Westminster Presbyterian Church
The Problem of Pain
Last week, as we engaged this passage, we raised the question about the problem of Evil. Where did evil come from? And how are we to understand the presence of sin and of evil in light of God’s sovereignty—in light of what Paul writes about in Ephesians 1:11, of God ordering all things according to the council of his own will? And we began at least in doing this at James’ great statement that God tempts no one and that he cannot be tempted. Now James goes on in this passage to talk about sin and about sin’s effect as it grows in our lives. Yet as I look and as I read through this passage, there seems to be a question that bridges the question of the Problem of Evil and the Problem of sin, and that question is the Problem of Pain.
Or maybe to rephrase that problem of pain, we could rephrase it like this: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Now, this is a question that has been approached and tried to be dealt with in a number of ways. In the 1980s, there was a conservative Jewish Rabbi, by the name of Harold Kushner, who still shows up every once in a while in talkshows like Larry King and ones like that. Kushner wrote a book trying to reconcile the death of his son with his own faith and asking just this very question. Unfortunately, the sad conclusion was that there are just some things in this world that God just cannot control. We see in our own modern culture two theologies—both going almost hand in hand—one called Open Theism and the other one that is called Process Theology, which is taking this idea to its logical end—that God really doesn’t know the future, but that God kind of looks out and works in our lives and hopes that he can kind of make the best out of things. But beloved, as I have said before in different ways and in different places, but that is a lie, it comes from the pits of Hell, and it smells of smoke.
But some have taken it to the opposite logical end. They have said that everything that happens bad in this world, that everything wicked and evil by our own measure is a mark of God’s judgment upon us because clearly none is good but God. And while the Bible does affirm in places that while God does discipline his people as a father disciplines his children, Jesus also makes it clear that when bad things happen, there is not a one to one correlation between those things and any one person’s sins and that event. We can go to John chapter 9 for example when Jesus is confronted with the man who was born blind, and understand that in ancient times, if you were born blind, that was a really bad thing. And his disciples came up to him, and said, “Look, Master, whose sin was it that caused this? Was it his parents’ sin? Was it his sin? How do we understand this?” And Jesus’ response is very telling. He said this man was born blind not because of his sin or because of anyone else’s sin, but this man was born blind so that God would be glorified in him (John 9:3). Now don’t lose this idea of tempting and testing and trials in our lives for the glory of God, I want to come back to that idea.
So with this in mind, lodged in the back of our minds, let us begin by framing the question about the problem of pain and let us ask ourselves, in light of the answer of the problem of pain, how now shall we live in light of the pain that we experience?
To begin with, the question of the problem of pain, C.S. Lewis sums up the question in this way:
“If God were good, he would want his creatures to be happy, and if God were all powerful, he would be able to make them so. But the creatures are not happy, therefore God either lacks goodness or power or both.”
Now this very phrasing of the question has led many to either throw up their hands in despair and say, “I’m doomed!” or to say that there are just some things that you have to take by faith and move on. When you do this, that creates in our mind a false dualism, a false division, a division between matters of faith and matters of reason—that there are some things that we just have to take as matters of faith and that reason has nothing to do with it. And the rest of life we live in a rational and in a reasonable way.
But the Bible presents faith in a very different way. It presents faith as something as something that is perfectly reasonable or reason filled or logical and that it is a logical response to the work of an Almighty God. Hebrews 11:1 presents faith as the “assurance,” the uJpo/stasiß (hupostasis), the guarantee, the entitlement, literally this word refers to the underlying or undergirding, foundational condition that other things are built upon. The writer of Hebrews is saying that faith is this assurance, this underlying—undergirding—assurance that the promises of God that we have for heaven is true. That it is absolute, that it is a fundamental guarantee. I think as a side-note that one reason that we must recognize that faith originates with God and not with us is how could a guarantee of the promises of God originate with us? But that guarantee of the promises of God must originate with God because he is the only one who can guarantee them in our lives and in the lives of his people. The writer of goes on and he says that not only is it that assurance, but it is the conviction—the absolute proof—of that which cannot be seen.
Do you hear the finality in this language? This is not a blind faith that is being portrayed for us, but it is a faith that is being described as a response to God’s testimony in the life of his beings. And note how the rest of the Hebrews chapter 11 continues. It reinforces the idea that Jesus says to the blind man that this trial, this problem, this testing was done for the glory of God by looking at all of these people that are listed in what is sometimes called the “Hall of Faith.” These people all demonstrated their faith to the glory of God by facing great trials and great difficulties. In other words, in a sense, we could reword it this way: “The very way that you suffer, when you suffer pain and trial, communicates God’s glory to the world.
My grandmother moved in with us a number of years before she died. I remember when she was diagnosed with kidney cancer that had gone to the pancreas and to other places. The doctor had basically prescribed that she would live for about three months, and she lived for about a year. I remember that he one wish was that she be able to die at home and not in a hospital somewhere. And we as a family said that we would do everything in our power to grant that wish. And we, by God’s grace, we were able to do that. But, you know, I learned more about living in faith from watching my grandmother die in faith than I have ever learned from watching somebody live in faith. Watching her suffer, watching in agony and never losing her faith and never being short of pointing others to the glory of God—even in the midst of her greatest trials. One of the things that you will hear oftentimes over and over in my pastoral prayers, where praying for people who are ill—even to the point of death—that that can be a good thing. Yes, we will long when we miss them, but their witness even to the point of death—their Christian witness, is a powerful witness that communicates the glory of God to those around them.
So if faith is something that is real, and it is something that is substantial, when we are confronted with problems, when we are confronted with objections, we need not feel as if we have to back-pedal from those objections and kind of come up with an easy-pat solution to them.
So how do we deal with this question in the way that Lewis frames it? This question, this statement that the world often raises, that if God were all good he would want his creatures to be happy and if God were all powerful, he would be able to do it. But the creatures are not happy, therefore God is lacking either in goodness or power or both.
Now the first thing that we must do is to assert that God is good and that God is all-powerful. Jesus himself teaches that none is good but God. John in his third epistle commends us to imitate God—to imitate that which is good and to restrain from evil as we live our lives. God is explicitly called, “All-Mighty” 58 times throughout the scriptures, and that is not to mention the nearly countless works of an almighty God that are attributed to Him.
Thus we are left with a question: “If God is good, and he is, if God is almighty, and he is, why aren’t the creatures happy? Doesn’t God want happiness for us? Now, I would argue that the answer to that question is, “Yes!” That God does will our happiness, but true happiness for us is not rooted in worldly comforts, but it is rooted in eternal comforts. And what is thus truly good for us is being conformed into the image of God’s Son so that we might enjoy those eternal comforts. And if we are to be conformed into the image of our Lord, ought we not walk the path, the very same path, that our Lord walked. Jesus said to those who would be disciples of him, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
Now sometimes we are guilty in our culture of taking this language all too lightly. “Oh, that’s just my cross to bear, it will be okay.” For Christ, the cross was an implement of torture and of pain—there is nothing comforting about it. That statement of Christ’s, “that if you want to follow me, you too must bear a cross,” is something that ought to make us cringe in our boots as we hear that. Because when we look at ourselves, when we look at our sinful state. When we look at how we have been bent, how we have been broken, how we have been twisted, how we have been gored—inhumanly torn—as a result of the fall, what loving parent, as he looks upon his child, would not long to see that child restored. And as we bear that cross to be like Christ—that is the process—that is the tool—that our loving parent, if you will, uses to unbend us, to put us back together—untwist us and heal the destruction in our bodies and in our lives that was brought on by the fall of Adam and Eve.
If your loved one—does not matter who it is—a child, a parent, a wife—if one of your loved ones contracted an illness or a disease that caused that person to become twisted, warped, or if you will, bent under that disease. You would love that person in spite of that ailment. In fact, your love might be realized all the more in spite of that ailment, but that would still not take away the reality that you would long to see that ailment removed from the body of the one that you loved.
And removing our ailments, our bentness, if you will, hurts. I have cracked or had hairline fractures in a handful of bones, but only once have I ever really badly broken a bone and it was my finger, playing football. The finger was actually broken and shattered out of the socket. But do you know what is amazing about the whole experience? It didn’t hurt. In fact, it didn’t hurt the rest of the day and going home at night and getting it put in a splint and going to the doctors the next day. It didn’t start hurting until the doctor decided to straighten it. It hurts when something that is broken needs to be set back in place.
Let me give you another analogy. One of my buddies, back in Maryland, about seven or eight years ago his wife was involved in a pretty horrendous car accident. She was waiting to make a left hand turn into their development, she was rear-ended by someone who was not paying attention and smacked into her at about 45-55 miles per hour, and because she was waiting to make that left hand turn, when he rear-ended her he forced her head on into an incoming pickup truck, so she was hit from behind and from the front all at once. Her injuries were overwhelming. It is a testimony of God’s grace that she even survived the wreck, having seen the car, and knowing what she went through as a result of that. Had emergency crews not arrived and worked quickly, she probably would have died as a result. But you know, looking at that event, it would not have been seen by anyone involved as a merciful, or if you will, an act of goodness, had on the part of the EMTs, when they arrived, had they said, “Well she is probably going to die anyway, let’s just make her comfortable as she dies here in this car. Instead they did everything in their power to preserve and then restore her life and her body. The multiple surgeries, the physical therapy that she faced in the weeks and in the months that followed, were painful and they were taxing on both her and on her husband. But when she emerged on the other side, she emerged stronger because of the process.
Don’t you see how God is doing the same thing with us as we face our trials and our difficulties? As James says in verse 4 of this chapter is that they are designed to make us complete, to make us perfect—lacking nothing. We often don’t get to see the eternal big picture, in terms of why we are called to do this or to do that, but here is one of those instances where scripture does allow us to do that. Because we are being gloriously transformed. As Paul writes to the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 3:18:
“And we all, with unveiled face (making reference to Moses), are being transformed (metamorphized to take some liberties with the Greek text) into the same image, from one degree of glory into another, for this comes from the Lord, who is Spirit.”
But beloved, right now, in the midst of being transformed—transfigured even—it hurts. It really, really, hurts. Yet, for us to want less pain—recognizing this—is essentially asking God to show us less love and not more. It is God’s love that motivates, that draws us to being transformed before Him.
So, what then is our response in the midst of pain and suffering? The answer is simple and plain but hard to apply: Obedience. Bare obedience before God. Look back at Hebrews 11 once again and ask yourself how these folks responded to what God was doing in their lives. How Abraham took his son to be sacrificed up upon the mountain, how Moses rejected the comfort of Pharaoh’s household to live in the desert to prepare to lead God’s people, how the saints through the ages have undergone horrific deaths and trials, all standing on the truth of God’s word. And understand that obedience does not require you to understand the whys and the wherefores of what God is doing—it simply requires that you trust the God who does understand and who has ordered all of the whys and the wherefores according to the council of his will and for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes. And all of this is done, beloved, all of this is done through our painful preparation, through what we undergo, what trials that we face to prepare us for our entrance into glory. And ultimately, once we are prepared, and even through the process of being prepared, God is glorified by bringing us to himself as his people.
I want to close with this thought—we began by raising the question—why is it that bad things happen to good people—or perhaps we should reword that question, why do God’s people suffer so much trial and pain? As a result of recognizing what our ultimate good is for—recognizing that what is good for us is to make us more like Christ and not to make us comfortable in this life, the question that we perhaps ought to be asking is this: “Why is it that some of God’s people suffer so little?” Or, “Why don’t we suffer more?”