“Consider earth, our home. Let your eyes absorb the brilliant hues and delicate shadings of a sunset or a rainbow. Dig your toes into sand and feel the rolling foam and spray of a dependable ocean tide. Visit a museum and study the astract designs on butterflies – 10,000 wild variations, far more staggering than the designs of modern abstract paintings, all compressed into tiny swatches of flying fabric. Belief in a loving God is easy among these good things.
Yet the sun which lavishes the sky with color can bake African soil into dry, cracked glaze, dooming millions of people. The steady, pounding rhythm of surf can, when fomented by a storm, crash in as a twenty-foot wall of death, obliterating towns and villages. And the harmless swatches of color which spend their lifetimes fluttering among flowers are snatched and destroyed in the daily ferocity of nature’s life cycles. The world, though God’s showplace, is also a rebel fortress. It is a good thing, bent.
Consider man. The country which produced Bach, Beethoven, Luther, Goethe, and Brahms also gave us Hitler, Eichmann, and Georing. The country which fathered the Constitution of the United States brought us slavery and the Civil War. In all of us, streaks of brilliance, creativity, and compassion jostle with streaks of deceit, selfishness, and cruelty.
And so it is with pain.
Up close, pain may seem a trusted, worthy friend. The nervous system, so obviously stamped with genius, can be admired like an exquisite Raphael painting. From the nearsighted viewpoint of a bioengineer, the pain network surely appears as one of God’s greatest works.
Pain, however, comes to our attention not through the microscope, but through throbs of torment. If you relate each warning signal to its specific cause, the pain network seems well-functioning and good. But if you step back and see all humanity, a writhing, starving, bleeding, cancerous progression of billions of people marching toward death…there, a problem arises.
Philosophers love the larger, farsighted view which discusses “the sum total of human suffering,” as if all human pain could be sucked out and extruded into one great vial to present to God: “Here is all the pain and suffering of Planet Earth. How do You account for this mass of misery?” It is a dilemma. Pain may have been intended as a smooth, efficient warning system, but something about this planet is in dreadful revolt. Suffering is raging out of control. (snip)
The Bible traces the entrance of suffering and evil into the world to a grand but terrible quality of human beings – freedom. What makes us different from cavorting porpoises, roaring lions, and singing birds? Humans alone have been released from the stereotyped, instinctual behavior of an animal species. We have true, self-determining choice. We can even manipulate and control our environment.
Free man, however, introduced something new to the planet – a rebellion against the original design. We only have slight hints of the way earth was meant to be, but we do know that humanity has broken out of the mold. “We talk of wild animals,” says Chesterton, “but man is the only wild animal. It is man that has broken out. All other animals are tame animals; following the rugged respectability of the tribe of type.”
Man is wild because he alone, on this speck of rock called earth, stands up to God, shakes his fist, and says, “I do what I want to do because I want to do it, and God had better leave me alone.” We’ve built a wall separating us from God. Inside the wall, we live pretty much as we please. Sometimes we follow the rules God laid out: the way of love and peace and goodness. Sometimes we don’t.
Most remarkably, God listens. He allows man the freedom to do what he wants, defying all the rules of the universe (at least for a time). “In making the world, He set it free. God had written, not so much a poem but rather a play; a play He had planned as perfect, but which had necessarily been left to human actors and stage-managers, who have since made a great mess of it.”
Discussion of the universal aspects of suffering must begin here. Do not judge God solely by the world, just as you would not judge Picasso by his Blue Period alone. The world is in revolt. God has already hung a “Condemned” sign above the earth, and He has promised judgment. That this world full of evil and suffering still exists at all is an example of God’s mercy, not His cruelty.
Somehow, pain and suffering were unleashed as necessary companions to misused human freedom. When man chose against God, his free world was forever spoiled. (snip)
But there is a further question – would it have been good for God to create a painless world, or one with less suffering? The Bible clearly demonstrates that some things are more awful to God than the pain of His children. Consider the psychological pain Abraham underwent when God asked him to kill his son Isaac. Or the awesome pain of Himself becoming man and bearing the sins of the world. Skeptics have cited these incidents as examples of God’s lack of compassion. To me, they prove that some things – like declaring the truth – are more important on God’s agenda than the suffering-free world for even His most loyal followers.
One can argue all day about whether God could have permitted our world one less virus or three less bacteria. None of us knows the answer to those questions, or even to the prior question of how a specific virus entered the world (Was it a direct creative activity of God?). But the practical result of suffering is consistent with the Bible’s view of Planet Earth. It is a stained planet, and suffering reminds us. (snip)
You may accuse the Christian doctrine of suffering’s origin – that it came as a result of man’s aborted freedom – of being weak and unsatisfying. But at least, as Chesterton notes, the concept of a great-but-fallen world squares with what we know of reality. Some other religions try to deny that pain exists, or to rise above it. But suffering is consistent with the Christian view of the universe that reveals our home as the stained planet.
Pain, God’s megaphone, can drive me away from Him. I can hate God for allowing such misery. Or, on the other hand, it can drive me to Him. I can believe Him when He says this world is not all there is, and take the chance that He is making a perfect place for those who follow Him on pain-wracked earth.”
excerpts from pages 51-57 of Where Is God When It Hurts? by Phillip Yancey