The Problem of Pain

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Every week seems to be a heartrending week.

If you watch your local news, the First Awful Story is almost always about a murder, a shooting, a child abduction, a housefire, a missing person, or a rape.  Then come the Covid metrics.  The virus at the center of the pandemic has now claimed almost six million lives globally, and 907,500 in the United States as of this morning.  Then ponder the special people in your life who are battling cancer, lawsuits, bankruptcy, and dark days.    

Suffering, injustice, and sheer evil.  So where in the world is God?

It’s no secret that the unremitting presence of pain and suffering in the world is the number one reason that people doubt the reality of God, or end up abandoning a faith that used to give them comfort and direction.

Two weeks after the 2004 tsunami that claimed nearly 300,000 lives, reporter Ron Rosenbaum of the New York Observer stated the problem succinctly: “If God is God, he’s not good.  If God is good, he’s not God.  You can’t have it both ways, especially after the Indian Ocean catastrophe.” 

Cambridge professor Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most articulate voice of atheism in our time, is unsparing in his analysis: “In a universe of blind physical forces…some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice.  The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” 

As you might guess, Dawkins isn’t currently hosting week-long positive thinking seminars.

Since almost all newscasts, from local to international, are preoccupied with things that have gone seriously wrong, the issue must be faced:  Is it self-delusion to continue believing in a God who is all good and all powerful?

In case that question seems to sound the death knell of Christianity, consider for a moment that suffering has proven to be just as significant a problem for those who don’t believe.

Dawkins is confident there is no justice in the world.  But where does the very idea of justice come from, except from the assumption cherished by all human cultures that there is a Rule or a Way or a notion of Fairness that undergirds the universe?  Dawkins declares there is no evil and no good.  How then shall we describe the genocides in Armenia, Russia, Germany, Serbia, Cambodia, and Rwanda – all of which happened during the past century – and by what standard should we dare to judge those who carried them out?

C.S. Lewis was a convinced atheist – until he realized that his righteous anger at all the unjust suffering in the world was a strong argument that there must be Something or Someone who defined the notion of what is Fair, and in the end must be the Someone he was actually mad at. 

Most people who suffer, however, are preoccupied with a more pragmatic question:  Why is this happening to me?

We must be honest and admit that we can rarely answer that question with assurance.  But there are a few things that we can know.

We can know that just because we ourselves cannot see any good emerging from a particular situation doesn’t mean an infinite God is limited by our imagination.  If God is God, he is free to have reasons to permit tragedies, even though we cannot fathom, for now, what those reasons might be.

Most people would acknowledge that the most important lessons they have ever learned – the very things that have most shaped their character – have come through disappointment, struggle, and loss.  Often it is God’s mercy not to rescue us from trouble. 

For the follower of Jesus, “Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.  And hope doesn’t disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts” (Romans 5:3-5). 

We can live in the hope that our suffering means something.  It is not in vain. 

That’s why so often those who have lost a child end up pioneering new ways of making all children more secure.  In the midst of overwhelming pain, their suffering may end up accomplishing something profound.

Where is God when it hurts?

According to everything we know from Scripture, God never leaves the side of the one who is hurting.  He weeps with those who weep.

And God never stops rallying us to be his hands and feet in a world that is more desperate than ever to experience his justice, mercy, and love.