By Audrey Stallsmith
Most of us believe in God, but many of us are angry at Him too. After such recent events as Hurricane Katrina and the devastating earthquake in Pakistan, we feel inclined to demand of Deity, "What were You thinking?"
In an episode of The West Wing, after the sudden death of his secretary in an automobile crash, President Bartlett does his own railing at his Maker--to the effect of, "I’ve done my best to serve you, and this is the thanks I get?" Later, in a vision, the secretary gently reproves him with, "You know God doesn’t cause car accidents."
Once God set man and nature free, it became inevitable that humans would frequently clash with the cosmos and with each other. As C. S. Lewis writes, in The Problem of Pain, "We can perhaps conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of the abuse of free-will by His characters at every moment. But such a world would be one in which freedom of the will would be void. Try to exclude the possibility of suffering and you find that you have excluded life itself."
Nikolai Berdyaev also concedes that, "suffering could be abolished and the world forced to be ‘good’ and ‘happy,’ but man would have lost his likeness to God, which primarily resides in his freedom." "Gods we are, Thou has said," Lewis concludes dryly, "and we pay dearly." But God paid dearly too.
As Philip Yancey writes in "The Visited Planet," "when the Son of God became a human being he played by the rules, harsh rules." He chose the most humiliating and painful circumstances for his birth, his life, and his death. The appearance of illegitimacy, grinding poverty, contempt from the religious establishment, dense disciples, an agonizing execution, seeming abandonment by His Father, and a literal descent into hell.
So we can’t say He doesn’t know what it feels like. "The Buddha smiles;" Bernard Thorogood writes. "In him no tears I trace. Stay with us Christ, we need your crisis face."
We don’t often consider how much God continues to endure. As Frederick Buechner points out, "God Himself is never safe from us. He puts himself at our mercy not only in the suffering we can cause him by our coldness, but the suffering that we cause him simply by suffering ourselves." We all know how much pain a dear one’s misery inflicts on us. But, because God loves much more extensively than we do, He must bear more of that than we could ever imagine.
Yet pain can be a blessing because there are, as Philip Yancey points out in Open Windows, much worse things. In that book, he interviews Dr. Paul Brand. Famous for his work with lepers, Brand discovered that most of the damage they suffer to their feet and hands is not caused by the disease itself, but by the numbness it inflicts. So the leper who accidentally steps on a hot coal, for example, doesn’t notice in time to jerk away--because he can’t feel any pain.
"Pain is unpleasant," Yancey acknowledges, "yet it is that very quality which saves us from destruction. . . Unless the warning signal demands response, we might not heed it."
And, we must admit, if our lives were all wine and roses, we would never turn to God. Most conversions seem to occur at moments of crisis. Although God doesn’t cause those catastrophes he can make something good come of them. Chuck Colson, for example, only repented after the humiliations he experienced during the Watergate scandal--when prison loomed in his future.
"Pain," Lewis agrees in his book on that subject, "gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment. It removes the veil. It shatters the illusion that all is well. It also shatters the illusion that what we have is our own and enough for us."
"In modern society," Brand complains, "we tend to approach pain as if it were the enemy. We get rid of the pain without asking why the pain came. . .Similarly. . .modern psychology has concentrated on guilt as an evil and attempted to suppress or excise guilt."
"Guilt," he continues, "has spiritual value: it impels you towards cleansing. It is a pain to the conscience that something is wrong that should be dealt with. . .First the person must find the cause of the guilt, just as a person must find the cause of his pain. . .Unless it is aimed at cleansing, guilt is a useless encumbrance. Guilt as such doesn’t lead you anywhere, just as pain does not: they both simply point out a condition that needs attention."
Pain, whether physical or psychological, is also a blessing because we need the contrast. As G. K. Chesterton notes in Lunacy and Letters, "it is the point of all deprivation that it sharpens the idea of value." Or, as Meg speculates in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, "Maybe if you aren’t unhappy sometimes you don’t know how to be happy."
We have all seen how badly spoiled children turn out. The so-called "beautiful" people often self-destruct, despite the fact that they appear to have everything. "It is in struggling against our weakness that we become strong," Fulton Sheen reminds us in On Being Human. Those who don’t have to exert themselves never develop that stamina--or any sense of purpose. Chesterton describes this eloquently in his poem, "The Aristocrat." "There are souls more sick of pleasure than you are sick of pain."
Emmi Bonhoeffer, whose husband was executed by the Nazis, noted that terror--and presumably other woes as well--"loses its overwhelming power when it becomes a task that must be faced." Just before going to her own martyrdom in China, missionary Betty Stam was calm enough to zip some money into her baby’s clothing, in the (later fulfilled) hope that someone who found the child would care for it. Although God doesn’t make "teacher’s pets" of his followers by sparing them pain, He has promised to give us what we need when we need it.
We can hear His voice in the words of the North Wind (in George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind): "What if I should look ugly without being bad. . .look ugly myself because I am making ugly things beautiful? You must not let go your hold of me, for my hand will never change in yours if you keep a good hold. If you keep a good hold, you will know who I am all the time."