Reconciling Pain and Suffering When God is Supposed to be Loving
In the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, the Lord tells Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” (Jeremiah 1:5). It is reasonable for us to infer that Jeremiah was not the only person to whom this applies. God, who is all powerful and can do all things, most certainly knew each of us before we were formed in our mothers’ wombs. And, as was true for Jeremiah, God does call us into a life of faith, love, and ministry. In some ways, when we read this passage, it can feel quite comforting! Wow! God knew me! God has plans for me! Really? Even me? Yes! Even (and especially!) you! Yet, in other ways, this very same idea can lead us to question the goodness of God. It can become quite easy to head down a path of wondering why we became diagnosed with an illness at a young age, why we have troubled human relationships, why some of us have birth defects or other disorders. If God knew us before we were born, then why do we face human suffering?
These kinds of questions are actually quite common. While people may not feel comfortable asking them aloud, I would bet money that most of us have pondered similar questions at times in our lives. In fact, the concept known as theodicy has faced theologians for generations. Theodicy (from the Greek theos meaning God, and dike meaning justice) attempts to reconcile the goodness of God with the existence of evil. It can be summarized by asking, “If God is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful, then why doesn’t he prevent wars, violence, natural disasters, illnesses, or pain?” In fact, it can sometimes even feel like God must be the one causing the pain. As an example from my own life, I might wonder, if God knew me before I was born, then why was I born with a neurodivergence that challenges me in my life? As I’ve explained before, my neurodivergence went undiagnosed for years. As an adult, I finally have some clarity with my diagnosis of both autism and ADHD. However, before I was diagnosed, my condition led me to face a lot of difficulties. This was especially true during my childhood. I was teased by peers, and I was seen as “the weird kid.” When people treat me differently because they don’t understand me, I feel pain. But my neurodivergence doesn’t define me. Just like a cancer patient’s illness doesn’t define that person, or a wheelchair-bound person’s disability does not define who that person is.
I once had a pastoral conversation with a woman who was struggling physically, emotionally, and spiritually because of a condition she had since childbirth. We’ll call her “Susan.” Susan was born with one leg shorter than the other. This isn’t as uncommon as it might sound. In fact, most of us have small differences in the lengths of our legs. But for a smaller portion of the population who have a difference of around an inch or more, their lives can be deeply impacted. Susan’s limb length discrepancy (LLD) caused her to walk with a painful gait. To compensate for her longer leg, she stood either at an angle, which hurt her hip, or on her on her toe, which hurt her foot and ankle. She was teased as a child for how she ran, played, and stood. Her mobility was affected all her life, and she had other health problems that developed as result of her LLD. She needed surgeries, medications, and other treatments, and she told me she wasn’t religious because she felt like God had set her up for a life full of both pain and challenges. She felt pain not just in her legs, feet, and joints, but also in her heart. Susan had difficulty making connections with people who didn’t understand her, and she felt like she had to figure out a way to navigate living in a world that was not built for someone like her. For people like Susan, who suffer with seemingly inexplicable illnesses and physical conditions that make life more difficult, it can be easy to ask God, “If you knew me before I was conceived, then why did you make me this way?”
While that can be an easy (and in fact, very human!) question to ask, it isn’t terribly helpful. After serving for years as a pastoral person, I know a lot of people ask these kinds of questions. And people have a lot of ways of answering them. We often hear people discredit questions by saying something like, “everything happens for a reason.” Or, “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle.” Not only are those untrue, they’re also unhelpful. Essentially, what we need to do is to remove our black-and-white thinking from the equation. It isn’t cause and effect. God didn’t give Susan an LLD to challenge her or to test her. He certainly didn’t give her those conditions because he didn’t love her. In fact, it is much more helpful for us to avoid language that suggests he gave us illnesses and conditions in the first place. You see, God doesn’t make bad stuff happen. A God who makes bad stuff happen isn’t a God who interests me at all. So what kind of questions are healthy, and maybe even helpful?
It is important for us to reframe our suffering. Instead of asking, “why did God make this happen?” we can instead ask, “Where is God with me, guiding me through my suffering?” We all go through hard times. While it’s true that Susan has her struggles, and I have struggles of my own, it doesn’t mean you don’t have any of your own. We each are more aware of our own journeys than we are of the journeys of others, but spending too much energy worrying about our own struggles can keep us in a place of wallow and despair. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with wallow and despair, but they are conditions that make us to feel “stuck.” There isn’t much we can do about it if we get lost in despair. But if we look for God’s presence in our suffering, we can reach the opposite of despair: hope.
We might ask questions like, where has God made his presence known to Susan during her life? Where is God present with the people suffering through wars in Ukraine? Or in the Middle East? Or in gang violence? Or in the COVID-19 pandemic? Or in racism, sexism, or discrimination? While it is problematic to look at these evils as having been caused by God, we can obtain a great deal of comfort by seeking the presence of God as he walks the journey of suffering with us. Let’s look at the story of the Exodus. A common reading is that God killed the Egyptians after saving the Israelites and helping them to cross the Red Sea. We can look at this as a triumph! The good people won, and the bad people lost! But wait a minute. Didn’t God create the Egyptians, too? Aren’t they also his people? While I think it’s safe to say God did not approve of their behavior in enslaving the Israelites, it would be heretical to suggest God didn’t love the Egyptians. So, when the Egyptians drown, God mourned for them. He mourned the loss of his beloved children. The evil that occurred when the waters closed in on them was a symptom of a larger evil, and that evil caused a lot of death and destruction. This death and destruction caused deep pain for God. I like to imagine God sitting with the Egyptians in heaven and saying something like, “Ok, let’s chat. So… about all that bad stuff you did. Can you help me to understand what you were thinking?” God’s grace is bigger than we can understand or imagine. This means, yes, God extends grace even to our enemies. God extends grace even to people who we wouldn’t. God was present with the Israelites in their suffering, and he was equally present with the Egyptians in theirs.
I know that a short(ish) essay in a weekly blog from some guy wearing a Hawaiian shirt in Arizona isn’t going to resolve the problem of theodicy. That’s a problem theologians have wrestled with for thousands of years! Instead, my hope is that we can think theologically and that we can remind ourselves to see the forest for the trees. Sometimes it can be helpful to take a step back and look at the larger picture. While humans do face great suffering, we also experience tremendous joy. We would not understand the pain of a broken heart if we didn’t know love. Without having loved in the first place, our hearts couldn’t possibly be broken. We must know joy to know what pain is, and we can be certain that God is walking that journey right by our side. If we’re hurting, God hurts with us. Even if all the other kids made fun of me when I was a kid, God still loved me. God hurt with me. And, in fairness, when I said or did things that hurt others, God loved them and hurt with them.
It isn’t easy being a human. Each of us is oh so complex. Each of our brains and hearts and souls work similarly, yet differently, than everyone else’s. Each of us experiences highs and lows in our lives and each of us brings with us the love of God that surpasses our understanding. In fact, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to be one of us. He wanted us to know, without a doubt, that he is with us in our suffering. Jesus suffered. Jesus died. Jesus wept. Just like us. And let’s not forget another name for Jesus, Emmanuel. The word Emmanuel means God is with us. Even in our suffering, and in fact especially in our suffering, may we always remember Emmanuel.