Thank God for this pain?

“God…you’re so good. You’re so good to me. You’ve never failed me yet.”

Sometimes when I’m joining my voice to others’ in worship, as I did yesterday at church singing these words, I get distracted. A common experience, I know. Maybe the folks in front of me are loudly whispering to each other, or maybe hunger pains have me thinking about what to eat when I get home. But also I’m frequently sidetracked from communing with God because of my avocation.

As an amateur apologist, my thoughts as we sing about the goodness of God in light of great suffering being experienced by family and friends and millions of others, are often on the skeptic. I’m imagining how a skeptic or atheist would respond to the sentiments being sung.

God is so good? So good that he leaves people he supposedly loves in constant pain, or allows them or their children to be injured or abused, to live in fear, to suffer the loss of health, livelihood or life? What’s so “good” about that? That’s “not failing” them?

Truth be told, that’s sometimes my response too. It does seem antithetical…an unresolvable dichotomy between words and reality…to be singing about how God never fails us while either we or other believers we know are greatly suffering and desperately praying for his help. But because for other reasons I am convinced that God truly is good and genuinely does love us, as I sang I pondered what his goodness really entails.

Ponder with me for a minute. First this fact: we are so not like God. He is the greatest conceivable being, perfect in holiness and goodness, and we are like dumb, dirty, clueless sheep in comparison. Which would be better…to remain in our lowly state or, if we could, to become like God? Would it be a good thing if we were enough like God in holiness and goodness to allow us to know him intimately in the same way we can know other sheep? Just as we can’t fully relate to our pets as intimately as we can with our family and friends because humans and dogs or cats are not of the same kind, so too our relationship with God is hindered by this great chasm of essence.

But if the chasm could be bridged somehow then conceivably we could experience an existence marked by a deep intimacy with the great God of the universe who created us and loves us better than any other human can. Would that not be a very good thing?

How would this great chasm be bridged? What could transform us from self-centered, earth-bound, pleasure-seeking sheep into people who fully bear God’s image in holiness, goodness, and love? Think about it…isn’t it commonly believed and experienced that improvement in a person’s character is achieved through enduring difficulties? We learn and grow not through enjoying a life of comfort and ease but through struggle and hardship. The child who has everything given to and done for her so that she never has a difficult experience will grow physically but have a stunted character. She will be a woman with whom those with developed characters cannot share an intimate relationship.

So too, then, are we prepared for an eternity of intimacy with God through experiencing difficulties. The trials of life are like strikes from the sculptor’s chisel as we are being shaped into the likeness of the Artist. And it’s not for his benefit..not to honor himself that he cuts and files away at us until we better resemble him. It’s for ours, because unless he does it we will never know the joy of true intimacy with the greatest conceivable being…an eternal state of existence that can only be experienced if we are in some sense and to some degree of the same kind as he. We must become not little “gods” but godlike in our character in order to receive the greatest blessing imaginable…the eternal enjoyment of a truly intimate relationship with God.

This is not to say that all the suffering in our lives is designed by God to mold and shape us into his likeness. Some of it he must allow for other reasons, such as his commitment to honoring humanity’s free will. Still, every trial is an opportunity to grow in godlikeness, but because we do have freedom of the will we can squander it by kicking and screaming instead of submitting. We can squirm and run to evade the chisel in pained defiance and rejection of God’s design for allowing suffering, and in a very real way suffer for nothing. Nothing is gained by the pain.

If all this is true, then it is not irrational to praise God for his goodness and faithfulness to us even as we and those we love are suffering. A good father trains and disciplines his children, bringing or allowing hardships in their lives for their proper growth and development, and a good heavenly Father does as well. It may not seem good at the time, but if we as parents can say to our children when they complain about something that’s hard, “Someday you’ll thank me,” so too can we believe as we are suffering through trials that God is saying the same to us.