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June 13, 2021 | Doug Sauder
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The following are excerpts from a paper I wrote in 2011 as part of my Master of Divinity coursework. To read the entire paper, click here.
The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology defines pain the following way: “A series of concepts surrounds the biblical teaching on pain. The term itself is used most often in Scripture to refer to a physical sensation of ill feeling. It can be used to denote emotional or mental stress as well. A related term designating such concepts is ‘anguish.’ While pain and anguish are portrayed in Scripture as the physical and emotional effects one experiences, affliction, tribulation, and trouble appear as the causes of such pain and anguish.”
One of the most common battles nonbelievers fight against Christians is that of pain and suffering. In fact, it’s even a common struggle in the lives of believers worldwide. One may ask, “How could a loving God allow my son to die? He was so young and innocent. He knew nothing of evil. He was only eight months old.” How could a loving God allow innocent children to suffer, righteous people to experience such hardships, and His own children to go through immense pain and tribulation? Even worse, how could He allow the righteous to suffer while the wicked prosper?
No Joy Without Suffering
In the book, God Is Always Good, J. Cameron Fraser points out, “In 18 different New Testament passages, suffering and joy appear together. In fact, suffering is often the cause for joy (Romans 5:3-5; Colossians 1:24; James 1:2-3).” C.S. Lewis says, “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.”
One can apply the same principle to the idea of pain and suffering and their connection to love and joy. If a person never experiences any pain, suffering, or tribulations, then happiness, joy, peace, and love would be without meaning. One would not understand what love truly was if not for the understanding of feeling unloved. One would not know what peace was if not for the understanding of turmoil and suffering. One would not know what joy was if not for the understanding of pain.
The Free Will Factor
Like the problem of evil, free will is the determining factor in pain and suffering. All that humanity knows of love is because of God. The Bible states very clearly throughout its 66 books that God is love. Everything God has done, is currently doing, and will do is done out of His great love. Humanity would not and cannot know love apart from God, because God is the source of all love, joy, peace and understanding.
In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis said, “God will look to every soul like its first love because He is its first love.” The free will afforded to humanity was God’s second greatest gift—the salvation that comes through faith in Jesus Christ being His greatest gift. Had God not afforded man with the quality of self-determination, man would never have known what true love, joy, peace, and happiness is because man would not be able to choose. Is love truly a real love when one is forced without choice to love? Is a feeling genuine when one is programmed to feel it with no understanding otherwise?
If there were no pain or at the very least, no possibility of pain, is love truly love? C.S. Lewis did not believe so. He said, “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering, which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”
The Benefit of Pain
Looking at pain from a different angle, Christopher W. Morgan says, “In ways that we cannot fully comprehend, Almighty God suffers along with His people. None of those who are united to Him by covenant, then, suffers alone. He not only knows and cares, but He suffers with them. And, as the Almighty, He offers His repentant people His presence, power, and help. How, then, can we doubt the goodness of God? His goodness must be factored into all discussions of our suffering and pain.”
Throughout the Bible, there are references to God suffering along with His people. The pain of His children is also felt in His heart.
The Bible also speaks of the necessity of pain at times as a consequence or reaction, as a guide, and as a learning tool. Joni Eareckson Tada believes that there are various benefits to pain and suffering for humanity. The first of these benefits is that it has the ability to turn a person from a dangerous path.
In her book, A Place of Healing: Wrestling with the Mysteries of Suffering, Pain, and God's Sovereignty, Eareckson Tada quotes Psalm 119:67 (NIV), which says, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.” She points out that, “It had suddenly dawned on him that the trouble in his life—sorrowful, upsetting, annoying, pressure-packed, or painful as it may have been at the time—had been good for him, and had been specifically allowed by God to benefit him. . . . He wasn’t saying that the trouble itself had been good. Far from it! But looking back, he could (now) honestly admit that it had produced a good effect.”
There can be no denying that pain and suffering can aid someone in turning away from a dark path. This is where the concept of cause and consequence comes into play. A parent will tell their child not to touch a hot stove. The child, having the ability to choose, decides to touch a hot stove and subsequently burns their hand. The child now learns through experience why the parent had established that rule. A teenager is instructed by his parents to stop associating with a certain crowd at school. The teenager views it as the parents simply desiring to ruin his life and disallow fun, so he rebelliously does it anyway. One night, as he is hanging out with the crowd, one of the teens reveals that they have drugs and the entire group engages in illegal drug activities (except for the boy). They are discovered by the police and are all arrested. The child had to learn the hard way that his parents were prohibiting the association to protect him from a situation like the one he now found himself in.
The same principle applies with God, biblical principles, and law of morality. The Bible states that drunkenness is a sin and is against the will of God. Often times, people learn the hard way (drunk driver kills an innocent person or two drunk strangers engage in sex and become pregnant). This then brings up the idea of the innocent suffering for the evil choices of others.
The Rain on the Just and the Unjust
The question is then raised as to whether or not it’s fair for the innocent to suffer for the mistakes of the wicked. C.S. Lewis offers this in response: “Pain, like pleasure, can be so received: all that is given to a creature with free will must be two-edged, not by the nature of the giver or of the gift, but by the nature of the recipient.”
The gift of free will is beautiful and produces such wonderful pleasures, joys, and love, but with that comes the risk of pain and suffering. In addition, it comes with the risk that others also have this gift and may abuse it. These abuses of free will may very well affect a multitude of people, including the innocent and the righteous. In the end, it’s simply a byproduct of free will. In order to have the great joys and pleasures that come from the gift of choice, one must accept there will be troubles, pain, and suffering ahead. But, it’s those times of trouble that make love and joy all the more powerful.
Another question often raised is why the wicked prosper while the just suffer? In Matthew 5:44-45 (NKJV), Jesus clearly states, “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
From where one is standing, it may seem like the good people suffer while the evil prosper, but the Bible says in Romans 12:19 (NKJV), “’Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” The Word of God is clear that though it may seem at times that the wicked are prosperous for a season, they will receive what is due to them on the day of Christ Jesus.
Does this possibility of pain and suffering prove that God does not love? Does the existence of evil conflict with the presence of a loving God? Decidedly not! In The Problem of Pain, C.S, Lewis says, “A man can no more diminish God's glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word 'darkness' on the walls of his cell.”
If God did not unconditionally love humans, He would not have created them in His image, nor would He have given them the gift of free will which allows man to see the love of God at work, present, active, and moving in one’s life. Free will allows man to surrender their lives and truly love and worship God.
It’s also that free will that allows man to follow his own selfish desires and turn away from God. Free will is the instrument that man uses to bring about evil, pain, and suffering, but that does not make free will evil as it’s also the tool that man uses to say yes to God, to show compassion, kindness, humility, love, patience, and forgiveness.
In the same way that a pen in the hand of one man can be used to build someone up, it can be used by another to tear someone down. In the same way that one man can use an object for immense good, another may use it for immense evil. That does not make the object itself evil, nor the Creator of the object. The evil comes from the one who abused the object.
The Bible says that God desires all mankind to accept the gift of salvation and be His children, but He will not make the choice for anyone. C.S. Lewis so eloquently points out, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice, there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”
Danny Saavedra has served on the staff of Calvary since 2012, managing the Calvary Devotional and digital discipleship resources. He has a Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling and Master of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry from Liberty Theological Seminary. His wife Stephanie, son Jude, and daughter Zoe share a love of Star Wars, good food, having friends over for dinner, and studying the Word together as a family.