Confession: Why is there pain?

Throughout this semester, I will be posting the situational "confessional briefs" I am writing for one of my classes. These are 750-800 word answers to common questions about faith, which must include bountiful biblical references and ancient/modern theological texts. My goal here is not to set out conversation ending pronouncements, but start a conversation around the table of grace. Join me! The art featured in today's post is copyright Shiraga Kazuo.

Question: How can a loving, powerful God allow bad things to happen?

Context: For this question, I am imagining a lifelong church member facing the kind of crisis he never thought he would face. His assumptions about God’s goodness are rocked, and he does not know what to do about worship, prayer, and a Christian walk anymore.

I confess...

    In our lives of immense privilege, our pain can appear seemingly instantly, with a shock and force we weren’t expecting. Especially for those of us in the American middle class, we often live under the false impression that we have earned our security and health, so trauma can be deeply harmful to our narrative. These instances remind us, however, that pain does not respect wealth or privilege, prayer or belief, but comes in a broken world that is still being resurrected. Does God cause or send pain? It depends on which biblical author one consults. The Gospels however, present God in the flesh, Jesus Christ, as not the arbiter of pain but the suffering servant present with us in our pain. Upon seeing the death of His friend Lazarus, Jesus doesn’t give a long soliloquy about the meaning of pain, take responsibility for the brokenness, or scold his friends for doubting God, but rather, he weeps (Jn 11:35). God suffers with us, God is with the hurting: “blessed are those who mourn”, for even in the very depths of hell, God is there (Mt 5:4; Ps 139:8). Pain, death, hell, and tears in the very fabric of all that is good exist in this world. God changes the narrative, however, not by giving vague platitudes, but by being intimately present with us even in our hells. This is perhaps one reason wealthier countries tend to abandon the Church and Christian faith: Christ is with those in the margins, less interested in the triumphs of board rooms and country clubs. Nevertheless, pain comes to all people at some point, and every person’s experience has the right to be heard, validated, and grieved, no matter the severity or comparison to others. The question remains, however, what role God plays in pain, both in our scriptural narratives, and our own.

    This attempt to discern God’s power and agency in pain is not new: Church Father Augustine mentioned trying to discern the role of God in pain several times throughout his work. As he finally concludes that God is present in pain, rather than presiding over it, he warns readers from being too sure of an evil-causing God by saying that some theologians “get so high up on their doctrinal stilts they can’t hear the Lord saying, ‘Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly.’”1 Perhaps the theologian meant that in all our running to defend the omnipotence of God, we have forgotten one of the greatest wonders of His incarnation. God chose pain, not for us, but for His own body: broken for us. At the end of the conversation, there are two competing conceptualizations of God at stake.

    Is God a powerful dictator more holy and understanding than we can comprehend, sending down evil for our good? Or does the Bible reveal a dreaming God, breaking into history with a story of broken bodies one day receiving resurrection? Writing about which vision of God we will find in both our Scriptures and our lives, contemporary pastor Rob Bell writes that the evil in our Text and in our life “isn’t that surprising; what’s surprising is that among all that violence are new ideas about serving and blessing and nonviolence.”2 We broke our story by breaking our bodies and breaking God’s intended peace for this world. Pain coming in all of it’s forms, unfortunately is familiar to humanity. What is unfamiliar, praise be to God, is that the Divine has granted us a different option. Instead of burying further into our own pain and sorrow, Christ has suffered with us and promised us a resurrection. The first fruits of this resurrection are here even now: present in Christ’s earthly Body, the Church. Though the Church can never erase one’s pain or rewind time, Christ’s Body on earth is here as the very presence of God’s Spirit: comforting, crying, groaning, and resurrecting with the hurting. We will never know the reasoning behind pain, if any is present at all. The hurt of evil is the in-explainable result of a broken world, and for some reason, God doesn’t magically wipe it away. God does however, resurrect bodies and worlds to new, peace-filled life. Let us work side by side to be part of this goal.

[1] Augustine, The Anatomy of Evil, IX republished and translated by Sherwood E. Wirt, Clarion Classics: The Confessions of Augustine: In Modern English, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1971), 95.

[2] Rob Bell, What is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything, (New York: Harper Collins, 2017), 123.