C. S. Lewis’s book, The Problem of Pain, was published in 1940. In it, Lewis responds to an argument against the existence of God that goes something like this: An all-good God would not want his creatures to suffer; an all-powerful God would be able to prevent them doing so; suffering does exist; therefore God is either not all-powerful or is not all-good.
When I first read The Problem of Pain in the 1970s, I found it spiritually stimulating and intellectually satisfying. It seemed to me that Lewis was onto something: a good and omnipotent God might, for the eternal good of his creatures, permit temporary suffering. He might allow sorrow to exist for a night so that unending joy could come in the morning.
Lewis’s argument is still relevant. One of the principal reasons young adults give for leaving the faith is the presence of unjust suffering. Some notable intellectuals who have left the faith – the New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman is a prime example – often cite the problem of evil and suffering as a cause of their apostasy. I have read that most scientists who reject belief in God do so not because of the weight of evidence but because of the seeming senselessness of suffering.
I still think Lewis’s argument is sound, but I now realize that the problem of pain is more than an intellectual puzzle to be solved. It is an existential problem to be endured, and not just by those who doubt God’s existence but by those who despair of their own. As a friend recently said to me, “It is hard to be spiritual when you’re in pain.”
This is the experiential problem of pain: how can one trust God and love one’s fellow-man when one’s mind is overwhelmed by pain? Suffering is the ferocious dog that stands in front of you with the hair on its back raised, snarling through bared teeth. When you encounter it, it is hard to think about anything else. Hard to think of anything at all.
Something like this happened to me. I was at a friend’s place for a couple of days. I knew he had a dog for protection, but I assumed it stayed outside. Early in the morning I went out to the living room, sat on the sofa, and began conversing with my friend’s young son, who was already up. The next thing I knew, there was a growling Rottweiler in front of me, looking as if it would tear me limb from limb. In that moment, I did not think spiritual thoughts. I did not think of my young companion’s wellbeing, or how seeing an adult torn to pieces would mar his future life. I thought only of the dog.
How can a person attend to God and neighbor when suffering occupies all his vision, baring its teeth, threatening pain and dismemberment? I’ve had little experience in this area; just enough to reveal my failures, not enough to lead me to a solution. But others who have suffered more have relayed helpful advice.
First, to trust God in suffering, one must learn that God is trustworthy before suffering. In times of suffering, we fall back on what we know. If we know God as a loving Father, who is fully committed to us and our good, our experience of suffering will be very different than if we doubt his intentions.
Then, we must expect that suffering will come, sooner or later, and be ready for it. We should not be surprised by suffering – the biblical writers warn us repeatedly to expect it. It would be more surprising if we didn’t suffer.
Next, we must allow suffering to reveal areas where we are depending on what Randy Alcorn calls “God-substitutes” and transfer our trust to God himself. Suffering, perhaps more than anything else, reveals the regions in our souls where faith remains incomplete.
Finally, we must cling to the hope that God will use suffering, even when it is unjust, for our good and the good of others. He has promised to do this and we must cling to his promise. If we have seen him fulfill that promise in various ways before we encounter suffering, it will help us trust his word.
First published by Gatehouse Media, inc.
This explains so much (from my own experience, and I believe from others’ as well) and offers a practical solutions. Thanks so much for posting this, Shayne.