Christianity and the Problem of Pain

Christian theology and apologetics are exercises of the mind; they are an opportunity for us, as believers, to invite the Holy Spirit in to our thinking to show us the way of understanding. Proverbs 1 paints the picture of Lady Wisdom shouting throughout a city for anyone who has the ears to hear:

“Wisdom calls out in the street; she raises her voice in the public squares. She cries out above the commotion; she speaks at the entrance of the city gates: “How long, foolish ones, will you love ignorance? How long will you mockers enjoy mocking and you fools hate knowledge? If you respond to my warning, then I will pour out my spirit on you and teach you my words…”[1]

Clearly it is important to God that his people be full of wisdom and learn to heed the voice of the Spirit of truth in all areas of our lives, including (and maybe especially so) our study and defense of the faith. We give our time, our resources, and ourselves to the discipline of study. We pray and wait and listen. We read the scriptures and we fill up notebooks. But what happens when the serene bubble of academia is burst by an unforeseen tragedy? What do we do when our loved ones are sick, or suffering, or are taken from us all too soon? How does the rigor of the thinking life hold up to intense, real-life pain?

This is the very issue that keeps many from entering in to the Christian walk. The age-old question goes, “If God is good, why do people suffer?” The question of suffering -and even more fundamentally, the existence of evil- presents a challenge to the searching mind. C. S. Lewis deftly summed it up when he said,

“Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”[2]

And this is the dichotomy in which we live—God is perfectly good, and because he is love itself, he has given us the free will to live our lives. We may choose to respond to God’s love, or not. We may choose to answer the call of Wisdom, or to reject it. We may choose to eat from the tree of life, the only true source of the kind of hope that can transcend even our darkest days, or we may eat from the tree of knowledge. The essence of life is that it cannot be lived in neutral, as Lewis described, but requires a response. God has given us the gift of free will, so how will we respond?

The good news (and boy do we need good news!) is that even though we live in a world where the possibility, and even likelihood, of our facing suffering is real, God himself has come to endure it with us. Jesus the Christ has broken in to our historical timeline and our dark, dirty, hurting world and has faced the rejection of his own people. He bore the excruciating pain of Roman torture and execution by the cross, for the sake of my sin, and yours.[3] He walked the road of death so that we could be united with him and know life. Jesus is no mere prophet; he was not a moral teacher. He was God in the flesh, and his was broken and bled for us. About Christ, Corrie ten Boom wrote: “No matter how deep our darkness, he is deeper still.”[4] Our answer to the problem of suffering is not a technical one, but it is him. He is the answer. Christ is our comfort when we are aching. Christ is with us in our pain. Christ is the God who knows suffering.[5]

And this, the beautiful way that God came to us in our misery and faced real adversity on our behalf, is what sets Christ apart from every other god or philosophy. He is more than an idea—an idea could not weep with friends over the death of their own or offer the resurrected scars in his hands for a skeptic to touch.[6] When we are in our worst moment of sin or brokenness, we don’t need special notions or new concepts to mull over…we don’t want “explanations, but presence. And what God is, essentially, is presence.”[7]

Just like Job, we have endured the suffering of this life and we’ve heard all the arguments, but the only thing that truly satisfies is seeing God face to face. It has been his presence in my deepest valleys that has sustained me. His nearness was palpable when I was most alone. When I was numb to the pain that was washing over my heart and mind, He was as real as the shirt on my body. The Spirit of Christ filled me with a foreign hope, the kind that could not have come from the shambles of my circumstances, but a hope that lifted my head, nonetheless. He was with me back then and He is with me now. Jesus Christ is the God who came near, and he is still God, still calling out to us.

The way of Wisdom invites our response, even now. Can you hear it?

  • [1] Prov. 1:20-23 (HCSB)
  • [2] C. S. Lewis, “The Problem of Pain,” New York: Macmillian (1940), p 25.
  • [3] Is. 53:5
  • [4] Lee Strobel, “The Case for Faith,” Grand Rapids: Zondervan (2000), p 55.
  • [5] Is. 53:3
  • [6] Jn. 11:35 Jesus wept over the death of his good friend Lazarus; Jn. 20:27 Jesus tells Thomas to touch the holes in his hands where the crucifixion nails once were.
  • [7] Strobel, p 53.

Published by Sara Beth Longenecker

Sara Beth Longenecker is a writer and blogger based in Nashville, TN. She helps women sort through the noise of our culture by bringing them truth, beauty, and everyday theology.

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