Musings, Nits, and Praises: The Problem of Pain

Musings, Nits, and Praises

A farrago of all things deemed blog-worthy by a music-loving, poetry-writing, humor-seeking English teacher

The Problem of Pain

No, I don't intend to discuss C.S. Lewis' book The Problem of Pain, nor do I want to try to tackle directly the question of theodicy--"How do we reconcile the existence of evil and suffering in the world with a benevolent God?. Maybe that's a post for another week. But here are the questions I'd like to pose: Accepting the fact that evil and suffering do exist, why does God seem to do so little to mitigate them? Why does God seem to seldom if ever intervene when we pray for people with life-threatening illnesses?

Suffering can plague entire segments of a population or entire nations. As someone born into middle-class America, I essentially won the geographical lottery compared to someone born in an inner-city slum or in a third-world country. Millions of people around the globe go hungry and suffer diseases that we no longer have to bother about. Why the disparity in fortune? Some thinkers have suggested that virtues such as compassion would not be possible without the presence of suffering. But if God is love, then such virtues existed perfectly in Him before anyone existed on earth to suffer. Furthermore, the explanation feels like God would be using people as object lessons. Maybe He is, but I find the explanation rather cold. Whatever the reason for the disparity, if we as the church are to act as Christ's body, then we need to be about meeting the needs of the "least of these." Unfortunately, I don't think we focus nearly enough on doing so.

As to the second question, consider James 5:13-16: "Is any of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one if you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective." Some writers have suggested that James is concerned with spiritual healing in this passage. Perhaps some of you who possess some hermeneutical acumen could support or refute that claim for us. But as I understand the passage, although James does address spiritual healing, he also speaks of physical healing. We spend a lot of our time in prayer (as a church body and as individuals) asking God to heal the deathly sick or severely injured, but how often are they made well? Sure, we have to balance James' passage with the fact that everyone eventually dies, but I'm sure we could all compile rather lengthy lists of children or young fathers or mothers we've fervently prayed to be healed only for them to die. Are we misunderstanding scripture?

11 Responses to “The Problem of Pain”

  1. # Blogger James and Mona

    Last week, the secretary of our elementary school died of an undetermined disease of the bone marrow, so I've been pondering this question as well. so many of our students and staff were praying for Ester. Some of our students had so much faith and hope, that even after she died, they continued to pray for healing and that she would be raised from the dead! I have to say, after all that prayer, I half-expected her to sit up at the funeral. Some of our students have been healed, even miraculously, from numerous ailments. But God is ... well ... unpredictable. In any case, Ester has perfect healing now; she was a believer. One scripture that encouraged me last week was in Romans 8:18. "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us."  

  2. # Blogger Bekah

    Jason says, "We spend a lot of our time in prayer (as a church body and as individuals) asking God to heal the deathly sick or severely injured, but how often are they made well? . . . . Are we misunderstanding scripture?"

    I wonder if we don't misunderstand the Spirit and God's will far more than we misunderstand scripture (or is that the same thing?). Catherine Marshall writes that God is concerned about physical healing, but much more so about spiritual healing - I don't know if that has to do with what you're saying about interpretations of James, but I think it's worthwhile to explore the concept that spiritual healing is *loads* more important than physical (yes, yes, we all know that - but are we willing to change our outlook about it? Our minister once preached that it's a shame how little we pray--really pray--for spiritual healing of our loved ones, and I find myself guilty as charged). Marshall even goes so far as to suggest that physical healing does not occur until we've gotten our spiritual lives in order ("because of your faith, you are healed"). This is not to downplay the problem of physical pain - only to suggest that one of the huge costs of Christianity is accepting that the physical world is temporary and bound to fall apart - but trusting that there's something so much bigger going on than what is physical.

    On the other hand, perhaps we're just plain forgetting or not seeing those times that the healing is granted. Living in a C of C world, I *have* to believe that there's a lot going on that we don't talk about in Church...

    And as for suffering (sorry for the long, long comment!), the opinion of one-who-really-hasn't-suffered is that suffering occurs because of sin. Period. And God *has* done something about that. The difficult part for me to comprehend is that His love is such that it protects our free will to the furthest extent - even to the point that He refuses to overrule our dumbest (and most devastating) choices.

    Sorry, again, about the long comment. And please forgive both the fact that I bring little personal experience to the table - and have probably glossed over numerous critical little points...  

  3. # Blogger Jason


    It sounds like you have some truly remarkable students. Rom. 8:18 has always been a verse that comforts me as well.


    You're right that we don't pray for spiritual healing nearly enough. I don't necessarily agree with Marshall's assertion that physical healing is dependent upon having our spiritual lives entirely in order. I don't think "because of your faith, you are healed" means the person exhibited a perfect faith. If unfaltering faith were required for God to respond to us, then Peter would've drowned when he tried to walk on the water to Christ, and Christ would've turned away the man who came to him with his demon-possessed son--"I believe; help me overcome my unbelief."  

  4. # Blogger Bekah

    "I don't think 'because of your faith, you are healed' means the person exhibited a perfect faith."

    No - it's certainly not an expectation for perfect faith - just an expectation for faith at all. Which, in Marshall's definition, is something akin to belief in action (where "acts" may be acts of will or thought just as much as physical acts) - and perhaps this is a kind of faith that we simply lack completely at times. The tricky part, I think, is that this very faith, put "into action" when we decide God's will is best no matter what, sometimes changes our own petitions...

    Sorry for referring so often to Marshall, btw - I'm in the midst of her book, and it's all I can think of. As a result of that, I'm also in the midst of "trying out" all her ideas - that doesn't mean in the end I myself will agree with them all, but they're worth some amount of sincere exploration.  

  5. # Blogger Jason

    Oh, I didn't take it that you concurred with all of Marshall's assertions.

    If according to her, acts of will are faith in action, then wouldn't asking God to intervene in the first place be an act of faith? Perhaps I'm not understanding her point completely.

    As I Christian I believe there's certainly plenty of life that we can't understand because we don't see it from God's vantage point; however, when it comes to physical healing or lack thereof, if God does indeed intervene sometimes, I can't help finding all more than a bit arbitrary from my limited perspective. I'd like to think that petitioning God is different than when my students ask me to postpone an assignment, and I do but only because I'd intended to in the first place. From their perspective they feel their requests impacted my decision when in reality it didn't.  

  6. # Blogger Jason

    The last "it" should be "they."  

  7. # Blogger Bekah

    Yeah, I think you're right about the fact that God doesn't postpone assignments like you do... or something... essentially, that God *is* affected by our pleas (a la Abraham and saving Lot). But just because He *can* be affected by them doesn't mean He always is - or has to be - but with you, I'm not sure how that aligns with the concept of "ask and you shall receive," other than to see it in that greater picture of what's Really Going On Here.

    As for your question about the act of will - it's an act of will that agrees to be subject to God's will. For instance, one of her concepts (and one we're all familiar with) is the "Prayer of Relinquishment" (i.e. thy will be done): part of God's will for us is that we choose to be His - that our faith be enacted by the total relinquishment of our own desires/designs - and she makes a point of distinguishing this from mere acceptance - it's not an "okay...if you say so..." - it's a "yes, Lord, I'm with you, even if I don't understand - but I trust that You do." And I think that last part's important - how often do we *say* we want God's will, but we just aren't really there...? (Not that "not being there" means damnation or anything - it just represents a need to grow, I guess.)

    [This is fun. Hope you and your other readers don't mind my excessive commenting.]  

  8. # Blogger Jason

    By all means, keep commenting. This is the best thread I've had going here in a while--lots of good discussion.

    I agree that we're to grow towards a "thy will be done" mindset, but I think part of the difficulty of doing that, for me at least, is reconciling a catalog of disappointments in prayer (I'm thinking again of praying for physical healing)with our need to trust God. I confess that my doubts no doubt have arisen in part to my praying (and plenty of other folks' praying) for several people in the past year who have died--a friend from college and a St. Jude's patient who attended our school last year. I recognize that we can point to God's faithfulness in the past (obviously with Christ being the ultimate means of intervention) and anticipate some kind of future renewal of all things, but I have difficulty sometimes gaining strength from either when it seems God isn't doing anything in the present.  

  9. # Blogger Bekah

    "I have difficulty sometimes gaining strength from either when it seems God isn't doing anything in the present."

    I should note that this is the point where Marshall's thoughts fail to help me. I was telling Philip that her books intermittently have the disappointing taste of televangelism - for every wonderful, spiritually significant concept, she has three or four stories of how the concept worked miraculously in people's lives (You Are Healed!). But I'm with you - I'm not sure where we see these miracles today. Perhaps it's the deceitful spirit in televangelism that makes us too cynical to believe it when it happens (sounds like a Santa movie) - or maybe God is deciding not to work in that way here in the US, since we obviously can't appreciate what's behind the concept of healing. (But that begs, what about those of us who *could* appreciate it?)

    But this is where I always can't help but think that we need to *talk* more about our spiritual lives. An elder at our last church mentioned one time that he was looking forward to the day when the C of C added some avenue for real confession, as that's dearly lacking in our rituals. I think there's room for testimonies as well - from the few testimonies I have been blessed to hear from people I trust, I can't help but think there's a lot more going on than we realize. Perhaps if we helped each other be more aware of that, we'd get that strength and encouragement we need to keep the faith... (I'm also responding in part to your next post...)  

  10. # Blogger Jason

    "From the few testimonies I have been blessed to hear from people I trust, I can't help but think there's a lot more going on than we realize."

    I assume you're talking about testimonies of miraculous healing or some other demonstrative intervention on God's part, right?

    "But that begs, what about those of us who could appreciate it?"

    I've wondered the same thing. Although Western culture is increasingly dismissive of the spiritual realm, I can't help thinking that some clear cut action on God's part would perhaps put a dent in a materialist perspective, maybe if only to provide some assurance for believers. I understand Jesus' miracles in the gospels to be not only acts of compassion but support for his claims as well. For example, when the crippled man is lowered through the roof, Jesus first says he forgives the man's sins and then to provide tangible proof that he does, in fact, have such authority, he heals the man.

    Could we not use such proof now? Some Christians argue that if God intervened demonstratively that it would negate the need for faith. I don't find that position too tenable. Not everyone who witnessed Jesus' or the apostles' miracles in the NT chose to follow Christ, so witnessing the miraculous certainly doesn't infringe upon someone's will to choose. Furthermore, to use a marriage analogy, if I were to tell Janet I love her but then did little if anything to demonstrate that love, what reason would she have to believe me? What reason would she have to love me in return?  

  11. # Blogger Todd

    God has done more than enough to last a thousand life times to demonstrate his love for us. Each time I make a decision based on his will, I benefit from what he has done. Each time I commit sin,I benefit from what he has done. He has given us everything. Who are we to say that's not enough? Even the suffering that this entire post focuses on is a blessing in many ways. It makes us stronger. It makes us better able to come to the aid of others when they suffer. It gives us the opportunity to be more like Christ. If the question is, "Why is there any suffering at all in the world?" Then the answer is simple, sin brought suffering into the world, not God. God now uses it, or maybe allows it is a better way to say it to show his love for us and to help us grow and learn.

    I don't have all the answers I know. There is an awful lot more I would like to say, but time and other responsibilities won't let me now, maybe later.  

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