The God of Pain

If God is good, and if God is almighty then why is there so much suffering?

Many people find it hard to understand how it is that there is so much suffering in the world when they have been told that God is all powerful and all good. They look around the world and see hatred, bloodshed, greed, torture, rape and theft and every manner of abomination and conclude that either God is powerless to stop these things, or that God doesn't care or, more simply, that God just doesn't exist. These conclusions do seem superficially reasonable, although not especially attractive; after all many people would prefer to believe that there is an all loving, all powerful God — but they find themselves unable to get past this obstacle of his apparent indifference.

We wonder if perhaps God doesn't care; or it could be that he has got old and weak. Maybe he is busy in the toilet relieving himself. Perhaps he is too busy to think about us. Could it be that God is angry with us? Or maybe God is not good? Whatever the case, the blood continues to flow and the screaming does not cease. Somehow we have got it into our heads that somehow God is the one at fault. There is however another possibility: What if our ideas about God are not correct? What if God is not the person that we think he is? We will explore this under four topics:

  1. Relationship, love and freewill.
  2. The conflict between desires
  3. The purpose of pain.
  4. Justice and the revealed will of God.

Relationship, love and freewill

Let us examine our relationship with God by first considering the relationship between a parent and offspring: The parent wants to be appreciated by the child but this appreciation is only worth having if the child gives it voluntarily; it must be given without inducement and coaxing; it must be given freely. But if the child is free in this matter then it is also free to reject the parent. Furthermore, the good parent wants the child to mature and grow into a adult that they can be proud of and who is able live life as an independent adult and no longer as a dependent child. At first the parent trains the child by showing him or her the way to take but as the years pass, the parent allows the child more and more freedom to make mistakes — because they are an important means of learning. But what if the child makes mistakes that hurt? Then the parent must apply soothing balm and send the child back out to try again. What if the child deliberately or mistakenly wanders off and doesn't come back? Then the parent must go looking for the child and see if he or she is willing and desiring to return. Only if the child has learned from the mistakes it made and is willing to return to the parent is there any possibility of a loving and supportive relationship between them. 

From this we can see that if there is to be any possibility of a worthwhile and meaningful relationship between the parent and offspring then then both must have freewill. For example, if I am forced to spend my time with you then you would never know whether I really wanted to be with you or not. You would probably not want my company if you knew that it was not given freely, but for you to know that I am choosing to be with you, it has to be possible for me to choose to be somewhere else. So it is with God. Our love for God is not real until we are able to withhold it. For our love to be worth anything to God he must therefore allow us the free choice not to love him.

However as soon as there is freewill, there is the risk that it will be abused and used to cause hurt. If I am allowed not to be with you then there is the possibility that I will leave you and that you will be left alone and rejected. If I have freewill there is a possibility that I will choose to be selfish and do things that will hurt you. However, God must have thought that this risk was worth taking. This makes sense because if God uses his power to restrict our freewill then all he would end-up with would be a bundle of robots which would be unnecessary (God doesn't need anyone to do his dirty work for him) and also wouldn't be any fun (God wants our relationship and friendship, not our religion).

So we conclude this section by noting that we humans must be allowed to do what we want but what we want and what we do might not actually be good for us and the result is suffering.

The conflict between desires

If two people both have freewill then sooner or later the will of one will be irreconcilable with the will of the other. This is called a conflict! Because they have freewill they can choose how to resolve this conflict — either by choosing a third course that is agreeable to both of them, or by one acceding to the other, or by bashing one another. The first or second course would probably be less painful than the third, but it is possible that there will be pain even in the first two. For instance, if you and I are walking together but then desire to take different routes, I can either leave you to your path and thus suffer the loss of your companionship or I can forgo the anticipated pleasures of my intended route and accompany you on your route. In either case, some small amount of suffering is involved.

However, even in order to be able to have the possibility of choosing the first or second course it is necessary that both people have freewill, but if they have this freewill then it is possible for them to choose the third course (of violent conflict) which will result in pain for one or the other or both of them (and possibly other people outside the conflict as well). The only way that this kind of conflict can be avoided is for somebody not to have freewill. But if there were no freewill then there could be no love, charity, generosity or kindness either. To lose freewill is to lose everything.

The purpose of pain.

We have already seen that freewill is necessary for any worthwhile relationship to exist. However if we have freewill then, by definition, we are no longer under the direct control of God. If we were just robots obeying the orders of a good God then there would be no possibility us ever doing anything that would damage us. However if we are left to our own devices then there is every possibility and, given our extreme ignorance, every probability that we will attempt to do something that is not good for us. It is for this reason that God has invented pain.

Let us take the simple example of putting our own hand in a fire. As the hand approaches the flames we feel a sensation of increasing intensity. Above a certain threshold this sensation becomes what we call “painful”. It is the very unpleasantness of the sensation that causes us to pull our hand away from the fire; and this is a good thing because the fire would damage us. Our physical bodies are full of all sorts of mechanisms like this which either help us avoid damage or that limit the damage and promote healing by making further movement of the unhealed flesh painful. These things are provided by a good God for our benefit so we cannot really complain about this kind of pain.

Now let us examine the framework behind this idea of “useful pain”. It is important to recognise that no part of the world formed by accident but that all was designed and created according to the will of God. As human beings there are physical limits on what we can and cannot do. There are certain things that we must do to survive and there are other things that we must avoid if we are to live. Human beings cannot fly like birds because we have not been created like birds and if we try then we will land with a bump and suffer pain. Human beings cannot stay underwater like fishes and if we try then we drown and die. Whenever we attempt to go (or are forced to go) beyond our physical limits that we are subject to then, in one form or another, we will be warned of imminent danger by the feeling of pain. The corollary of this is that if we want to avoid pain then we must stay within our design limits — we must act as we were designed to act.

However, these limits are not just physical; our emotions and consciences are also subject to limitations. When we consider doing something that is morally wrong our conscience rises up warn us just like the sensation from our nerves gets stronger as we approach fire. When we have done something that is morally wrong we will feel moral pain in the form of guilt. This is not merely a matter of social indoctrination or convenience. Guilt is primarily a response that God has designed us to have when we step into moral danger areas. When we transgress the physical limits on our lives we feel physical pain, when we transgress moral laws then we feel the pain of true guilt.

Emotional pain is similar. When our relationships do not proceed in the way that God designed us to appreciate then we find ourselves unhappy and suffering emotional pain (grief, loneliness, emptiness). When we insist on having relationships (of any kind) that God did not create us to have then we trip over obstacles of our own making and experience conflict. If the relationships that God created us for do not exist (for example, if a parent is missing) then, again, we suffer emotional pain. Just as with physical pain, the emotional pain is telling us that something is wrong — that we have moved (or have been moved) outside the limits that God designed to surround happy lives.

All forms of pain are, therefore, clear indicators that something is wrong with our lives or actions and that something needs to change. Pain tells us that we are trying to do something that were not designed to do. Pain tells us that we are experiencing something that is potentially harmful. Pain is a warning signal that a good God has provided for our benefit. Pain is also educational because it helps us to learn to behave the way we were created to behave. This is worthwhile because the way that God created us to live is the way that we will be most happy and content. It is pretty silly to try to be what we are not, and cannot be. Pain keeps us on the right path.

It seems, then, that the possibility of pain is necessary if ignorant creatures are to be given freewill. We are created to love and to be loved; freewill is necessary if there is to be any love. But freewill allows us to what is not good for us. Therefore to help us use our freewill in the way that is good for us he has very generously given us a whole series of pain mechanisms to help us live and live well.

Pain and the need for better instructions

We have now seen that freewill is necessary for relationship and that where there is freewill it is necessary to have pain also to help the person who has freewill not to damage themselves and others. Freewill and pain are both good gifts given by a loving God. Having accepted that pain is good and necessary, there is another question that we must now address and it is this: “Why has God not given us better instructions so that we can learn what is good to do without having to go through the pain?”

This is an excellent question and I hope to be able to give you an excellent answer in two parts so please keep reading and follow closely.

First, any good parent will sooner or later let their offspring out into the world so that the child can find its own feet and learn from its own mistakes. This is an essential part of growing-up and character formation. Without it, the child will never learn to develop their own ideas, never learn to see beyond what they have been taught and so will never be able to return to the parent as an equal who can give back just as much and just as freely as they have themselves received. For this reason, the instructions that were given so intensely when the child was very young will eventually become fewer and fewer and the child left to its own voyage of discovery.

Second, the simple truth is that God has given comprehensive instructions and then repeated them time and time again. This is especially true when it comes to emotional and moral issues. Unfortunately, we have chosen to ignore them. It is possible that there has never been a time when God did not have a messenger speaking on earth. Moreover, God has arranged for his instructions to be given as a comprehensive written manual. Finally, he created us with a summary copy of his moral and emotional guidelines written on our hearts and minds so that there would never be a time that we would be left in ignorance. Even the person who cannot read and write still has a conscience.

Pain and justice

We could stop at this point — having discovered that pain is both necessary and desirable in all its forms. However you may recall that our initial problem was “how can a God that is all powerful and all good allow so much suffering?” And furthermore, you may recall that we acknowledged that one possibility is that our ideas about God might be wrong or deficient. Now we must take that thought through to its conclusion:

It is true that God is all powerful, and it is true that God is all good and we have seen that the mere existence of pain and suffering does not actually contradict this idea. But if we stopped there we would have a pretty inadequate description of God. This is because God, in addition to being all loving and all powerful, is also all just, all wise and all knowing. It is the first of these extra qualities that is most often overlooked and it is when we ignore justice that we often begin to wonder whether God is really at work and we suspect him of taking an extended afternoon nap.

So, what does it mean to say that God is “just”. Basically it means that his decisions and actions are morally correct and that they fully satisfy the requirements of justice: When God acts, justice is done, and done perfectly. Now someone might very reasonably and sensibly ask how it is that justice is satisfied when terrible things are done and the perpetrators are not brought to a court and punished?

So what do we really expect God to do about it? Is it possible for a good God to step in and rearrange things on every occasion that something threatens to go wrong? We have already seen that this would not be loving and so it is not something that an all loving God can do. Our problem with reconciling the suffering in the world with the notion of a good, powerful God arises because we have not taken the trouble to think through the situation logically and to find out who God really is and who we really are.

First, let us remember that we are creatures who move in time. Time comes to all of us at the rate of sixty seconds per minute and, whether we realise it or not, we live only in that moment that we call the present. God created time and is outside it just as he is outside the universe. From his own point of view God does not delay justice because delaying is a concept of time and God does not occupy time. From our point of view justice may seem to be slow in coming but from God's point of view all time is the same and justice enacted far in our future is already done in God's sight. We may not yet have experienced ultimate judgement because that part of time in which God has placed judgement and justice has not yet come to us; but it is there all the same, and travelling relentlessly towards us at that same sixty seconds per minute.

The second thing to realise is that God is far more concerned about what sort of people we become than what sort of lifestyle we lead. Wealth, status and comfort are less important to God than honesty, fortitude, boldness, thrift, perseverance, patience, gentleness, faithfulness and the other virtues. As far as God is concerned, our present life is only the first step in eternal life and God is not about to consider our eternal character to be less important than our temporal comfort. If pain and suffering become necessary to make us depend on God in faith, then pain and suffering will not be withheld. If the only way we will learn not to run on thin ice is by falling through and getting cold, wet, bruised and miserable then God will not hold us back. This means that the suffering that exists in the world can be thought of as a valid opportunity to develop the good character that God intends us to have.

The third important point is that the totality of human existence does not cease at physical death. The body dies but the soul moves on. This is a matter of faith since it is beyond empirical proof but that should not cause any alarm. Most of what we know, we know by having faith in somebody or something. What is important is to know how reliable our source of information is. If we are satisfied about its accuracy in matters that we are able to verify by experience then it is not unreasonable to believe that it is accurate in those matters that we cannot verify by experience.

The Jewish and Christian scriptures accurately describe human experience and offer a rational and reasonable explanation of how our world and our lives have come to be in their present mess; this shows these scriptures to be reliable when applied to our present lives. To the extent that any other ancient historical document can be verified, the Jewish and Christian scriptures can be shown to be historically accurate. If these scriptures are a reliable source of information about the known past and the experienced present then what they have to say about other matters is also worthy of consideration. What the scriptures tell us is that there is a God who is just and who has all of eternity in which to bring us to account. As these scriptures themselves say, “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter, 3:8,9 - NIV)

Here is a truth worth remembering:

Perfect love acts only within the bounds of perfect justice; the results of which are tempered by perfect mercy offered in the light of perfect knowledge comprehended by perfect understanding and applied with perfect wisdom; the whole to be enacted with perfect and irresistible power.

We must now consider whether we are actually making any attempt to follow the advice that God has already given us. God has never been slow to tell his creatures how they should live. He has provided written instructions, sent messengers to explain them and just in case all of that failed, he has written them on our hearts. If having received such great and powerful counsel we choose to ignore his advice then we are not really in a position to complain when everything goes wrong. And it is going wrong — in a big way! Here are a few contemporary examples of our errors:

God hates greediness

We have encouraged greed, and short term profit. Our whole economic system is based on greed. We have made financial prosperity our primary goal and wealth almost the sole means of assessing a persons value and achievement. Almost every government and opposition party in Europe and the, so-called, “developed” world is clamouring for “economic growth”. The impossibility and stupidity of policies like this could be understood by any five year-old: Perpetual economic growth is simply not possible because the world is only limited size; but long before the physical resources run-out we would have destroyed our habitation and died-out anyway.

Our greed has grown to the extent that countries throughout the world have now established “national lotteries” — a wealth distribution system driven entirely by greed that allows a few people to get exceedingly rich while doing nothing for the rest. It would be better named if it were called a “national disgrace”. Our attitude is so perverse that, in Britain, a government minister was actually able to describe this system as “fun”!! Do we see people rolling with laughter? Do we see people filled with joy? Are they even smiling? Does the minister even know what the word “fun” means? If the British national lottery can be described as “fun” without the government minister becoming the object of utter derision then the people's expectations of pleasure in this life must be stupendously low.

Money does not give a man stature. It does not make a man worthy of respect. It does not in any way improve his character. The person who uses his salary to measure his progress through life is the most feeble of all humans specimens.

Distored sexuality

God created people so that they could enjoy sex with their spouse. God hates all forms of sex outside marriage. His anger is not reserved just for homosexuals and child-molesters but for everyone who has sex with a person that they are not married to. God invented sex, it was his idea, he designed and created all the interlocking parts of the sex jigsaw and therefore he ought to know how they are best used.

We have said “it doesn't matter so long as you love one another. It doesn't matter so long as it feels right.” We not only tolerate immoral sex but actively encourage and promote it. God designed sex to be the pinnacle of relationship between husband and wife. We have dragged it into the gutter. More than this, our generation has achieved what our ancestors would have possibly considered impossible: We have actually succeeded in making the subject boring.

Radio DJs on national radio stations aimed at adults make comments that would be more appropriate from a pre-pubescent youth in the school changing rooms. Their comments are neither shocking, nor witty, nor amusing but merely reveal the rather sad and banal state of the DJ's mind. Magazines trawl the details of sex desperately looking for a new titillation from an old subject. Yawn! If we were all satisfied with our sex lives then there would be no need to keep seeking such titillation. If your sex life needs pepping-up then try running your life God's way — read his manual. After all, God invented sex and he ought therefore to know what he is talking about.

God invented marriage. God hates divorce.

We have made divorce legal and easy. It isn't even necessary for either person to be at fault — they simply need to live apart for a certain period but even this separation is itself prohibited by God. Our answer to marriage problems is to make it easier to end the marriage. But people only grow-up when they are forced to confront their problems and work through them. Maturity is obtained not by avoiding tough-times but by working through them to the other side. Alas, we have become a nation of wimps and cowards; too timid to admit our mistakes and take the blame. We would rather cop-out than work it out.

God said: Let your yes mean yes and your no, no. Anything else comes from the evil one.

What a bad joke this has become in our land. In our greed we lie and cheat and think nothing of it. We lie to avoid confrontation. We lie to avoid perceived embarrassment. We dabble in half truths. Lies in the work place are considered a normal and natural part of business (its in the post, he's in a meeting, she's just popped out, ...) We renegade on our promises and agreements the moment they cease to be convenient. Honesty is rarer than diamonds and infinitely more valuable. The man who keeps his word in every detail is like a well in the Sahara desert, only harder to find. Marriage promises are not even considered worth remembering or understanding let alone keeping. The reputation of our national “leaders” is so poor that we do not really even expect them to tell the truth. Sometimes we probably wonder if they are even capable of being fully honest — except perhaps by accident.

God recommended that we should think about whatever was “noble, pure, right, praiseworthy, admirable, good, true, ...”

Every day our television stations pore a torrent of violence, immoral and perverse sex, greed, nastiness and lies into our lives. We are told that this is in the interests of realism and authenticity. We are told that television does not affect people's behaviour and that adults should be allowed to choose whether they watch this sort of thing or not. This argument is so pathetic that it is hard to believe that any intelligent person could begin to believe it. If television does not affect the behaviour of the viewer then why do large companies — staffed by intelligent people — spend millions of pounds advertising their products on television with the sole aim of changing our behaviour? Truly the liars are being lied to and believing the lies!

God hates idolatry

Our idolatry has become so accepted that we do not even recognise it for what it is. In Britain astrologers flaunt their wares in every magazine and newspaper. Tarot readings are offered openly. Every form of evil is considered valid. Pagan temples are scattered across the land. Apparently the land that only a few hundred years ago defended the glorious good news of eternal salvation against the onslaught of Roman-Catholicism has now become host to the largest Hindu temple outside India and has more active cults than does the USA. Oh, the shame of it! If God does not have mercy upon us then our punishment will be extremely severe, for from those to whom much is given, much will be demanded.

We are told that we must accept all faiths and beliefs with tolerance and treat them as equal validity. This is an argument that could only exist in a country where truth and falsehood have become meaningless and irrelevant. It is as plain as day that contradictory beliefs cannot possibly be equally valid unless they are all equally wrong. The person who tries to claim equal validity for the different faiths has clearly never given the matter a moment's serious thought. If Christianity is true then the other faiths must be false at every point where they differ from Christianity. If any of the other faiths is true then Christianity is false. Anybody who claims that Christianity can be combined with other faiths is either confused, ignorant or lying.

Summary & Conclusion of the argument so far

We have seen that pain and suffering are consistent with an all-loving and all-powerful God and that no fault can be attached to God for our suffering; he has provided both the instructions and the means of avoiding it. Moreover, not only is suffering consistent with an all powerful, all loving God, but the possibility of suffering is actually essential if we are to have freewill and to be able to love. We have also seen that our suffering is only what we would expect if we do what is not good for us and disobey God. Finally we have seen that we have chosen, in a big way, to ignore God's advice and to disobey his commands.

If we now examine the state of our nation in the light of our neglect of God's revealed word and will, is it really very surprising that we are going downhill fast? If we consider our deliberate ignorance and wilful stupidity can we still be puzzled that evil occurs? The evil that we see is not the result of God's neglect but of our determination to do things our own way. God allows it to happen so that we might learn from our own pain that we are on the wrong course. Pain is a very immediate indicator that something harmful is occurring. There is suffering in the world not because God is asleep but because our behaviour is both wrong and stupid. However, the suffering that we humans inflict on ourselves and on one another through our ignorant selfishness will not continue forever because justice requires that it must be stopped — but will that be a day to celebrate? 

God is all loving and God is all powerful but the first requirement of love is that it must be just, and justice demands that our disobedience must be punished. Where there is no repentance there can be no mercy; forgiveness will not be given where none is asked for. With perfect love, God will delay our punishment until the moment at which perfect wisdom and perfect knowledge determine it to be unavoidable no-longer;

When that moment comes, perfect love will demand that perfect justice must be executed with perfect and irresistible power. 

It will not be a happy day.

The cross & The Saviour

We have seen that suffering is exactly what we should expect in a world created by an all loving, all powerful, all just, all knowing, all wise God when the inhabitants of this world use their freewill to rebel against their creator. We have also got as far as working out that it is not God who is at fault in all this, but it is we who are to blame. We have also seen that justice demands that there must be a day of reckoning — a day when justice will be done, accounts settled and sinners punished. Because we are those sinners and we are those debtors it is we who are condemned and who will suffer punishment eternally. 

Only when all of this terrible news has been apprehended does the Christian message of “good news” begin to make any sense. These are a few of the things that Jesus said while he was wandering around Palestine a couple of thousand years ago.

"I have come to seek and save what was lost".
"I have not come to condemn the world, but to save it."
"I am the way, the truth, the light".
"I am the good shepherd".
"I am the gate".
"I am the resurrection and the life".
"I am the bread of life; whoever eats my flesh though he dies, will live".
"I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners"

These are big statements that seem strange at the best of times. They seem even more unusual when we remember that these came from the mouth of a man who was tortured and then executed by being dangled from some bits of wood. What was he talking about?

Near the beginning of this exploration we noted that a good parent would eventually have to let their child wander and that the child through ignorance, bad luck, maliciousness or deliberate folly, might not come back. We noted that the parent would then have to go looking for the child and see if the child wanted to return. This is what has happened on a divine scale with the life of Jesus. Jesus is God in human form; the god who came looking; Immanuel — God with us; the visiting God; the God who stepped into his own creation so that his creatures might get to know him.

When the human race went wandering astray God came looking for us and he found us in a mess; every rule that God had set down for our own good, we had broken and we were all up to our necks in sin. There were two basic problems to solve, or perhaps two parts to the same problem. First, our sin had to be paid for and second we needed a new life so that we could stop sinning. With the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the incarnate God, solutions to both of these problems were made possible.

The first part of the problem is justice:

  • Justice requires penalty for sin.
  • The ultimate penalty cannot be enacted by humans because even the best of us is sinful.
  • Only God is perfect therefore only God can be ultimate judge. The debt must be paid, the law requires faultless sacrifice — the shedding of perfect blood — for remission of sins.
  • Our own lives cannot be the sacrifice because we are not without blemish.
  • Only a perfect life can be a fully acceptable sacrifice.
  • God has the only perfect life.
  • Jesus, God incarnate, lived that perfect life. He therefore could be the perfect sacrifice; the lamb without blemish.

The second part of the problem is the new life:

  • Jesus offered his followers his own life. He said that it was necessary to be born again, that he would make his home in us.