Suffering and pain are probably the most confusing part of life. C.S. Lewis calls them God’s megaphones, which I think is an apt metaphor because nothing gets and keeps our attention quite like them. Nothing makes us to think about God more than pain, leading to one inevitable question: why?
The problem of pain has been coming up a lot and so I want to devote a few posts to it, though by no means will they be exhaustive. Pain is such a mystery, and yet some kind of understanding of why God allows it is paramount if we’re ever to trust and love Him.
Perhaps one of the most instructive passages in the Old Testament about suffering comes from Exodus, chapter 5. Scholars debate about how long exactly the Israelites were slaves to the Egyptians, but it was a long time (200-450 years). And it was hard labor: “So [the Egyptians] made the people of Israel serve with rigor, and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field; in all their work they made them serve with rigor” (Ex 1:13-14). This means that there were some Israelites who lived and died in bondage, spending their wholes lives in miserable service to a foreign ruler. How could a faithful and loving God allow that?
Then when God finally acts, what does He tells Moses to ask the Pharaoh? Does God command the Pharaoh to free the Israelites? No! That only comes later. The first request Moses makes to the Pharaoh is simply a three day break so they can go into the wilderness and worship God (5:1). This reveals a hard and steadfast truth: God always cares more about our spiritual welfare than our physical welfare.
Notice I say He cares more. It’s not like God doesn’t care about our physical well being. God knows when we suffer, just like He heard the Israelites “groaning” in Egypt (Ex 2:24). But spiritual well being has to come first. The Israelites had stopped worshipping the one true God, and idolatry had to be addressed before slavery.
Likewise, God sometimes uses pain to focus our attention on our own spiritual welfare. It’s so easy to get complacent, to start living our lives for ourselves instead of for Him, to begin subtly worshipping things instead of God. Sometimes pain is God’s last resort, His way of grabbing us by the shoulders and turning us back toward Him. Sometimes pain is God’s way of pulling us closer to Him, helping us to lean on and trust Him in ways we never thought possible.
Pain has to be viewed in light of the purpose for which we were created: to have eternal union with God in Heaven. Everything, yes everything, that happens to us is allowed only because God knows it can move us closer to that one, all-important end. There is perhaps no truer expression of our love for God than to say: This hurts, and I want it to stop, but I trust You. And if pain is the only way I can get closer to You right now, the only way I can better recognize how completely dependent I am on You, the only way you can purify my heart and mind so that You are what I seek above all else, the only way I can come to understand that Your love for me is far greater than I ever imagined, then I choose You over an end to the pain.
I’ve always liked the analogy of surgery you didn’t know you needed. Suddenly waking up in the middle of open-heart surgery and looking around, you’d 1) be in ridiculous amounts of pain, 2) think everything was horribly wrong, 3) in that moment, with your chest cracked wide open and blood everywhere, wonder how the surgery you were sure you didn’t need could possibly be in your best interest. It’s only after the surgery, that you would come to understand it was an act of love, intended for restoration and true health. Pain is like that. We never want it, but we often need the good things that can come out of that pain. And God, the Great Healer, always desires both our physical and spiritual health. But like any good Father, He puts our eternal well being before our temporal.
See Part II of this post: How Pain Teaches Us To Love Like God