The persistent problem of pain

Have you ever wondered if God is an egomaniac? When you hear or read a passage in the Bible about God doing things for his glory and praise, do you think, Really? Is he that starving for adoration and attention? What’s that all about anyway?

Pain-knuckle-tattoo_stevendepolo_FlickrAnd worse, what if his apparently self-aggrandizing efforts require sacrifice and suffering on the part of those whom he has created? Could he possibly be not much more than a cruel, pompous, self-serving tyrant?

I’m afraid that’s exactly what some folks think of him, or more likely, think that such a depiction negates any positive descriptions of God, resulting in a net of zero. He doesn’t exist.

The ninth chapter of the Gospel of John records Jesus coming upon a man blind from birth, and when his disciples ask him, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered that it was neither, but “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” In other words, so that God might miraculously give him his sight and bring glory and praise to his name. Wow. Way to step on others on your way to the top.

If these two verses were all you read, self-aggrandizement might be a reasonable conclusion. But even a superficial familiarity with the Gospels is sufficient to dispel that notion. Jesus, as the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), is always doing for others…healing, teaching, showing compassion, bringing the dead back to life. And, of course, he went so far as to suffer and die so that all of them, and us, “should not perish” (John 3:16). The Bible, from beginning to end, is the record of God’s plan to reconcile men to himself…for our good, our salvation.

God doesn’t need anything. He wouldn’t be God if he did. He is perfect and complete in all that he is. So when he orchestrates or calls attention to things for the sake of his glory, it’s not because he’s vain or needs his ego stroked. It’s for our sake, so that we will better know how great he is, and in that, better able to trust in and depend on him.

But certainly he can do that without having to subject anyone to trials and suffering, no? He’s God the Almighty, after all. The crux of the objection regarding this passage is the seeming cruelty of inflicting an innocent child in the womb with an infirmity, no matter the reason. And innocent children are born deformed or disadvantaged every day. Many come into the world just clinging to life, and others lose their grip while yet in the womb. Why? They can’t deserve it.

No, they don’t. But bad things happen to all of us that we don’t deserve. Why does God allow any of it? And here we are again at the biggest stumbling block to faith…the problem of pain. I’ve written of this before here, and I wish I could say that I have new insight that will solve the problem once and for all. But I don’t think any of us finite humans can reconcile God’s goodness and the reality of suffering to everyone’s satisfaction. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and  my thoughts than your thoughts.” So says the eternal, omnipotent, transcendent, completely “other” God in Isaiah 55:9. We should not expect, in fact it is presumption to expect, that we would ever be able to fully comprehend his ways. Any of us who complain about his actions should expect this instead: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” 1 This is the gist of the answer God gave Job when Job questioned him. In other words, I am so beyond you in power and everything else, Job my son, whom I boasted to Satan about, that you are not nor ever will be in a position to question me about what I do. So, suck it up.

No…that last part’s not in there. God loves Job, and us. That’s clear from multiple passages in his Word, like Psalm 103 where his love is described with the same analogy he used for the magnitude of difference between his ways and ours, “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him.” His great love covers the expanse between his great supremacy and our great inferiority.

Though it may be presumptuous to expect God to explain his actions, yet I believe it’s totally acceptable to seek understanding. That’s what I, and some of my atheist friends, are doing. But ultimately we must all heed the warnings in Job not to call the Almighty God to account. Lest we also hear, “Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?” 2

1 Job 38:2-4

2 Job 40:8