Last month, I wrote about the problem Western civilization seems to have with pain as evidenced by the plethora of outlets we’ve created to avoid it. Central to part one is understanding the paradox of pain: that while pain certainly is no one’s friend, the laws at work on our planet are such that pain is everyone’s friend: Life depends on pain and without it, we wouldn’t be here.
It would be hard to maintain our humanity if we didn’t ask spiritual questions about pain. The Bible is loaded with “heroes” who did this very thing, including Christ himself, who from the cross issued the famous phrase found in Psalms 22: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Questioning in this way is not only natural, but also appears in both the Jewish and Christian texts as an affirmation of our human need to wrestle with the “why” of pain.
I have only one real issue with the questioning of God and pain in our modern world. It comes when a person has rejected the faith life because of the problem of pain and yet, simultaneously, accepts the story of evolution as a beautiful thing, despite the clearly painful history it details. I don’t believe these two world views are mutually exclusive and personally hold to both as examples of beauty rising out of pain.
Natural selection indicates that the evolution of life on this planet hasn’t been solely random, at least not in the way we might commonly hear it described. Life adapts and evolves simply because survival beats the alternative. The science tells us that environmental pressure and strife (or pain) generate at least three alternatives for all species: extinction, cooperation, and initiative—the latter two are what promote adaptation, or change. The response to pain produces subtle changes that when magnified over time become significant changes.
Cooperation and initiative are as essential to evolution as an amino acid or strand of DNA. The biological building blocks are attached to their functions like water is to wetness. I see this as sacred in more ways that I can describe in this brief article. As life adapted to pain, beautiful ingenuity emerged—from the smallest cells to the group behaviors of large herds. That’s the scientific story in a nutshell, but it also strikes me as stunningly spiritual.
Since natural disasters were mentioned in an article below, we could start with the reality that volcanoes, earthquakes, and plate tectonics play an important role in supporting life on our planet by managing the release and absorption of carbon dioxide. A list of nature’s hidden benefits from environmental stressors (or pain) could go on for many pages.
Natural “disasters” are often held up as a reason for people to question the existence of God. How is it that God can be blamed for having made something terrible when that same terrible thing is essential in promoting and maintaining life on the planet? In science, nature gets a free pass on cruelty when one takes the long view of resiliency such pain produced. Why can’t God be in this story?
The answer we return is typically, “God could have done better.” To ask if God should have done better than the system we have is a genuine human response and a question have I asked many times. But scientifically speaking, it is like asking for a square without right angles. Whatever life God might have made absent pain, I can’t imagine it would be us. I can’t imagine such a life would be truly human, at least not as we understand it. Pain is a driving factor (perhaps even THE driving factor) of what makes us who we are… let’s not be so eager to shoot the horse we rode in on.
At stake for us then is really a deeper question, “Would we trade who we have become for whatever we would be in a world free from pain?” Personally, I would not; however, I can accept that answers may vary for others.
Admitting our propensity to cause pain (or turn a blind eye to it) is confession. Learning to cooperate with God’s solutions to pain is redemption. Cooperating with God and each other to eliminate suffering is justice. Demonstrating initiative and stepping out in the belief that light is greater than darkness takes faith; and all of these things— confession, redemption, justice, faith—these, and so many like them, give rise to a beauty inside that we could not know otherwise.
I believe that moving from the “why” of pain to the “what now” is infinitely more productive; it brings out the best and brightest in us. It’s what God did when He became human. He passed through the penumbra of pain “for the joy set before Him” (Philippians 2). In Romans 8, Paul says that all of creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth up until now. He says that the frustration of the universe and its enslavement to decay eagerly awaits the day when it will be freed from bondage. He says that creation sits on the cusp of a peculiar kind of cure: God’s children revealing His glory (which is His character, image, and presence) in the cosmos.
That’s ultimately where I want to be—I want to see us adapted, evolved, transformed into His image, to see the destructive power of a storm pale in comparison to the loving response that follows it; to see every suffering experienced in our world met with the fortitude that rises up from a life of joy and hope; to see humanity continue to reveal God’s character, likeness, and presence by eliminating pain through sound science, practical wisdom, and the spiritual compassion of Jesus Christ…to work in partnership with the Holy Spirit so that one day in the not so distant future, it might truly be “on Earth, as it is Heaven.”
As a human being, I have to let my pain be pain, meaning I don’t see how I get to this exact place and time without it. As a Christian, my response to pain requires cooperation and initiative as I try to walk daily with God, meaning I don’t see how I get past this exact place and time without adapting. Or as Paul puts it, I will remain stuck unless I am “conformed to the image of His Son.”
David Allred is the lead pastor of High Places Community Church, 123 Randolph Road in Oak Ridge, working alongside founding pastor Martin Fischer. High Places owns and operates the historic Grove Theater, which is also home to numerous arts organizations that share a vision for improving the quality of life in Oak Ridge. For more information see http://highplaceschurch.com.
His column from last month is available here.