and his carefully constructed explanations of the meaning of suffering and death seemed just so many empty words.
Lewis had seen the shadowed side, had known the depths of grief and emotional suffering. In the throes of his pain, his controlled and reasoning exterior fell apart. He spoke his grief, he questioned, he hurt deeply and cried out. He was honest enough to bluntly question his Creator, as many of us will too when faced with pain.
He asked hard questions and entertained some very dark thoughts. Lewis eventually came to terms with his loss and with his God, though as a completely changed man in matters of the heart. As the ancient character Job said, “My ear has heard of You; now my eye sees You.”
Suffering is not good, and it is not something that God ideally wants us to experience. God’s first choice was for us to live in harmony with Him, all our needs met.
Some will claim this suffering was “good for” C.S. Lewis, that all suffering is good for us because it makes us grow. I disagree. Suffering is not something that God ideally wants us to experience. God’s first choice was for us to live in harmony with Him, all our needs met. But, as Paul of Tarsus wrote over 2,000 years ago, “The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of the One who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until the present time…”
Suffering is a temporary necessity, but one that can become a catalyst to redemption and freedom. It is something that God can use to our benefit. Pain, suffering and evil are things that God can transform and use in our lives, but they are not things He creates, is happy with, or intends to have around forever. They are the natural effects of a world that is out of balance. If all people truly loved one another and lived life in the image of their Creator, then this earth would still be a Garden. Wrong choices drove us out, and they keep us out today.
This world is obviously not the “best of all worlds.” Suffering may be inescapably necessary for the time being, for without it, we would never understand that actions have consequences and we would likely spoiled brats. Perhaps, though, we should focus on the good that can be redeemed through it, rather than on whether or not it should exist.
When you become a parent, you’ll come to understand on a deep level that your kids will have to experience some suffering in order to learn and grow. An effortless life, where everything is gained too easily, is not the best thing for anyone. Nonetheless, that does not mean that you will enjoy your children’s suffering, or that you won’t desire to give them everything. Once you know they have learned from the ups and downs of life, worked for a living and become responsible—once they are ready—then, you will be able to give to them freely. What parent would give car keys to a reckless and irresponsible child? Would that be love or weak indulgence? Good parents know that their children can’t have certain powers and prerogatives until they learn some valuable lessons. Removing all the obstacles in their way, making everything easy and giving them anything they might want is, ultimately, not love.
You can have “all” the answers tucked away in your mind, but these will all crumble like a house of cards when tragedy strikes close to home if you do not have deeper answers written in your heart.
Your soul, and the state of the spirit that moves in the vessel of your material, animal body, is infinitely more precious to your Creator than this brief struggle we endure down here on the skin of this dying planet. God can make beautiful things from dust and ashes.
You can learn a great deal from suffering and trial, some of which you cannot learn in better times. Certainly, suffering makes you less self-sufficient and shows you the need for your Creator as well as for other people. It can teach you compassion, to feel for others when they are hurting—and often to reach out in help and comfort to alleviate suffering.
I don’t believe that all pain has a specific purpose, and I have not found a way to justify or find the “bright side” of the suffering and death of innocent children. I do think it strange, however, that many who reject God blame Him for the tragedies that befall us. I am convinced that God is not pleased that things are as they are on this planet and I believe He is even more upset by evil and suffering than I ever can be; He sees it all. Yet He allows it for a redeeming purpose.
I used to watch a show called “Intervention,” in which a drug-addicted person, usually a son or daughter, is brought to an unexpected intervention session with their family and a professional counselor. The person has, at this point, the choice to either take responsibility for their lives, accept the help offered them, and go in another direction, or be cut off from their family and friends. The recovery and ultimate fate of the person rest largely on the family’s ability to stick to “tough love,” no matter the cost, no matter the sacrifice. If a parent lacks that kind of tough love and crumbles at the suffering their son or daughter might experience—if they open their home to the addict, giving financial support and unlimited forgiveness regardless of the choices and actions they take—the addict always returns to their old life. In this case, “kindness” leads to destruction. It is clear that every family would, at any time, accept true repentance (real change, not just sorrow). But, as long as the person refuses to turn from their addiction, the family cannot and must not enable them. They have to turn their backs if the addict is to have any chance of redemption.
Continuing down the path of addiction will bring everyone even more suffering, such as loss of health, jail, and death. It may lead to the suffering or death of innocent children born addicted to the drugs their parents continue to take. For the families of such people, this is hard to watch, but the redemption of the addict’s life is in the addict’s hands, their own responsibility. Their choices have consequences that will affect others. There’s no way around it. The family cannot force them to make the right choice. Any children that suffer or die are indeed victims, but are they the victims of the family who chose to turn their back on the addict, or does the responsibility lie with the addict? I think you can see the parallel with God’s relationship to His own sons and daughters in this present world. He cannot help those who will not help themselves, but He will bind up the wounds of those who turn to Him. It is our sins that separate us from God, because He cannot be an enabler…for our own good! “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live.”
This is life. We all have a chance to make the right choices. God does not want us to have to suffer the consequences of poor decisions. “How often I would have gathered [my] children together,” said Jesus. “Even as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, but you would not!”
“Suffering offers a general message of warning to all humanity that something is wrong with this planet, and that we need radical outside intervention.” Philip Yancey
People ask, “What is God trying to teach me from this suffering?” Maybe you need to learn to trust Him more, even if you don’t understand His ultimate purpose. But maybe you need to learn to lay off the burgers and fries and exercise more. Maybe your lesson is that skateboarding down that staircase wasn’t so brilliant. Could it be that you simply tripped and skinned your knee and God had nothing to do with it?
God may not spare you the suffering you bring on yourself from poor eating habits, dumb choices you make or even from every accident that may befall you. But suffering itself gives you a clue that you live on a planet desperately in need of redemption. You are not meant to stay in this existence, of which pain and suffering are a natural part, for very long. You have the potential to endure and move past this “place of wrath and tears.” But first, you must learn through the school of hard knocks. As Philip Yancey says, “Suffering offers a general message of warning to all humanity that something is wrong with this planet, and that we need radical outside intervention.”
There may not be a specific lesson in every bump, bruise or even in every tragic death, but that doesn’t mean there’s not something to learn from suffering in general and from the sorry state of a world addicted to things that can’t fulfill (they used to call them “idols). God expects those who have turned from the addictions of a world “missing the mark” to help ease the suffering of those around us.
Are we living in the best of all worlds? Or is this a place of random, meaningless suffering? Perhaps we live in the only possible world, at least for the time being. To live in a perfect world, we will need perfect hearts, selfless and beautiful spirits. We will have to help make that world ourselves by becoming more like God. God created us, but only we decide what we become. Only we decide to dress and keep our garden, or to make it a place of thorns and painful labor. With our free will, with the ability to choose evil, we have not yet attained perfection in our inner worlds.
Are we living in the best of all worlds? Or is this a place of random, meaningless suffering? Perhaps we live in the only possible world, at least for the time being.
The sad present reality is that, from the complete innocence of childhood, we gradually become hardened. We build strong walls around our hearts, and go into public wearing masks. No doubt you’ve had people tell you the importance of developing a “thick skin.” Indeed, to survive in a world of hardness takes a certain callousness. These are our defenses against the “slings and arrows” of life and the harshness we experience from other people. Our world, instead of becoming a place of acceptance and love, becomes a masquerade of fragmented, lonely souls. We are ashamed to be “naked” in the Garden because it is no longer a place to feel safe. True, feeling, intuitive human beings are replaced by shells of self-protection, and vulnerability hides itself.
“Hardness all around me, from beings so soft inside,” I once wrote. “Even I, the restless one, protect myself with lies.” The lies we protect ourselves with are the masks we wear to survive, for fear that our real selves will be rejected.
Those who have suffered and had their mask torn away, those who see life for what it is and can become true people are, in the end, more blessed than those still trapped behind their walls, imprisoned in confining masks. The journey back to the Garden is not an easy path, but it is worth the cost.
Suffering has a way of pulling away the mask, cracking the shell of protection, and bringing our focus back to what is important. It has a way of softening even the hardest of hearts. Indeed, it can strip us bare, down to the essence of life where we can once again see what’s really important, so that we can even feel the suffering of others. It makes us real and teaches us that there is beauty and strength in vulnerability. “The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,” wrote Matthew Arnold, “and what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know. A man becomes aware of his life’s flow.”
As an aspiring Man, you will want to understand, as well as you can, the sunlit and shadowed nature of life that we all will experience. The world has a shortage of insightful, compassionate and courageous men who grow, not bitter, but stronger and purer from suffering. Likewise there are few with the courage to stand up against evil, without resorting to hatred and unnecessary violence. Perhaps you have come into the world for such a time as this. Lead the way with courage and compassion!
Words of Wisdom
“The chief pang of most trials is not so much the actual suffering as our own spirit of resistance to it.” Jean Nicolas Grou
“He taught us all that the grimmest twists of life were not entirely humorless.” Slavomir Rawicz, The Long Walk
“I thank God for my handicaps, for through them I have found myself, my work and my God.” Helen Keller
“I believe in the sun, even when it’s not shining. I believe in love, even when feeling is not. I believe in God, even when He is silent.” Words found inscribed on the wall of a concentration camp
“Pain—it’s often seen as the great inhibitor, keeping us from happiness. But I see it as a giver of freedom.” Philip Yancey, Where is God When It Hurts?