Friday, December 10, 2010

Faith Friday: The Problem of Pain

Well, I'm certainly not starting off with a light topic, am I?
In advance, I'd love to hear y'all's thoughts on this too!
Just to preface, I'm looking at the problem of pain from the point of view of the Christian tradition, as that's what I'm most familiar with. :-)

The problem of pain refers to the conundrum that if God is loving, omnipotent (all-powerful) and just, how can there be pain and suffering in the world?
Or put another way, since there is pain and suffering in the world, how can a loving, all-powerful and just God exist?

This is a question that had broken many a person's faith in God.
For some reason, however, I've never had a problem reconciling the two seemingly mutually exclusive concepts.
I took me quite a few years to actually verbalize why I can reconcile suffering with a loving, just, all-powerful God.

The first and most important point to make is that I believe God gave us free will.
Some might argue that free will is pointless since God is omniscient (all-knowing), but I'll address that next week.
For now, let it suffice to say that I disagree.

Anyway, God gave us free will.
You can't "sorta kinda" have free will.  There are no half-measures involved.
You either have free will or you don't.
Since we do, our decisions are our own, and the consequences of those decisions are ours to bear. 
 Having established that, lets move on.

The way I see it, there are two categories of pain and suffering.
First of all, there's suffering and pain we bring upon ourselves, or suffering and pain whose cause can be clearly seen.
For example, someone gets drunk, drives and gets into a car crash, killing another person.
The person who chose to drink and drive brought their share of the suffering upon themselves, and those who have lost a loved one can see a clear cause-effect relationship between another person's bad decision and their pain and suffering.

Secondly, there's suffering and pain that people do not bring upon themselves, and that seems to be without cause or reason.
For example, the millions of children starving in Africa.
Those children have done nothing to bring their pain upon themselves, and there is no clear person responsible for their suffering.

Now, God is loving--which means that He wants to spare us all pain and suffering.
God is omnipotent (all-powerful)--which means that He has the ability to spare us all pain and suffering.
Generally speaking, everyone's on board and ok with these first two.
It's the third charcteristic--God is just--that causes the problem.

Remember, God gave us free will--total free will.
It's an integral part of who and what we are.
Looking at the first type of pain--the type we bring on ourselves or for which there's a clear cause--OF COURSE God wants to spare us.
After all, we're the ones making the stupid decision that hurts ourselves and others.
Now, in regards to the drunk driving example, God could strip the drunk driver of his free will.
Force him to decide that, no, he's not going to drive in the state he's in.
That would prevent the car crash and the attendant suffering.
 However, would that be the just thing to do?
Of course not.

It's a lesson that I had to teach my high school students over and over again.
Just because something is contrary to what you would like or how you believe things should be, this does not mean that the situation (or the person in charge) is unjust.

One aspect of justice is treating everyone the same.
Since God gave everyone free will, it would be UNjust of Him to pick and choose the moments during which and the individuals from whom it would be taken away.
And a just God cannot be unjust.

Now, looking at the second type of pain--the one that we've done nothing to bring upon ourselves and for which there is no clear cause.
It's important to understand that free will does not just affect those whom the decisions directly touch.
Take the children starving in Africa.
The political and economical situation in Africa is a result of a multitude of factors, including colonialism and its effects, war, corruption, etc.
Each of these factors were brought into the equation by the individual choices that people in the far past and present day have made.
Decisions interact with each other, and their effects can and do echo down through time.
Could God stop this interaction?  
Could He spare those in the present day the consequences of past actions?
Not and still be just.

Just as being just means treating everyone the same, it also means allowing all of the consequences of choices to play out, both for good and bad. 
To not do so is to negate the original choices that were made.
If God negates the effects of our choices, He in effect negates our freedom to make those choices.
Since God would have to pick and choose which consequences to allow, and thus whose choices to negate, He cannot do so and still be just.

And that is how I reconcile the problem of pain with a loving, all-powerful, just God.

One last thing to consider.
Pain teaches lessons.

 As a child, you stick your hand in a fire and it burns you.
You learn pretty quickly not to touch fire again.
When you are bringing pain upon yourself, it's important to learn not to make the choices you're making.
If someone else's decisions cause you pain, you also learn what not to do by avoiding making the same decisions they made.
I believe that God hopes that--since He cannot justly prevent our pain and suffering--we learn from the consequences of choice, and grow into stronger, better people thought our experiences with pain and suffering.
Granted, many people close their eyes to lessons brought about by pain and let the pain and the perceived unfairness of it all consume them
But that too is an exercise in free will.  


  1. You can tell a lot of thought went into this post. That is probably one of the best ways to look at faith. I ain't much for any sort of religion, but I like how you retain your free will while serving God. True believers are few and far between, but you are certainly among them.

  2. Loved reading your thoughts on this. While I completely agree, my reasoning would be totally different... so sort of fun reading a different thought process towards the same conclusion :)

  3. I would love to hear your thought process! It's so much fun seeing other people's points of view, even when their conclusion is the same as yours!


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