Part 1 of a 4-part series looking for answers to the question, if God is both good and all-powerful, how can he allow us to suffer?
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. 4 As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
6 After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. 7 “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.
“That blind man was prepared as a salve for the human race. He was bodily restored to light, in order that by considering his miracle we might be enlightened in heart.” (Caesarius of Arles)
I have a question. Can anyone here think of a benefit of pain?
Thank you for sharing those very good, very useful thoughts.
Cruel Maniac or Powerless Wimp?
For many, the problem of suffering in the world is their only remaining stumbling block to belief. The question goes like this: if God is both all-powerful and all-good, as you Christians say, how can he allow suffering?
In other words, the false assumption is made that because suffering exists, God must either be a cruel maniac or a powerless wimp.
Let’s restate the argument this way: if we imagined some sort of god who was powerful – but not good – we could perhaps understand such a cruel god not only allowing, but even inflicting pain in the world. We need look no further than the mythical pantheons of Rome, Greece, and the Himalayas to find a capricious collection of “powerful-but-not-good gods” who, in legend, sanction all sorts of seemingly random pain in the world. Such a god does not cut a very compelling figure.
Or, on the other hand, the same question, v assumes an imaginary god who was perhaps very good – but not all-powerful. Such a pathetic figure could be forgiven for being too weak to prevent pain and suffering. This is the mistake that some make about Jesus: they see him as an irrelevant, pale Galilean mystic, kept under glass in grandma’s parlor.
But neither the mythical meanie nor the pale, parlor-bound Jesus is the kind of God we as Christians serve. We insist that our God is both all-powerful and all-good; that Jesus incorporates both unlimited strength and undying love. Therefore we, of all people, have no option but to tackle this specific question head on: if God is both all-powerful and all-good, how can he allow suffering?
Potential Power, Potential Good
The problem with that question, “If God is both all-powerful and all-good, how can he allow suffering?” is that, like most objections to God, it starts with a false, flawed assumption: namely, that all suffering must always be bad. Or that pain can never be useful.
But if we can allow that in at least some cases, some pain might do some good, we undermine the question, and therefore undermine this primary objection to Christ.
Let’s start with a very simple example. Fire. Is fire good or evil? Show me some hands -- who thinks fire is good? Now who thinks fire is bad? I see some of you raised your hand both times, you say fire is good and bad. Right, fire is neither. It is a tool and a resource that can be used either to warm a house or burn it down. Fire is neither good nor evil in and of itself, but it can be used for either.
Now, every child has to learn that fire must be handled very carefully. And every child sooner or later learns that lesson through a very simple method: the pain of getting burned. So let’s think about that specific pain for a moment. To the child with limited perspective and experience, there is nothing good or redemptive about that pain. But to a parent caring for the child, even though they grieve for their child’s short-term pain, they take comfort in knowing that their child has learned one of life’s most important lessons, that dangerous things must be handled with care. In this way, the short term badness of a painful burn is not worth comparing to the long-term goodness of learning how to deal properly with fire.
Allow me to put it another way: a surgeon must sometimes inflict pain in order to heal. That is their job. They must at times cut healthy, innocent flesh to remove unhealthy, diseased flesh. Yet no one would call a surgeon evil for inflicting the pain of an incision on a patient’s belly in order to save her from sure death from a burst appendix. The pain of this hypothetical surgery is neither cruel nor weak. It is pain, yes, but not evil pain. It is both powerful and good. It serves a redemptive purpose.
And this is where the objection to God as either a cruel maniac or a powerless weakling falls apart. When we begin to think of pain – and perhaps ALL pain – as having a potential purpose that is both powerful and good, we make mincemeat of the argument that an all-powerful, all-good God could never allow any pain at all in our lives. It simply doesn’t stand up to reason.
You see, when we are younger, we have a tendency to see all pain as bad. But as we grow older and experience more of life, we begin to understand that pain can do some good. It is a teacher. It is always pregnant with purpose. If you could ask a puppy whether he enjoys being trained, he would tell you, “Oh no, not at all.” But the pain of training is precisely what allows the puppy to become a trusted companion to his master and live a life of privilege later on. Were he to remain a wild beast, he would not be allowed in and warm himself at the master’s hearth or enjoy delicious scraps from his master’s table.
For a believer in Jesus – for someone who trusts that God is both all-powerful and all-good – our personal suffering – even that which might seem senseless from our limited perspective – presents us with an opportunity to glorify God in the way we respond to it.
I need to beg for your patience with me at this point: because the problem of pain is so vast, we simply don’t have enough time to touch on a few very crucial, key points in one day. In particular, I want to ask for your continued patience as I make a disclaimer that, today, I am not going to be able to address the immediate question of where pain comes from. That subject is for next week and the week after. Next week, Lord willing, we will talk about pain brought on by free will (that is, pain we inflict on ourselves, pain that others inflict on us, or pain we inherit from our ancestors). Free will explains the source of 90% of all suffering, in my opinion. The week after that, we will explore that nagging remaining 10% of suffering, which is pain that cannot easily be explained as a result of free will, but seems to be random and pointless. This is the pain of natural disasters and acts of God. This type of pain brought on by the seeming rogue waves of life is the hardest to deal with. And yet we must face it head on if we wish to call this investigation of the problem of pain authentic on any level. Faith never shies away from the hardest questions, and the message on rogue waves will be no exception. Please come back for the rest of the messages in this series, because today’s message will be incomplete and unsatisfying if you don’t.
The Purposes of Pain
But now, having made that disclaimer, let’s get back to the topic for today: the purpose of pain. Or to be more precise, the PURPOSES of pain.
Sticking with the medical metaphor I used earlier, if pain is a medicine (yes, a bitter-tasting one), it can serve at least three good purposes: diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of further pain. There is a fourth purpose, which Jesus expresses in today’s passage, which is to glorify God, but that purpose is all-encompassing, and we will save that for the end.
These three potential purposes of pain – diagnosis, treatment, and prevention – are foundational for understanding everything else we are going to say about pain from here on out. When we talk about the root causes of pain next week, it will be absolutely critical to first understand that, no matter what the cause of the pain is, it is still pregnant with at least one, if not all three, of these purposes.
So what do I mean by diagnosis, treatment, and prevention?
Pain’s Redemptive Purpose: Diagnosis
First, let’s consider the diagnostic power of pain. CS Lewis famously wrote, “If God whispers to us in our pleasure, he screams at us in our pain.” Pain is an alarm bell. In the simplest terms, pain tells us something is wrong, and we need to do something about it. A burning sensation tells us to move as we sit too close to the fire. The suffering of a hangover is a signal that tells the drunkard they have a problem. An earthquake alerts us to the fact that our city is built on a dangerous fault line.
Suffering serves the purpose of diagnosis in the sense that suffering may be a symptom of an underlying sin. Much of our pain, if not most of it, is a manifestation of natural consequences, the fruit of reckless and harmful behavior either by ourselves or by others. Pain teaches us that something is wrong and shouts at us to stop, or turn around and change course.
On a spiritual and emotional level, the diagnostic value of suffering also includes what we call spiritual “conviction” – pain gets our attention and alerts us that something is wrong in our relationships with others, or that we have been looking at the world the wrong way. Just as physical pain tells us when we are standing in the fire and must move away from it, emotional and relational anguish teaches us that we have been thinking wrong or approaching others on a false footing.
Far from being evil or weak, pain is very often just the strong diagnostic alarm bell we need to jolt us into much-needed change before it is too late.
Pain’s Redemptive Purpose: Treatment
The next redemptive purpose of pain is treatment, or healing. As with the example of the surgeon who must at times cut through healthy flesh to heal unhealthy, sometimes treatment of self-destructive behavior requires painful steps. I remember as a boy bringing a deep, painful sliver to my father. My dad was a doctor, so I always felt safe in his arms. I remember having great trust in him as he sat me down, took my hand in his and examined it carefully. But then I remember the fear and dread as he fetched a needle and a razor blade to open the wound so that he could get at the shard of wood deep under my skin. I cried as he worked, but he looked me in the eye and said, “Son, I love you, and I hate to see you hurt. But this is going to hurt a little now before it gets better.” I remember being a big boy and controlling myself even as everything in me wanted to pull my hand away from his. He had my trust, and I was learning that even in causing me pain, he had my best interest at heart. After a few tear-filled minutes, I felt the slab of wood come out – neither he nor I could believe the size of it. Even though I had questioned it earlier, I knew then that my father loved me.
The pain of an IV or a PICC line is necessary in order to administer lifesaving medicines. Chemotherapy is hugely unpleasant, and yet even it is useful for healing cancer. In order to get clean, some addicts must suffer the severe pain of withdrawals. No one can dispute that the 8th step of AA “make a list of people you’ve wronged & be willing to make amends” can be incredibly painful. And yet, it is a part of the healing process. Even something as simple as building muscle requires us to experience soreness the day after a heavy lift.
We can apply this principle of pain as treatment in ten thousand ways. When we stop to consider the ways in which the healing of a deeper problem always seems to involve an element that is painful on the surface, we must acknowledge that one of pain’s greatest redemptive purposes is treatment.
Pain’s Redemptive Purpose: Prevention
We can see that pain can serve the redemptive purpose of diagnosing a deeper problem, and even the purpose of treating an underlying wound. Now we must also consider the fact that pain is a teacher, and is very useful for preventing future pain.
I know a number of older men who drive cautiously today because they drove over-confidently in the past – and paid the price for it through a painful accident.
Today’s suffering cannot change our foolish actions yesterday, but it can improve our behavior tomorrow. In that way, pain today prevents us being stupid tomorrow.
But our pain also has a preventive effect on those around us. When one of us suffers as a consequence of our choices, it serves as a warning to everyone who hears about it. For example, a child may see their parents come to ruin because of poor financial decisions. But if that child is wise, they will not make the same mistakes their parents did. Their pain will not be wasted.
Even if our pain is irreversible, we must never forget that at the very least, our suffering tells a tale that can save others. Even if all hope of healing in this life should fail, our story, if shared, can serve as a warning, a preventive for those around us not to do the same things we have done. Pain may not provide us with an immediate reward, but it very often serves a net positive effect by serving as a beacon to others.
Every lifesaving lighthouse was built on a shore where a ship once wrecked. In that way, each shipwreck that led to a lighthouse, while catastrophic in the short term, has saved perhaps thousands of lives since. Present pain is pregnant with the purpose of preventing future suffering.
So there you have it. The three foundational and redemptive purposes of pain: diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.
Now, I know this doesn’t answer all of our questions about pain. In fact, it barely gets us out of port.
While it helps to consider some of the possible purposes our suffering might serve, it still doesn’t scratch the real itches we share: why should anyone suffer in the first place? Is suffering necessary at all? Why can’t God simply eliminate all suffering in the world?
Those are important questions, and I will address them. In the coming messages leading to Easter, we are going to look in depth at the reason suffering must exist, even delving into some of the most mysterious and unimaginable kinds of suffering, including the rogue waves of natural disasters and so-called acts of God.
But coming to grips with the reality that all pain is not always necessarily evil, and might even have a good and redemptive purpose, is the starting point for the rest of our journey together as we explore the problem of pain.
How does that sit with each of us so far? Any questions or thoughts? [give opportunity to share for a bit, then wrap it up below]
Pain’s Ultimate Purpose: Glorifying God in Us
To finish this morning, I said that there are three purposes to pain, but I lied. There is a fourth purpose, and that is to glorify God. That’s what Jesus said was the reason the man was born blind in today’s story. And while I think it is true that that one particular man’s painful experience was useful for all of us throughout the ages as we hear his story, I also believe that your pain is also pregnant with sacred purpose. Not only can pain benefit us in the short term, but in the long term, even our suffering has great potential to reveal the goodness of God.
For while the world never ceases to inflict pain, God never ceases to heal. And though our flesh may suffer hardships in this life, we know that no trouble can ever separate us from the love of God. We cling firmly to the hope of our own resurrection to a new life forever with Him where there will be no more tears, and no more dying. God indeed will be glorified, even in and through our present sufferings.
May you go from here today, alive and open to the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit, who desires to turn every trial to gold, and every scrap of trash into treasures of praise, and to reveal the glory of His power and goodness in and through you.
Romans 8:16-18 – ”The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
Let us pray.