Finding Meaning in Pain

Yesterday, an acquaintance of mine sent me this e-mail.


I remember talking to you a few times at NWC and I like the way you write. I used to be a Christian and now find myself in a muddled heap of emotional “openness” to some idea of divinity, all the while openly rejecting the common fundamental principles of Christianity. Practically speaking, my beliefs hold no contention that any God or divine nature exists, but I would be lying if I were to deny that at times my general self as a whole, that my emotions and thoughts and such, wonder about the whole idea.

I just wanted to ask you what your answer would be about the “Problem of Evil” commonly discussed as a rejection of the idea of a good God existing.


This is my reply.

I could never really stomach philosophy. I tried. I thought for a long time that in order to be considered learned and intellectual I needed to know Sartre, Descartes, or Spinoza. But I found that as my eyes dragged limp across the page my mind was waltzing with livelier partners. Football, for instance. Music. Film. It seemed like their effort to be detached and dispassionate sucked the life and emotion out of their writing. On the list of subjects I could not find interesting, philosophy finds itself between physics and accounting.

That’s certainly not to condescend to the discipline. The people who thrive in that headspace have my respect. Rather, that’s to say that I can’t adequately answer the “Problem of Evil” in a philosophical sense or even an apologetic one. I don’t have the background or tools to write argumentatively or convincingly about those questions. I am uninformed and even naïve about that topic. If you want a rigorous discussion of theodicy or such, I don’t have much to offer. All I can offer is my personal perspective from my unique blend of spiritual assumptions and life experience.

I remember stumbling on an idea I liked during my senior year at Northwestern. It dawned on me that the only way God can really communicate His personality and attributes is through metaphor. Metaphor needs framework. In order to say that the Lord is like a shepherd, we first need to know what sheep are. We also need wolves to devour them. Without wolves (or other predators, for those inclined to beg the question), there is no need for a shepherd and the reference loses its meaning. That is my first proposition: In order to know God, we must have a set of experiences to draw from; those experiences by their very nature must include pain. The second proposition follows from the first: Since our experience involves pain and suffering, the value of knowing God must be worth more than it costs.

Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, spoke at a memorial service for the families of those who died in the terrorist attacks on 9/11. He said,

One of the great themes of the Hebrew Scriptures is that God identifies with the suffering. There are all these great texts that say things like this: If you oppress the poor, you oppress me. I am a husband to the widow. I am father to the fatherless. I think the texts are saying God binds up his heart so closely with suffering people that he interprets any move against them as a move against him.

That is my third proposition: God is with us in our pain. God suffers Himself: He redeems and transforms it. As John Stott wrote, “I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the Cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?”

Sometimes people (unfairly) question the faith of those who struggle with depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses. There’s a quote from CS Lewis about that I keep coming back to. “Some people feel guilty about their anxieties and regard them as a defect of faith. I don’t agree at all. They are afflictions, not sins. Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the Passion of Christ.” Pain, suffering, affliction… none of them are meaningless unless we refuse to give them meaning. The pastor of my church, Steve Treichler, constantly impresses upon us, “God never wastes pain.” (He usually is shouting when he says it.) If feeling rejected gives me a glimpse of understanding into God’s desire to be known, then I count it a lesson well-learned.

I don’t know if this helps you. I suspect it doesn’t. These are just the points that made me comfortable with the notion of evil and suffering on a personal level. Your unique makeup and trials likely mean that these don’t apply perfectly to you. But believing that my pain enables me to know God where I couldn’t before, that I get an excellent rate of return on that investment, that God is with me when I suffer, and that He never wastes pain…. When I thought of it that way, no momentary hardship seemed too hard to swallow.

As I was thinking about what I wanted to write, I kept thinking back to a quote I vaguely remember from Tom Junod. I couldn’t find it online, so I can only paraphrase. Junod argued that much of the animal rights movement is borne from a separation from the realities of living on a farm. He argued from there that, similarly, the rise of pacifism comes from a generation of people who never had to serve as soldiers. It made me think the relative comfort and ease of modern life has left many people too sensitive to the realities of it. Surviving the Holocaust led Victor Frankl to find meaning in all circumstances and base a new psychotherapy on that premise. I can’t turn it into a sweeping claim, but there seems to be an inverse correlation between how much pain we endure and our ability to find meaning in it. (That is not to trivialize any individual’s experience; it is a cultural observation, not a personal one.)

I don’t know if I can offer much more than that. I can, however, recommend a couple excellent books. Tim Keller wrote a book called “Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering.” And CS Lewis’ “A Grief Observed” was an absolutely transformative book for me. I read it in a single sitting and then slept twelve hours straight in total comfort. If you haven’t read those, I highly recommend them.


2 thoughts on “Finding Meaning in Pain

  1. I really like your idea of the cost-to-benefit ratio of pain. That adds hope and kindness to situations that might otherwise seem devastatingly cruel.

    Out of curiosity, have you read Lewis’s book, The Problem of Pain?

    • I did read that one. I hesitate to recommend it because it didn’t really stick with me the way the others did. I can’t even really recall the thrust of his argument.

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