What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Cardboard Box
The Universal Question
There is perhaps no greater challenge to faith than the presence of pain and suffering in the world.1 Whether theist or atheist, pain seems to be the testing lab of faith.
This question—Why is there pain and suffering in the world?—has plagued humanity since our very first thoughts about God. Even the earliest narratives of divine beings wrestle with the idea of pain and suffering.
In the Ancient Near East, three- to four-thousand-year-old Mesopotamian and Akkadian stories provide explanations for why bad things happen in the world.2 Simply put, there are good gods, and there are bad gods. Good gods do good things in our world, and bad gods are responsible for bad things.
In Eastern theology, particularly in Confucianism, this idea is incorporated into the “yin and yang.” Just as life presents us with polar opposites that are interconnected (think “light and dark” or “hot and cold”), so too do we experience “good and bad.”
However, this says nothing about why things happen—just that they do occur.
Theodicy: The Great Problem
But when most people wonder about pain and suffering, they want to know the cause. And that cause, almost by definition, comes back to God.
In a polytheistic worldview, as noted above, pain and suffering are simply factors caused by malevolent gods. But in a monotheistic worldview, why would God allow pain and suffering?
If God is good, the thinking goes, he would eliminate pain and suffering. And if he’s powerful, he’d be able to eradicate it, right? But there is evil in the world. So either God is not loving, he is not all-powerful, or there is no God.
Philosophers and theologians call the endeavor to overcome this thought process “theodicy.”3
This conundrum has perpetually plagued believers and nonbelievers. But there are a few observations that clarify the question and even provide some explanation for pain and suffering.
Regardless of when or why the question of pain and suffering is posed, one can propose that it is a problem primarily in the Christian worldview.
If God is the benevolent creator and sustainer of life depicted in Christian tradition, then he should be able and willing to eliminate our pain and suffering. He obviously does not. Consequently, Christians find this tension particularly acute and troubling.
Evangelistic atheists argue that this is the last nail in the coffin of faith: God would not allow suffering and outright evil to persist in his creation. Therefore, he cannot exist (or if he does, he lacks the characteristics of a good god).
However, in order to consider something “evil” (or even bad or unnecessary), one presupposes a moral standard by which those things or experiences are deemed “evil.” In fact, evil is only such when compared to something not evil.
But if human experience is entirely random, then “good” and “bad” things are just the way things are—we cannot attribute moral weight to anything we experience. Without an Arbiter of Goodness, theists argue, there is no such thing as a “bad” experience.
An assumption that God or a god exists is implicit in this discussion. So why does God allow pain and suffering?
Reframing the Question
To answer that we must first ask, “Would a good god eliminate pain and suffering?” C. S. Lewis addressed this very question in his book The Problem of Pain.
In it, he argues that humanity desires not so much a good god, but a kind god. Kindness “cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering.” We want “not so much a Father but a grandfather in heaven.” Lewis suggests that a truly loving father “would rather see [the loved ones] suffer much than be happy in contemptible and estranging modes.”4
In other words, a good God may not eliminate pain and suffering from the world because they are used to accomplish meaningful ends.
No Pain, No Gain
In my own life, I’ve seen this principle at work. When my eldest daughter was nine weeks old, she was diagnosed with a rare lung disease, which required immediate surgery to remove the defective lung. In preparation for surgery, the doctors requested an MRI, which would enable them to operate effectively.
As you can imagine, a nine-week-old baby isn’t going to respond to instructions to lie still during a twenty-minute scan. So I had to stand over her, pressing her shoulders into a cold, hard, metal table while the machine did its noisy work.
It was a painful twenty minutes. And I could only imagine the thoughts going through Cassie’s mind: Dad, why are you doing this? You’re hurting me! Please stop!
But if I’d obeyed the look in her eyes and the message they sent—if I relieved her of the temporary pain I was causing her—she would have died within days. I knew more than Cassie did about her circumstances and desired truly good things for her, not just temporary relief or pleasure.
If God knows more about our circumstances than we do and desires good things for us, perhaps he also uses painful circumstances to better ends than we can see or imagine.
One thing is certain: Any intellectual response to the question of pain will not make the experience go away or any easier to endure. C. S. Lewis himself quipped, “You would like to know how I behave when I am experiencing pain, not writing books about it. You need not guess for I will tell you; I am a great coward.”5
Pain and suffering, no matter how much we know about them intellectually, have a way of tapping into our very core. They expose what we’re made of in ways that other emotions do not.
Perhaps this is why Lewis, through the experience of great pain, discovered that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains.”6
Could it be that in this way pain helps us grow—though it can be hard to see at times, even in retrospect?
No matter the reason, it seems pain and suffering are unavoidable; we seemingly have no choice in the matter. What we do control is our reaction, how we deal with our pain, and what we do with our experience.
What will you choose to do with your pain?
- Indeed, one of the greatest Christian theologians of the last century remarked, “The fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith.” John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006), 303.
- Andrew George, The Epic of Gilgamesh (New York: Penguin Books, 1999).
- “Theodicy,” Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/theodicy?show=0&t=1355863763.
- C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: Harper, 2001), 31-33.
- Ibid., 105.
- Ibid., 91.
- Photo Credit: Riccardo Piccinini / Shutterstock.com.