The Problem of Pain

While walking through the deepest pits of human suffering with people, so often I hear the question “Why?” To face the reality of the presence of pain in our lives is one of the most difficult endeavors. A Google search to the question, “Why is there suffering in the world?” revealed answers by various religious organizations, including Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism. The most common religious answers sound something like this:

  • God gives humans freedom of choice, and we choose against his prescribed way of living, thus creating pain and causing suffering in our own lives and the lives of others.
  • God is either not powerful enough to stop pain, He does not care to stop pain, or He is evil and revels in the pain that wreaks havoc in the world.
  • God allows pain because He plans to use it in His great Redemptive Plan for His creation.
  • God uses pain to discipline and instruct His children.
  • God uses pain as a “megaphone” to get our attention, or as a warning against further evil.
  • The Bible says that “suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope.”
  • And finally, “Ultimately, we can’t know all the reasons God allows pain and suffering, we just know that He does.”

I do believe Scripture supports the majority of these explanations, but consider this: We can spend so much of our time trying to understand why painful things happen to us, and often get stuck in this phase of grief. Many books written to address the “problem of pain” conclude with unsatisfying answers: we don’t know why pain exists, or why God tolerates it. Even though asking the question “why?” is a perfectly human reality, the extensive efforts we put toward understanding the purpose of pain seem to end in frustration and the feeling that life is meaningless. What results do we hope for when we expend so much energy to understand why pain is a daily reality? Sometimes we believe that discovering a reason for pain may offer some control over the situation, or somehow lessen the pain we feel. How many times have I said to myself and others, “This would hurt less if I knew there was a good reason for it”? However, it doesn’t usually make the current pain go away, and it certainly doesn’t guard against future pain. From a Christian perspective, we know that pain and suffering in the world is not how God originally designed our world. Cornelius Plantinga in his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, states that sin is a “personal affront to a personal God…that violates shalom and breaks the peace” that was God’s design for creation and redemption. Pain entered God’s perfect world and marred it.
I believe the question that gives us more traction to move forward than “Why?” is, “What do we do with our pain when it comes?” This question is much more empowering; it leads us away from some of the powerlessness we often feel in our panicked attempts to avoid pain. We do this by either numbing ourselves and disconnecting from reality or by going into hyper-drive and reacting unwisely. It is helpful to remember that every human, no matter their story, has endured pain in one form or another, and we continue to live our lives making choices every day either out of that pain or in spite of that pain. Does it have the power to overwhelm us and dictate our actions?
There was a point in my healing journey from past abuse where the thought occurred to me, “It’s just pain; here it is again.” I remembered having a sense that I was more than, and even separate from, my pain. I thought about the times that I had allowed myself to really engage the pain from the abuse I endured as a child and that I had come out on the other side. This experience gave me hope that I am more powerful than my pain is. And even more, that because I am made in the image of God, and have the Holy Spirit inside of me, there is a resiliency and strength available to me that I would not have otherwise. At first glance the thought “It’s just pain” may sound minimizing, and it certainly has been used in such a way to cause harm to people who are honestly hurting. However, the meaning in those moments was clear to me: I have experienced and moved through excruciating pain and it has not ended me. I somehow have had the resources to tolerate it and act for my own good and the good of others. The thought that “pain is just pain” was a victory and source of hope.
Secondly, the above question gives me the choice to respond to pain when it oppresses and threatens my dignity. It doesn’t have to take away my power or my will by burying me in efforts to avoid it or succumb to it. Instead, I can respond to it. Do I choose to entertain the belief that my pain matters to God? How do I interpret the verse in 2 Corinthians 12, “His power is made perfect in weakness?” Do I choose to allow those who’ve caused me pain dictate what I believe about myself, or about God? Do I choose to cause others pain to satisfy my often self-righteous, egocentric sense of justice? Do I choose to be kind and gracious to myself when in pain or to cause myself further harm? Do I choose to remember that God Himself endured unspeakable pain? What do I do with the fact that He didn’t prevent His own pain at the cross, nor does He prevent the pain He continues to endure before eradicating it forever?
To my fellow believers in Christ, we must remember that pain is not the ultimate evil to avoid—sin is the ultimate evil. Let us not idolize avoidance of pain. When we transform our pain into contempt for ourselves or contempt for others, we act against God’s intentions for us and against his very person. We must see this as the greatest enemy to overcome.
The bigger question I want to leave you with is this: Because God allows pain to invade our lives on a daily basis – and because this will be a reality until He restores the world once and for all – what does our God do with his own pain and the pain of his people, and what does He call us to do?
We can look at Christ as an example (and He incidentally is what separates Christianity from all the rest—the God-man who entered into history and lived a human life perfectly, who didn’t teach detachment from pain but actually experienced the suffering of our broken world out of love for us, and through divine power overcame it). He experienced pain that the Bible tells us we will never experience. He endured it on a daily basis, from childbirth through his death in early adulthood. He at times spoke passionately against people who caused pain, and at times didn’t speak a word. He felt compassion for and anger on the behalf of others when they were in pain. He never minimized pain, denied it, or tried to worry it away. He never let pain control or dictate his choices. He never let pain move Him to sin or cause him to disobey His Father’s will. Christ’s life was the perfect picture of how to experience pain without letting it define him (Mark 14:61-62), dictate his choices and actions (Matthew 26:39), or rule over him (John 10:18). He endured pain without breaking his relationship with the Father.
So often, I find that I do the opposite of what God calls me to: I choose to “walk in the light of my own fire” (Isaiah 50) on a path of independence from God. Instead, God is endlessly calling me to his chosen path of greater dependence on Him (Allender, Wounded Heart): trusting Him in the midst of darkness, the “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53).
As we each continue to courageously move through the pain of our lives, let us follow Christ’s example and encourage one another towards truth and Christ-likeness while in the midst of pain.

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