On the Subject of Pain

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“He says, ‘Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” Psalm 46:10

 

I had someone tell me recently that truth is subjective. And upon first appearance, that seems like a lovely notion. It eliminates any possibility for conflict and judgement – because while you may not agree with someone’s viewpoint, it doesn’t matter, because at least they’re doing what’s “true for them” and they’re happy. And you’re doing what’s “true for you” and you’re happy – so everyone’s happy, right? Everyone wins.

Wrong. Ultimately, everyone loses. If there is no such thing as absolute truth, than the logic only follows that nothing, in fact, is true. If nothing is true, then we are all wandering around blind, with no greater purpose than ourselves to live for. And if that is the case, my friends, then we might as well live as we will, because everything we do is meaningless (see Ecclesiastes for more on this topic, specifically Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 for the conclusion of the matter). We will be forgotten after we die anyway, so why accommodate to others? Who honestly cares? I want x, y, and z to happen in my life, and I frankly don’t care how I achieve those things. I need to look out for Number One, because no one else is going to do it. And if I offend someone along the way, too bad. At least I’m abiding by what is true for me. I’d hate to be hypocritical.

Lack of absolute truth only results in mayhem. Where does the moral code come from? There has to be an Ultimate Standard to draw from. Why do we as a society deem one action “bad” and another “good” if the standard varies from person to person? Understand, I’m not claiming that everything is black and white. There are grey areas, even in Scripture. However, I am claiming that there is something larger than life that allows for certain absolute truths; things that are true for all men in all times through all circumstances. Joe Schenke, the Dean of Students at Word of Life Bible Institute in Pottersville, NY once defined truth this way:

“Truth is that which is consistent with the mind, will, glory, and being of God.”

Some other attributes of truth include (as taught in the same sermon by Schenke):

  • It is revealed, not not invented.
  • It is unchanging, even though our beliefs about truth change. Beliefs cannot change a fact, regardless of how sincerely they are held.
  • It is not affected by the one professing it.
  • It is narrow. Contradictory ideas cannot both be true.

I say all that in order to simply say this: God is good. I realize that this is not necessarily a popular thing to say, and in fairness, I want to clearly state the perspective from which I’m coming from, recognizing that I’m claiming something that may strike people as ignorant and hopelessly optimistic. I am an unashamed believer in Jesus Christ – He is the Savior of my soul. In the words of C.S. Lewis: “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but by it I see everything else.”As a believer, it follows that the Bible is the starting place from which I draw my conclusions. Not to do so would be inconsistent with that which I claim to believe. I know that the subject of the goodness of God, or the existence of God Himself is a divisive one, especially in reference to pain. However, as previously stated, the denial of truth does not make it any less true; and therefore, not believing that God exists does not cause Him to cease to exist.

Now to address the question, if God is good, than why do bad things happen? How can such a “good” God allow such atrocities? It’s certainly a fair question. Looking at the prevailing pain in the world around us, it seems inconsistent to argue that God is simultaneously good AND sovereign. We don’t want to accept that. If God is sovereign, why doesn’t He eliminate pain? It’d be easier to believe in a good God if He was rendered helpless, unable to intercede on our behalf to prevent pain. Or it’d be easier to believe in a God that was sovereign but disconnected and disinterested in our lives; therefore making our pain of no consequence to Him. It is hard to accept that God possesses both attributes. But it is vital to understand if we are to experience a relationship with Him that goes deeper than a superficial fandom.

The reason this world is so broken is a direct result of the sin that exists therein. What is sin? Anything that contradicts the will, character, and word of God. A quick theology lesson: God created the world without sin. However, He loved the human race enough to give men a choice as to whether or not to follow him. The first humans, Adam and Eve, chose to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which they were expressly told not to do by God Himself. In eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they disobeyed Him and committed the first sin (see Genesis 3 for more details.) Romans 5:12 says that: “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.” So, in Adam, we all fell. Any one of us would have made the same decision he did. So why did God even give Adam and Eve the option? Because He loved them (and us) enough to give them the power to choose. He granted us free will because (to quote C. S. Lewis again): “though it makes evil possible, [it] is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.” Love that is coerced isn’t love at all. God loves us enough to allow us to choose Him.

But I still haven’t answered the nagging question, how can a good God allow pain? Doesn’t He want us to be happy? Yes, of course. But His desires for us are so much larger for us than satiating the desires that we think will make us happy. More than happiness, He wants us to be holy. In Elisabeth Elliot’s book Passion and Purity, she records a conversation that captures this mindset well:

“The blue eyes filled with tears. ‘Doesn’t He want me to be happy?’ (I heard an echo of Eve in Eden).

‘He wants you most to be holy.’

‘Miserable and long-faced then. Is that what holiness has to mean?’

‘Has to? No. Not only doesn’t have to, but can’t. Real holiness can’t possibly be miserable and long-faced Jane. Holiness means ‘wholeness.’ Comes from the same root as hale–you know, hale and hearty. Healthy. Fulfilled.’

‘Well, that has to mean happy.’

‘That’s what it means for sure. The problem starts when we make up our own minds what will give us happiness and then decide, if we don’t get exactly that, that God doesn’t love us. We slither into a slough of God-hates-me self-pity.’

‘But you just said He wants us to be happy. He must want to give us what we want, doesn’t He? I mean, within reason.’

‘He wanted Adam and Eve to be happy, but He didn’t give them everything they wanted. He knew it would be the death of them. So they got mad and decided He didn’t love them and was being stingy when He told them not to touch the fruit. How could He love them if He didn’t let them have it? They put more stock in the snake’s reasoning than in God’s.”’

I am not in anyway trying to belittle pain. I am simply stating that I serve a God whose sovereignty supersedes pain. In knowing that God is good, I can trust in His goodness, knowing He only allows things for my betterment. Because He loves me enough to place circumstances in my life that force me to recognize my inadequacy and need for Him. It’s easy to claim a faith when it’s never tested. The contents of our hearts are revealed in trial. Only then do we start to recognize the depths of our depravity. Until we come to the end of ourselves, we will tend live in our own strength, whether advertently or inadvertently.

Job is the classic example of a righteous man that underwent trials of massive proportions. In a matter of a few days, he lost his wealth, his children, and his health. As he sat in the ashes scraping off his sores with a piece of broken pottery, his wife inquired, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” To which Job replied, ” You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:9-10).

Yes, and how would we recognize pain if we had never experienced good prior to it? To experience great loss means you first have been blessed enough to experience great joy. It is God’s grace that allows us to experience good in the first place. We are not entitled to blessings. God is not our heavenly vending machine.

I have recently realized that I have a very low view of God. This was unsettling, to say the least. In working through my own grief of the death of my dear sister, I’ve recognized how very shallow my view of God is. As A. W. Tozer describes it, “To admit that there is One who lies beyond us, who exists outside of all our categories, who will not be dismissed with a name, who will not appear before the bar of reason, nor submit to our curious inquiries: This requires a great deal of humility, more than most of us possess, so we save face by thinking God down to our level, or at least down to where we can manage Him.” I am definitely guilty of this. But really, my question in the midst of trials should not be “Why me? I don’t deserve this.” Instead I should be humbled that God loves me enough to take such interest in me that He is willing to allow events in my life that will overwhelm me with His grace.

The key difference between believers and non-believers is not that believers never experience pain. In fact, based on Job, there doesn’t appear to be any immediate correlation between righteousness and adversity. BUT there is one between godliness and grief. And that difference is, believers have hope. We can rest assured in God’s goodness and love by virtue of the fact that He sent His Son to die on the cross for our sins. But the story doesn’t end there. He was resurrected, defeating death, the ultimate consequence of sin. So as believers, we can claim victory over this life and our circumstances through Christ. Yes, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 15:55-56.)  We know that our immediate trials are not all we have to look forward to. As Paul writes, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18). Our lives are not dictated by circumstances, but rather truth.

“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

“Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes, not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

“For we live by faith, not by sight.”

(1 Corinthians 4:8-9; 16-18; 5:7).

 

 

Passages for further study:

  • 1 Peter 1:3-9
  • James 1:2-4
  • Hebrews 4:14-16
  • 1 Corinthians 1:3-5
  • Isaiah 55:8-9
  • Psalm 119:49-50, 71-72
  • Psalm 34:18
  • Romans 5:1-5; 8:28, 31-38

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