Lesson 4 - The Source and Purpose of Pain






Before you begin this lesson, take a moment and read the story of the resurrection of Lazarus in John chapter 11.  Do not proceed further with this lesson until you have done so.


Now that you have read the story, pretend for a moment that you are Mary or Martha.  Keep in mind that you do not know the end of the story.  You only know that your brother, Lazarus is very sick.  You know Jesus.  You know the extent of the wonderful, miraculous things he has done for so many other people.  You know he can heal your brother.  You also know that you have a close relationship with him, and you expect nothing less than for him to come to your brother’s rescue.  So you send for him, but for some reason he doesn’t come.  Instead, your brother gets sicker and ultimately dies.  Jesus didn’t come heal Lazarus.  He did not even come to the funeral.   Then you look up and see Jesus coming down the road.  How would you feel?  Angry? Hurt? Abandoned?  Let down?

Almost every one of us has had to deal with incredibly difficult and painful situations.  The issue of pain and suffering is a critical issue for you to know and understand – preferably in advance of the next horrible event in your life – because it is the number one area where people either (a) fall away from God or (b) attack God directly.

Pain and suffering is a major – if not the major - reason that people who have been previously associated with religion and Christianity fall away or reject Christianity.  In fact, Jesus even recognized this in the parable of 4 soils.  In that parable, the farmer sowed see on 4 different types of soil – the path, the rocky soil, the thorny soil, and the good soil.   With the seed that fell on the path, there is no real association with religion or faith because Satan (the birds in the story) snatch the seed away too quickly.  With the seed that fell on the rocky soil, however, the seed germinates, implying at least some level of belief and association with religion.  The plant springs up quickly, but because it did not have root, it withered under the sun.  Jesus explained the meaning of this in Luke 8:13, saying “They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away.”  In other words, the difficult times – the temptations – shake their faith and they fall away.

A perfect example of this occurred in the author’s home church the very week this lesson was being written.  A long-standing church member snapped under financial and other pressures.  He then took a firearm to his workplace, killing two people and then killing himself.  This one terrible act not only caused tremendous pain and suffering to a great many people, but it also caused people to ask questions.  How could someone who calls himself a Christian do such a thing?  How could God allow such a thing to happen?  When something like this happens, it falls to the pastor to pick up the pieces in the congregation and attempt to make some sense of the tragedy.


Atheists and other skeptics use the seemingly overwhelming pain and suffering in the world to attack Christianity in an effort to prove that God does not exist.  They call this The Problem of Evil.  The Problem of Evil is essentially the difficulty in reconciling the existence of evil (pain, suffering, etc.) in the world with the belief, or lack thereof, of an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good God.  For good reason, we tend to equate pain and suffering with the presence of evil in the world.  However, people have trouble accepting that their concept of God can coexist with their experience with evil.  Accordingly, they decide that because we know that evil definitely exists, God must certainly not exist.


The argument goes something like this:  If God exists then he is omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good.  If God were omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good then the world would not contain evil.  The world contains evil.  Therefore, God must not exist.   This is a very common philosophical formula – it has lots of variations, but it is considered a well-established “scientific” proof that God does not exist.  The 4th Century philosopher Epicurus said it like this:


 “God either wishes to take away all evils and is unable; or he is able but unwilling; or he is both willing and able. If he is willing and unable, he is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if he is able and unwilling, he is envious, which is equally at variance with God. If he is neither willing nor able, he is both feeble and envious, and therefore not God. If he is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? Or why does he not remove them?”


This pretty much sums up most of the questions that are often asked about why God allows pain and suffering in the world.  Those questions come in one of the following forms:


·      The Logical Problem: Does there exist a contradiction between believing in the existence of God and the presence of evil in the world?

·      The Evidential Problem: Even if there is an explanation for why evil might exist in the world, is not the amount of evil in the world excessive?

·      The Theological Problem: If God is all knowing and all powerful, does not the existence of evil in the world make him responsible for that evil?

·      The Existential Problem: If God is in any way responsible for the evil in the world, then how can I trust him?


Without a doubt, these are aspects of the Christian life with which even believers sometimes struggle.  Because of that, we struggle all the more to defend God against unbelievers who question his divine integrity or even his existence.  It is important, therefore, that we take a look at what we believe about The Problem of Evil as well as why and how we believe God can coexist with evil in the world.


God Exists Despite Evil


First of all, we need to accept and defend the fact that the presence of evil in the world does not provide evidence that God does not exist. Biblically, there is no provision even for the possibility of the lack of God’s existence.  We have dealt with this in previous lessons.  Psalm 10:4 tells us that it is the foolish, even if they are brilliant scientists, who say there is no God.  However, the world will not tolerate our use of scripture in defending God’s existence because they think such is a self-propagating argument.  They want real proof… “rational” proof.   This was discussed extensively in our very first Basic Theology lesson, but is briefly summarized here as follows:


·      Teleological – God must necessarily exist through observation of both order in the universe as well as indications of a cosmic design within the universe;

·      Cosmological – God must necessarily exist because ultimately there must be a prime mover that causes all things to happen;

·      Pragmatic – God must necessarily exist because of man’s innate (a priori) understanding of morality and because it makes pragmatic sense to believe in God rather than face the potential consequence of Hell;

·      Ontological – Because we can conceive that there must be something greater and more perfect than human existence and experience, that something – which is God – must necessarily exist; and

·      Transcendental – God must necessarily exist because without the Christian worldview of God, one cannot otherwise speak rationally of right and wrong.


God Is Not The Cause of Evil


We must also realize and acknowledge that the Problem of Evil does not prove that God himself is somehow evil.  A common misconception among both Christians and non-Christians alike is to assume that because God allows evil, he must somehow be evil himself – or at the very least he is responsible or to blame for the evil.  On the other hand, there are several important truths about God’s relationship to the evil in the world that we must recognize.

First, we must recognize that nothing happens that God does not specifically allow.  Nothing that we would consider to be evil happens unless God gives permission for it to happen.  In some cases, God may even use this evil to accomplish his purposes.  For example, God used the pagan nations to punish Israel for its disobedience.  This caused great pain and suffering on the part of the Israelites, but it was God who allowed it to happen to bring his people back to repentance.  God is not surprised by anything that happens because it is he who has granted permission for it to happen.  The perfect example of this is Job.  All of the evil that happened to Job happened only because God specifically allowed Satan to do those horrible things to him.

Nevertheless, even though God allows this evil to happen, we must also recognize that there is no evil in God. 1 John 1:5 says “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” How (or why), then does God allow evil to continue?  The answer requires us to goes back and examine why God created man in his own image.

God created a world in which man had a free will to choose.  God could have created a world in which man did not have a free will and could not sin, but then man would not have been created in the image of God.  And if we are not created in the image of God, then God would not have been perfectly glorified in his creation of us.  To bring glory to himself, God had to grant mankind free will.  What God could not have done is create a world in which both man had a free will and man would be guaranteed that he would always chose not to sin.

Because man had a choice, it was therefore a possibility that man would choose evil – which he did.   Contrary to what atheists and philosophers choose to believe, this does not make God responsible for our sin.  Instead, it actually reveals the glory of God.  In his Systematic Theology, theologian Charles Hodge said:


“We are not obliged to assume that [a world without evil] is the best possible world for the production of happiness… God, in revealing Himself, does promote the highest good of his creatures, consistent with the promotion of his own glory… to reverse this order… is to pervert and subvert the whole scheme; it is to put the means for the end, to subordinate God to the universe, the Infinite to the finite.”


In other words, our choice to follow and worship God in a world of sin is a perfect revelation of the glory of God.  God is glorified because we choose to worship God despite the presence and existence of evil.   Anything else would essentially be upside down.  While some may choose to reject God, our obedience glorifies God.  In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis said it this way:


“A world of automata - of creatures that worked like machines - would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they must be free.”


Unfortunately, the consequence of man’s evil choices is the existence of pain and suffering in the world.  Which then brings up the question: Why can’t God overcome that?  After all, there is so much evil and so much suffering. 


God is Not Impotent to Remove Evil


The seemingly overwhelming amount of evil in the world makes some people ask the question: Is God simply incapable of bringing it all under control?  They see the vanity of it all in much the same way that King Solomon, the wisest man on earth, did in Ecclesiastes 7:15 – “All things have I seen in the days of my vanity: there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness.”  This seems unjust to us, and for some it makes them wonder whether God is even capable of correcting the evil in the world.

We know, however, that God is omnipotent – not impotent.  God is perfectly capable of carrying out his holy will.  We also know that he can accomplish his will without accountability or interference from creation.  More importantly, we can know that not only is evil incapable of thwarting God’s will from being accomplished, but also that God can actually use the evil choices of man to accomplish his will.  He is able to overcome it all and still work his will to perfection.

In addition, we also must remember that a stable existence requires the principles of cause and effect. As such, there are consequences to sin.   All of creation was cursed by Adam’s sin.  This is clearly outlined in the story of the fall of man in Genesis 3:4-19.  As it says in Romans 8:20-21, “For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”  Creation was cursed along with man and eagerly awaits his redemption.  God will not simply remove the effects of that curse until he restores all things, which will not happen until his perfect will determines it is time for that to happen.  As a result, we continue to suffer the pain and suffering of a fallen and cursed world.  Does that, however, make God unjust?


God is Not Unjust


Even if all of the above is true, some may still argue that God is unjust because it appears that some evil goes unpunished and some suffering appears to come without justification.  On the other hand, the very fact that we have a concept of justness and unjustness proves that there is an ultimately just being in the world – and that ultimately just being is God.

The Bible provides clear teaching that God can and will punish evil.  King Solomon, who – as we have already seen - struggled with the vanity of this fallen life we live, but he ultimately came to the conclusion that God will bring about justice eventually, saying in Ecclesiastes 12:14, “For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.”  There are many examples of God’s judgment on evil in the Old Testament.


·      Amos promised judgment on all who do evil, including Israel.

·      Obadiah prophesied the annihilation of Edom for its evil (and it was fulfilled).

·      The evils of both the Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel resulted in judgments and destruction.

·      Sodom and Gomorrah were utterly destroyed for their evil.


These are just a few of the examples.  Repeatedly, scripture both promises and fulfills its promises of carrying out the justness of God.  The problem for us is that we don’t always see that justice carried out in the way or in the timing that we believe is right.  Therein lays our problem.

Keep in mind that God is sovereign.  As the Sovereign God, the timing – and method - of his judgment is his own concern, not our concern.  Certainly, we would like for God to bring about immediate justice so that we may see the evil punished and feel vindicated.  That, however, is not always the best solution.  Consider, for example, your own evil.  Since we know that we all sin, imagine where you would be if God always brought about immediate and swift punishment on your wrongdoing. Would you be where you are today?  Most of us would not.  Of course sometimes God’s judgment is immediate, such as with Adam in the Garden of Eden or Ananias and Sapphira in Acts chapter 4.  Many times, however, God’s justice is delayed so that hopefully we may come to repentance.  Certainly in the case of both Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Judah (the Southern Kingdom), God delayed bringing about his justice as long as possible, giving them every possible chance to repent.   But God is just, and so eventually, judgment must come.

Why is it, then, that sometimes God delays judgment and sometimes he does not?   In his Systematic Theology, theologian Robert Culver says that because of his sovereignty, God is able to extend justice to his creation; but precisely because he is sovereign, he is not required to do so on equal terms – meaning in the same way and at the same time.  Likewise the early church theologian Plutarch taught that only God knows the time, place, and extent to which evil should be punished here on earth.

What we do know, however, is that God’s execution of judgment on evil is four-fold in nature, and so if we look carefully enough – and understand it – we can see how he is carrying out his justice at all times.  First of all, God is continually pouring out his wrath on evil by allowing all evil men to spiral out of control in the hopes that the futility of such a meaningless life and the utter hopelessness of that lifestyle will perhaps cause them to come to repentance.  Romans 1:18-31 describes this process in detail.  First, God gives them over to the lusts of their hearts.  For some, the emptiness and shame of this brings them to repentance, but such is not the case for all.  For those who do not repent, God then gives them over to even more dishonorable passions, perverting their desires into unnatural ones.  This too is vanity, but even then there will be many who do not repent.  Therefore, God gives them over to a debased mind, allowing them to reach a point where literally they no longer can distinguish right from wrong.  The absolute miserable, almost animal-like nature of such an existence is a judgment no man would desire.  It is no wonder that suicide is such a leading cause of death.  For the lucky, they come to their senses – as the prodigal son did when he was feeding the pigs and desiring the pig feed – and they repent.  For others, their sin ultimate does lead to death.

Second, God poured out his wrath on the cross. In speaking of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, Paul says in Romans 3:25-26 “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.”  In other words, while God may pour out his wrath on evil men today, even the faithful have committed evil.  Judgment must come on all evil, even our own.  Therefore, God poured out his wrath on his own son, Jesus Christ, who bore the punishment for our sins, so that God may remain just while still showing mercy on us.  But if Christ’s death was sufficient to satisfy God’s wrath, why must he punish the wicked?  It is because of their unbelief and their unrepentance.  God is willing to show mercy and forgiveness, allowing Christ’s sacrifice to be a payment in full for our evil, but he will only do so if we believe, repent, and give our life back to him in full surrender.

Third, God fully intends to bring about temporal justice here on earth when Christ returns to establish his earthly kingdom.  Of course, not everyone believes that Christ will establish a literal, earthly kingdom.  This gets into issues of eschatology, which we will cover in the next less, but many Christians understand prophecy to say that one day Christ will return and establish a kingdom whereby he will rule with perfect justice – something this fallen world has never before seen or experienced.  While evil may run rampant in the world today, Satan will be bound and cast into the bottomless pit for 1000 years, while Christ himself ensures justice in the world.

Ultimately, however, justice will be realized at the final judgment.  It is described in detail in Revelation 20:11-15:


11 And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them.


12 And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.


13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.


14 And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.


15 And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.


When this final judgment has been dispensed, there will be no more evil and the Problem of Evil will become a distant thing of the past – perhaps not even a memory.


In the meantime, God is patient with us, waiting for us to come to repentance and not wanting any to perish.  While he waits patiently, though, evil continues in the world and its consequences are felt by all. 


God is Not Uncaring or Uninvolved


Just because God continues to allow evil in the world, that does not mean God is just sitting back in apathy.  He is not just an uninvolved, distant God who cares nothing about what is happening here.  His is not a God who does not care about our pain and suffering. 

At the beginning of this lesson, you took the time to read John chapter 11 and the account of Lazarus.  Do you recall what John 11:35 said?  It said simply, “Jesus wept;” but there is absolutely nothing simple about the implication of those two words.  God knows our pain.  He feels our pain.  And he sympathizes with that pain.

God is both active and involved in creation.  He is with us, living in us and so is intimately engaged in every aspect of our lives.  Theologically, this is known as the immanence of God – his presence with us.  It would be theologically wrong to suggest, therefore that God is not involved in his creation.

To begin with, all of creation is continually dependent upon God.  The author of Hebrews tells us in Hebrews 1:3 that everything in the universe is held together by his word.  Beyond, this, however, God is continually active in our world, at a global, political level.   Romans 13:1 tells us that all authorities that exist on the earth are there because God himself has ordained it to be so.  But even beyond this, God is involved in our daily lives at the most personal level.   Proverbs 20:24 says “Man's goings are of the Lord; how can a man then understand his own way?”  To suggest that God’s temporary permissiveness regarding evil somehow means that he does not care about his creation is simply to deny the very nature of God himself.  Every aspect of our lives, including our hurt and agony, are important to him. 


God Allows Evil for a Purpose


Despite everything we have learned thus far, there still remains the ultimate question of why God allows evil to persist.  Why is any specific evil or painful situation allowed to happen?  More importantly, we ask the question: Why did it have to happen to me?  Why now?

It is possible that we may never know the answer to those questions for any specific situation.  However, it is critical that we recognize and place our faith in the fact that God promises to bring good from all things (even painful things).  Romans 8:28 is a famous verse regarding this promise that says “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”  That does not mean the situation will not be painful.  Nor does it mean that we will somehow be rescued from the situation.  In fact, it does not even mean that we will always know what good has become of the situation.  However, the fact that we may not see the good that results does not mean such good does not exist.  We may be either incapable of seeing what God is trying to accomplish or else God may simply have not yet revealed the good he was trying to accomplish.

We must also recognize that one of the purposes of pain and suffering is that God is patient and wants all men to come to repentance.  Although contextually, 2 Peter 3:9 is speaking more about Christ’s return than he is the purpose of pain and suffering, that verse still speaks to God’s desire to save all men.  Combined with Romans 11:32, which reminds us that God desires to show mercy on all men, and 2 Corinthians 7:10, which reminds us that Godly sorrow brings about repentance and salvation, we can conclude that the consequences of pain and suffering can ultimately bring us closer to God – even to repentance and salvation.

Finally, whether we want to admit it or not, God sometimes uses pain and suffering to glorify himself.  There are three very specific instances of this in scripture.  Job, who was tested by Satan through his pain and suffering, ultimately glorified God by his faithfulness, proving that it was not because of God’s blessings that he was faithful to and worshipped God.  In speaking of the blindness of the man in John 9:3, Jesus said “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”   He was blind from birth and remained that way for many years for no other reason than God wished to display his glory through his healing.  Likewise, when Mary and Martha sent for Jesus to come and heal Lazarus in John chapter 11, he stayed for two more days until Lazarus died, stating that the reason Lazarus was sick would be to show the glory of God.  This truth may be difficult for us to accept, but then again we must realize that everything that God does ultimately brings about his glory.  Is it any wonder, therefore, that pain and suffering would sometimes be used to bring about his glory as well?

The bottom line is that while we may not know the reasons why certain evil exists, we can take comfort in the fact that God will use those circumstances to bring about his perfect will.


Biblical Instructions Regarding the Problem of Evil


Based on what we have discussed concerning the Problem of Evil, what should our response be as Christian?  To begin with, we need to accept that trouble will come, but we also need to be at peace with the fact that such trouble does not in any way negate or circumvent God’s sovereignty over us.  Jesus himself said in John 16:33, “These things I have spoken unto you, that in Me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer: I have overcome the world.”

As Christians, our first response, therefore, should be joy.  As difficult as we think it may be, scripture actually teaches us that we should be joyful about the trials and suffering that we experience - primarily because of how God uses those trials in our lives.  According to James 1:2-4, our Christian walk is matured and perfected by the trials and suffering that come into our lives.   Likewise, Romans 5:3 tells us that our suffering produces endurance within us.  Even though our trials and sufferings are painful and difficult, these truths about what God is doing in our lives through them ought to bring us joy.  More importantly, however, we know that Jesus suffered for our sins.  Numerous scriptures (such as 1 Peter 4:13, Romans 8:17, and Philippians 3:10) all tell us that when we suffer, we are essentially sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s suffering.  This too should bring us joy.

As a result, Christians should praise God during times of suffering.  This may be one of the hardest things we can do as human beings, but God deserves our praise and worship regardless of our circumstances.  Job, who faced some of the most trying and difficult times a human could ever imagine, fell on his face before God and said these words in Job 1:21, “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”   Likewise, many of the Psalms lament the trials that the psalmist is forced to endure, but they always end with praise to God despite the trials (see, for example, Psalm 42 and Psalm 55).

In addition to being joyful and worshipping God despite our circumstances, Christians should also see their suffering as a time of instruction and, perhaps, even discipline.  We know from Hebrews 12:5-6 that God disciplines those that he loves. Not all suffering and pain is the direct result of God’s punishment for any specific sin.  It might be, but we should not automatically assume that is so.  Nevertheless, it seems that God expects us to view our suffering as instruction and discipline, not in the since of punishment, but in the sense of making us better Christians.

Furthermore, we know that despite the reason for our pain, God speaks to us through that pain.   Job’s friend Elihu may have been wrong about a number of things, but in Job 36:15, he was not wrong in saying God speaks to us in pain.  In his book, The Problem of Pain, CS Lewis says that while God whispers to us gently during times of pleasure, he is shouting at us in our pain to wake up a dead world.


Finally, there is one last response that Christians must have to their pain and suffering.   Because we know where we shall be in eternity, Christians must take hope in future glory.  1 Thessalonians 5:9 reminds us that we are not meant for God’s wrath.  That means any suffering we may be experiencing today can only be temporary.  Taking hope in that promise makes our present sufferings more bearable.  In Romans 8:18, Paul says “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”   He understood that everything we experience now is only temporary – and pales in comparison to what we will experience in eternity.  Peter echoed these same sentiments in 1 Peter 4:13, saying “but rejoice inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, that, when His glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.”   We can put our faith in the fact that in the end, all pain and suffering will be removed and that our eternal state will be as glorious as it was when God first created man in the Garden of Eden.  That helps us persevere through the trial.  And even though persevering through our trials and pain can be difficult, we can conclude with this promise from James 5:11:  Those who persevere will be considered blessed.


There is one last thing we need to know as pastors and church leaders.  Everything we have discussed are intellectual and theological explanations for something that is emotionally difficult.  The time to teach our people these truths is not during their times of difficulty.  When someone is experiencing great pain and suffering, that is not the right time to be trying to explain deep and difficult theological truths.  At that moment, we simply need to be available to hold their hand, pray with them, cry with them, and do everything we can to encourage them.  Perhaps an opportunity will arise later, after the pain and emotion have subsided, to discuss the theological truths.  If they ask why these things have happened, do your best to console them, but try to put off that deep theological conversation until they are more able to bear it.  In truth, the time to teach our people about these truths is when all is going well – before they are in the midst of unbearable pain and suffering.  Our goal as pastors and teachers is to build their faith now so that when difficult times come, they can stand fast.  The reason Job could praise God in the midst of his sufferings was not because he had friends that explained everything to him after the fact, but because his faith in God was strong before the fact.  He understood the Problem of Evil and was prepared to face it.  It was still very difficult for him, but he came through it stronger and more perfect because he was prepared in advance.