“ … for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” – Jesus (Matthew 5:45)
The question “Why does God allow bad things to happen?” is probably one of the most important questions that we as Christians should attempt to answer in a world full of suffering and pain. It is a query asked on at least two levels: one level is the purely intellectual level; the other is a deeper emotional level. Since I’m unsure how to answer such a question on an emotional level, because emotions are unruly and vary from person to person, I’ll attempt to answer the question on a more intellectual one.
To prepare myself for this article, I read The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis and ended up with over 6 pages of just notes. … NO, WAIT! Please don’t click away; I shortened things down considerably. However, streamlining my thoughts on the subject meant that I ended up tossing out a lot of interesting information. There are a lot of good books written in great detail on the subject of pain or attempting to give a reason for all the badness in the world. One of those mentioned books is The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis, which I will be quoting from often.
Lewis states the problem of pain simply:
“If God were good, He would make His creatures perfectly happy, and if He were almighty He would be able to do what he wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.” – C. S. Lewis
Since we, as Christians, have scriptures telling us that God is both good (Psalm 100:5, Psalm 136:1, Matthew 19:17, etc.) as well as all powerful (Matthew 19:26, Luke 1:37, Psalm 147:5, etc.), we can rest assured that we do not have a weak or evil God. However, that means that we must strive a bit harder to find the answer we’re seeking.
I have come up with a few causes/purposes for pain which I hope can give an account for pain and general badness, and explain why they are part of the world we live in today.
“And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: … ” – Genesis 2:16 – 17
“And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.” – Genesis 3:6
“In freedom, most people find sin.” – John Green (The Fault in Our Stars)
The way I see it, the first pains of life were introduced through the improper use of free will, and many of the bad things that happen in the world today are a result of either that initial abuse of free will or additional offenses we’ve made since our fall from perfection in the garden. That being said, pain brought on by free will is a great place to start.
The story of Adam and Eve is one of the most common Sunday School stories, which most of us can recall with fantastic imagery: a luscious green garden, a twisted sly serpent, and a bright red apple. Eve was tempted and deceived by the serpent, the devil, into doing what was expressly forbidden; then Adam chose to do the same in deliberate rebellion. Those actions, the first sin of mankind, and the consequences of them have haunted the entire human race from that day to today, and changed us all forever.
“Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:” – Romans 5:12
I’ve heard several people ask, either seriously or in jest, why God even put something that was forbidden to Adam and Eve right where they could get it so easily; especially with the consequences of disobedience so high. The idea of hiding the ability to disobey sounds great, but the problem is that it would infringe on our God-given free will. Our free will to choose whether or not to love and obey God is our greatest gift because it is what causes us to be loved in His eyes over all other things in creation. However, our greatest gift, if used incorrectly, can be our greatest curse.
“It wouldn’t be temptation if it wasn’t alluring” – Rev. Scott Graham
From our first choice to obey or disobey God in the garden, to all the thousands of choices you and I go through in our modern lives, each one will ultimately force us to do one of two things. We can exercise our free will to draw closer to God through our choices, or else stray farther away from Him by pursuing other goals. Pain is a sad bi-product of life after the fall of mankind, due to incorrect use of free will. In spite of our fall into a pitiful nature, there is hope in Christ because God became man and at a great price again gave us the choice to love and obey Him. By the same means which we fell we may ascend once again. Our free will, if given over to God’s will, can allow us to fulfill His plan for us.
“For if by one man’s offense death reined by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.” – Romans 5:17
We were given free will originally so that we may choose to love God truly and deeply, in a way that would be impossible had the decision been forced. We may still fulfill our original purpose by choosing to love and serve God in spite of a myriad of other alternatives. God will NEVER step on any free will to accomplish what He wishes, because that would be to deny a core piece of what makes us human. It would also make our love and adoration no more than empty routine.
Free will is like a loaded gun. We are able, and called, to do great things with this ability; but we can also harm ourselves. Many times we abuse our free will and hurt ourselves, then blame God for how we shot ourselves in the foot. In almost all things, we can either submit our will to God or choose to seek after our own desires toward another purpose, which is essentially shooting ourselves in the foot because God’s will is only for our betterment, though we may not always see the methods.
“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.” – Jeremiah 29:11
For His Glory
“… no flesh should glory in his presence.” – 1 Corinthians 1:29
“We regard God as an airman regards his parachute; it’s there for emergencies but he hopes he’ll never have to use it.” ― C.S. Lewis
Initially, to hear that bad things happen so that God may glory sounds nonsensical, and to say that we have pains in this life so that He may show us how great He is sounds cruel. This is largely because we have a hard time seeing anything beyond ourselves when times are good and easy. I’ve heard it said that if we don’t want so many bad things to happen then we should probably get on our knees to pray more often before life knocks us down to them anyway.
It is not only our self-absorption which causes us to have turmoil so that God may glory. Sometimes it may be just because God has a plan to show His power and light into a dark and fallen world. This plan may require someone to be a vessel for His work to flow through. There is a story in John chapter 9 of a blind man who was born blind, and when Jesus was questioned why he was born that way, He basically answered that it was to show off the glory of God.
I know that still sounds a little disdainful, but I think that most of us would find it a bit more palatable if we were to imagine God saying something like this to the one who is troubled for such a purpose:
“Hey listen, I know that what you’re going to go through is going to be hard and you’re not going to like it in the slightest, but something great is going to come out of it. I have a great work that needs to be done in your life so that many others may be touched, inspired, and blessed. There are people who need to know that I have the power to heal, deliver, and save; and with your help I’m going to show them. I will be there with you every step of the way through this trial, and you have my favor.
You are, and will be, blessed, my beloved child, now and for eternity.”
I feel that most of us, though we might not always be happy with the trials required of us, would be happy (once the testimony is had and the work is done) to share the power of God through a personal story of God’s overcoming power.
“And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” – John 9:2 – 3
For Our Perfecting
“Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved.” – C.S. Lewis
“But now, O LORD, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand.” – Isaiah 64:8
God (being all good, all powerful, and all knowledgeable) will set up the most perfect goals for us and take the most perfect means to achieve those goals. How we feel about the means or the goals whilst they are being achieved is less important than them being achieved. This may sound strange to us that God would choose our goals and our path with little input from us on the subject, but think about who God is before deciding that this is outlandish.
God is both our Creator and our Savior: He made us and He paid for us with Christ’s blood on Calvary. He, by every right imaginable, should be able to work in our lives however He sees fit; and in His omniscience knows what is perfect for us. God’s plan for our perfection will fill our lives with joy, but that true happiness is only the bi-product of living according to God’s will instead of our own.
“Perfect goodness can never debate about the end to be attained, and perfect wisdom cannot debate about the means most suited to achieve it.” – C. S. Lewis
The pain of trials can be used to strengthen us and show us our strength through God. He puts us through situations many times so that we may become better versions of ourselves. There are several stories, both in and out of the Bible, of people who have grown strong through adversity and turmoil; they became beautiful human beings from the pressure of their struggles.
God’s love for us as His creations is likened to a potter and his clay: we are a divine work of art which is still being formed. I can relate to this aspect of God’s desire for perfection in us because I have dabbled in a bit of artwork in the past. I’ve never really done any work with clay, but I have done a bit of work with paint, and a lot of work with pencils through high school and college (I had intention of being a graphic design major at one point).
I wouldn’t care much about a casual doodle I’d scratch half-heartedly beside biology notes, but I would tire endlessly over a project for my college art class. I wasn’t very good at art initially and only ever had decent results by taking painful amounts of time to draw even a simple sketch.
If I were in the position of God, where my artwork was alive and conscious of the work I was performing on it, the artwork might tire with the endless reworkings and obsessions over flaws. The masterpiece (by my own standards) that I ended up turning in for my final may have wished to just have been a doodle on the side of one of my notebooks, instead of spending more than 10 hours under my pencil and eraser.
I could hardly be more proud of the work I did for that class, and I think that God must feel a similar way about us. The problem is we begin to wish we were just a simple sketch so that we may exist without the trouble of being reworked so many times under the Master’s hand.
To ask God to stop reworking us would be asking for God to love us less. It is what He loves deeply which He labors over intently striving for perfection.
“Every picture shows a spot with which the artist has fallen in love.” – Alfred Sisley
“And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it.” – Jeremiah 18:4
To Keep Us From Harm
“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” ― C.S. Lewis
“And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” – Acts 26:14
In many cases, a small amount of pain sooner may be preferred to keep us from a lot of pain later. No one minds a bit of pain to let them know that they have gotten too close to a flame. That initial singe tells them that they need to move back quickly to avoid serious harm. Also, though no one likes a tooth ache or going to the dentist, a little pain in a tooth can motivate you to get a filling before major damage happens. God sometimes uses small pains to push us away from things that are dangerous for us and towards things that are much better.
“… God is love.” – 1 John 4:8
“It is people whom we care nothing about that we demand happiness on any terms.” – C. S. Lewis
Many people hear that “God is love” and confuse that with thinking that God is just kindness; they also may not be able to distinguish between the two. There is kindness in love, but love and kindness are not mutually exclusive. Kindness doesn’t care if its object is good or bad, merely that it escapes suffering. Pure and undiluted kindness is like the doting grandparent who spoils a child with treats, candy, and nothing but good times. It may be fun for that child for a while, and may not be bad occasionally, but will eventually lead to the child literally being “spoiled” by both definitions of the word. Not only would that child be poorly behaved, but he or she would also have little to no productive place in society as an adult without understanding responsibility, respect, and self-control.
The “kindest” thing would be to spoil the child; the best thing and the most loving thing would be to teach the child how to be an adult by any means, including discipline if necessary.
God is love and by definition more than mere kindness. With those He loves, He would rather them suffer some than be falsely happy and contemptible, unable to achieve His purpose for them and attain true joy.
A puppy which is scolded for chewing up furniture and messing on the floor might question the goodness of its owner for not permitting it to do whatever it liked (if it were intelligent enough for that kind of thought). But, when the dog is fully grown and lives a life longer and more comfortable than its wild counterparts, it would know that its master is good and loving (again, if it were capable understanding such knowledge).
Love isn’t all pleasantries; it requires a perfecting in the object of the love.
“The Christian life is not a constant high. I have my moments of deep discouragement. I have to go to God in prayer with tears in my eyes, and say, ‘O God, forgive me,’ or ‘Help me.’…” – Billy Graham
If we wish for God to stop fussing over us and just give us the kindness of letting our flaws remain as they are, we would not be asking for more love: again, we’d be asking for less. Many times we’d be asking for God to let us do what is harmful to ourselves and for Him to be happy with it. God cannot do that because of His love for us.
A parent who truly loves their child would take great and painstaking efforts to make their child become the best kind of person they could be.
“Of all powers He forgives most but condones least; He is pleased with little but demands all.” – C. S. Lewis
To Have A Desire For Heaven And To Prepare Us For It
“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we wait a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,” – Philippians 3:20 (ESV)
“To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here.” – Jonathan Edwards
When I was a child, I had heard that I would be getting my own mansion once I got to heaven. I had ideas all drawn up with plans for a go-kart track, a room with a giant trampoline floor, places where all my friends could come over and play video games, and an elaborate indoor bungee jumping apparatus. Although my concept of heaven has matured quite a bit since then, those ideas still sound fantastic to me; and there is at least scripture to back up the mansion part.
“In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” – John 14:2
Maybe all of those things will be waiting for me, or maybe I’ve missed the point Jesus was getting at when He said, “I go to prepare a place for you,” but I also can’t help but think that maybe He’s also preparing me for that place.
Our fallen human nature is so far from what we were originally intended to be, I might assume that in order to ultimately fulfill God’s will for our lives we would have to chip away at large pieces of ourselves and cultivate virtues which no longer grow naturally. Though the Bible is hardly just a list of “Dos and Don’ts,” it is isn’t subtle in its message that we are to change our behaviors and then our very selves.
Perhaps God’s not just building heaven for us, but also building us for heaven. Perhaps some of the heartaches we go through down here are to shape us and to remind us of our home–the place where we truly belong.
“The mold in which a key is made would be a strange thing, if you had never seen a key: and the key itself a strange thing if you had never seen a lock. Your soul has a curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite contours of the divine substance, or a key to unlock one of the doors in the house with many mansions. Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it — made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand.” ― C.S. Lewis
Pain in the Plan
“If tribulation is a necessary element in redemption, we must anticipate that it will never cease till God sees the world to be either redeemed or no further redeemable.” ― C.S. Lewis
Pain is a warning, an indication that something is wrong–that something is damaged. There are a few individuals with obscure medical conditions (such as analgesia) who cannot feel physical pain; and these people tend to have more serious injuries and may even live shorter lives as a result of the absence of physical pain. Without the warning of pain, they wound themselves far worse than anyone who can feel and react to what most of us view as purely negative.
In its simplest state, pain is a sign to us that something isn’t right. Bad things happen because something is off kilter from how it should be. Some people, even myself at times, will still think that since God is omnipotent and omniscient that He would know how and be able to create a world perfectly without the need of any pain or any bad things ever happening. In times of heated emotions and frustration, we may toss logic out the window and demand an answer for this with our heart instead of our head. Now that I have come through almost every answer I could imagine to this question of badness and pain, I’ve come to a line of reasoning that I cannot refute because it refuses to be reasoned with.
I know that to someone who is in the middle of a truly painful situation and is experiencing the full badness that this life has to offer, no answer I could give would do. All I can tell you is what I do in times of frustration with the world and the God who created it: I try to talk to Him. Believe me, I know that sometimes praying may end up with you getting a different answer than the one you want, but it is always the answer you need. Sometimes the answer is just getting close enough to God so that He can comfort you and cover you with His grace.
“For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” – 2 Corinthians 12:8 – 9
There is one more thought I’d like to leave you with. What if pain and badness are necessary? I know I’ve already discussed several reasons for pain; but I now mean, what if the only way that anything exists at all, all creation, is that there must have been pain and badness in it for a time?
If you can imagine with me, God, alone before existence began. He had been spending all eternity sitting outside of time in the uncreated universe. He could have spent eons on top of eons in an unfathomably vast era filled with vacant nothingness without anyone or anything outside of Himself.
In this lonely vacuum He, in His infinite wisdom, formulates a plan. It’s a very long and intricate plan which leaves delicate work to beings outside of His direct control, but that is also the very point. With some sort of beings outside of His direct control, beings of free will, He could experience love. He could love these beings and they could love Him in return. He would make these beings in His image, after His likeness, entities not completely unlike Himself, and they would be His beloved. He wouldn’t have to spend all of time in the solitary nothingness.
There is a complication, though. The very thing which would make these beings able to love Him would also make them able to deny or even hate Him. Free will, the necessary component, implies at least one choice, if not many. The beings which He creates could use that blessing as a curse, harm themselves, and turn away from Him. They could use their free will for evil or for their own version of goodness, being unstable and weak, until they turn their entire world into a mess of pain, suffering, and general badness. But all this would be necessary.
In order for any of this system to work, all of the pieces would have to be in play. One of these pieces, the key component around which the entire cosmos would flux, would operate in the hands of some very miniscule creatures which were to be called humans. That key, of course, is free will and the power of choice. The sad fact would be that free will would inevitably lead to pain at some point.
Pain would not be the ultimate destination, though. It is an awful thing, but God knew that it didn’t have to be a permanent thing. Through a plan of redemption, God saw that He could save His beloved creation. He saw that, at one point, they could leave pain behind as something they outgrew and step into a more full and abundant existence than they could have ever before imagined. God, knowing the end from the beginning, decided that the price was worth paying. He chose to flip the switch on creation, as He spoke, “Let there be light.”
“Perhaps this is not the ‘best of all possible’ universes, but the only possible one.” – C. S. Lewis
“For he looketh to the ends of the earth, and seeth under the whole heaven;” – Job 28:24
“… I am God, and there is none like me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, …” – Isaiah 46:9 – 10
“When pain is to be born, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.” ― C.S. Lewis