The day Penitens died

young man in hospital bedPenitens was a busy, notable tradesman, and very prosperous in his dealings, but died in the thirty-fifth year of his age. A little before his death, when the doctors had given him over, some of his neighbors came one evening to see him, at which time he spake thus to them:

I see, my friends, the tender concern you have for me, by the grief that appears in your countenances, and I know the thoughts that you have now about me. You think how melancholy a case it is, to see so young a man, and in such flourishing business, delivered up to death. And perhaps, had I visited any of you in my condition, I should have had the same thoughts of you. But now, my friends, my thoughts are no more like your thoughts than my condition is like yours.

It is no trouble to me now to think, that I am to die young, or before I have raised an estate. These things are now sunk into such mere nothings, that I have no name little enough to call them by. For if in a few days or hours, I am to leave this carcass to be buried in the earth, and to find myself either forever happy in the favor of God, or eternally separated from all light and peace, can any words sufficiently express the littleness of everything else?

Is there any dream like the dream of life, which amuses us with the neglect and disregard of these things? Is there any folly like the folly of our [earthly] state, which is too wise and busy, to be at leisure for these reflections?

bruce-wayne-two-dates

When we consider death as a misery, we only think of it as a miserable separation from the enjoyments of this life. We seldom mourn over an old man that dies rich, but we lament the young, that are taken away in the progress of their fortune. You yourselves look upon me with pity, not that I am going unprepared to meet the Judge of quick and dead, but that I am to leave a prosperous trade in the flower of my life. This is the wisdom of our [earthly] thoughts. And yet what folly of the silliest children is so great as this?

For what is there miserable or dreadful in death, but the consequences of it? When a man is dead, what does anything signify to him, but the state he is then in? Our poor friend Lepidus died, you know, as he was dressing himself for a feast. Do you think it is now part of his trouble that he did not live till that entertainment was over? Feasts and business and pleasures and enjoyments seem great things to us, whilst we think of nothing else; but as soon as we add death to them, they all sink into an equal littleness; and the soul that is separated from the body no more laments the loss of business, than the losing of a feast.

If I am now going into the joys of God, could there be any reason to grieve, that this happened to me before I was forty years of age? Could it be a sad thing to go to Heaven, before I had made a few more bargains, or stood a little longer behind a counter?

And if I am to go amongst lost spirits, could there be any reason to be content, that this did not happen to me till I was old, and full of riches?

If good angels were ready to receive my soul, could it be any grief to me, that I was dying upon a poor bed in a [dismal one-room flat]? And if God has delivered me up to evil spirits, to be dragged by them to places of torments, could it be any comfort to me, that they found me upon a bed of state? When you are as near death as I am, you will know that all the different states of life, whether of youth or age, riches or poverty, greatness or meanness, signify no more to you than whether you die in a poor or stately apartment.

The greatness of those things which follow death makes all that goes before it sink into nothing. Now that judgment is the next thing that I look for, and everlasting happiness or misery is come so near me, all the enjoyments and prosperities of life seem as vain and insignificant, and to have no more to do with my happiness, than the clothes that I wore before I could speak.

successful-business-woman

But, my friends, how am I surprised that I have not always had these thoughts? For what is there in the terrors of death, in the vanities of life or in the necessities of piety, but what I might have as easily and fully seen in any part of my life? What a strange thing is it, that a little health, or the poor business of a shop, [or the pleasures or goals of earthly life in general,] should keep us so senseless of these great things that are coming so fast upon us!

Just as you came in my chamber, I was thinking with myself, what numbers of souls there are now in the world, in my condition at this very time, surprised with a summons to the other world; some taken from their shops and farms, others from their sports and pleasures, these at suits of law, those at gaming tables, some on the road, others at their own firesides, and all seized at an hour when they thought nothing of it; frightened at the approach of death, confounded at the vanity of all their labors, designs and projects, astonished at the folly of their past lives, and not knowing which way to turn their thoughts, to find any comfort. Their consciences flying in their faces, bringing all their sins to their remembrance, tormenting them with deepest convictions of their own folly, presenting them with the sight of the angry Judge, the worm that never dies, the fire that is never quenched, the gates of hell, the powers of darkness, and the bitter pains of eternal death.

Oh, my friends, bless God that you are not of this number, that you have time and strength to employ yourselves in such works of piety, as may bring you peace at the last. And take this along with you, that there is nothing but a life of great piety, or a death of great stupidity, that can keep off these apprehensions. Had I now a thousand worlds, I would give them all for one year more, that I might present unto God one year of such devotion and good works, as I never before so much as intended. You, perhaps, when you consider that I have lived free from scandal and debauchery, and in the communion of the Church, wonder to see me so full of remorse and self-condemnation at the approach of death. But, alas! what a poor thing is it, to have lived only free from murder, theft, and adultery, which is all that I can say of myself. You know, indeed, that I have never been reckoned a [habitual drunkard], but you are at the same time witnesses, and have been frequent companions of my intemperance, sensuality, and great indulgence. And if I am now going to a judgment, where nothing will be rewarded but good works, I may well be concerned that though I am no [habitual drunkard], yet I have no Christian sobriety to plead for me. It is true, I have lived in the communion of the Church, and generally frequented its worship and service on Sundays, when I was neither too idle nor otherwise disposed of by my business and pleasures. But then, my conformity to the public worship has been rather a thing of course, than any real intention of doing that which the service of the Church supposes … living up to the piety of the Gospel.

not-a-fan

And can it be thought that I have kept the Gospel terms of salvation, without ever so much as intending, in any serious and deliberate manner, either to know them or keep them? Can it be thought that I have pleased God with such a life as He requires, though I have lived without [truly] considering what He requires, or how much I have performed? How easy a thing would salvation be, if it could fall into my careless hands, who have never had so much serious thought about it, as about any one common bargain that I have made? In the business of life I have used prudence and reflection. I have done everything by rules and methods. I have been glad to converse with men of experience and judgment, to find out the reasons why some fail and others succeed in any business. I have taken no step in trade but with great care and caution, considering every advantage or danger that attended it. I have always had my eye upon the main end of business, and have studied all the ways and means of being a gainer by all that I undertook.

But what is the reason that I have brought none of these tempers to religion? What is the reason that I, who have so often talked of the necessity of rules, and methods, and diligence, in worldly business, have all this while never once thought of any rules, or methods, or managements, to carry me on in a life of piety? Do you think anything can astonish and confound a dying man like this? What pain do you think a man must feel, when his conscience lays all this folly to his charge, when it shall show him how regular, exact, and wise he has been in small matters, that are passed away like a dream, and how stupid and senseless he has lived, without any reflection, without any rules, in things of such eternal moment, as no heart can sufficiently conceive them? Had I only my frailties and imperfections to lament at this time, I should lie here humbly trusting in the mercies of God. But, alas! how can I call a general disregard, and a thorough neglect of all religious improvement, a frailty or imperfection, when it was as much in my power to have been exact, and careful, and diligent in a course of piety, as in the business of my trade? I could have called in as many helps, practiced as many rules, and been taught as many certain methods of holy living, as of thriving in my shop, had I but so intended, and desired it.

Oh, my friends! a careless life, unconcerned and unattentive to the duties of religion, is so without all excuse, so unworthy of the mercy of God, such a shame to the sense and reason of our minds, that I can hardly conceive a greater punishment, than for a man to be thrown into the state that I am in, to reflect upon it.

Penitens was here going on, but had his mouth stopped by a convulsion, which never suffered him to speak any more. He lay convulsed about twelve hours, and then gave up the ghost.

Now if every reader would imagine this Penitens to have been some particular acquaintance or relation of his, and fancy that he saw and heard all that is here described; that he stood by his bedside when his poor friend lay in such distress and agony, lamenting the folly of his past life, it would, in all probability, teach him such wisdom as never entered into his heart before. If to this he should consider how often he himself might have been surprised in the same state of negligence, and made an example to the rest of the world, this double reflection, both upon the distress of his friend, and the goodness of that God, who had preserved him from it, would in all likelihood soften his heart into holy tempers, and make him turn the remainder of his life into a regular course of piety.

This therefore being so useful a meditation, I shall here leave the reader, as I hope, seriously engaged in it.

— William Law. A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.

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In every race, only one runner wins. So run the race of life to win it. Every athlete trains hard, to receive merely a perishable wreath. But we will receive an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, or train as if there were no race to win. But I discipline my whole body and conform it in all things to the will and ways of God, lest there be any chance I might lose the race. (1 Corinthians 9:24ff paraphrased)

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Selfish Glory?

gods-glory

God causes suffering in order to bring Himself glory

Ultimately, God’s primary motivation for everything He does — including His work in my life and yours — is to bring Himself glory. With all His divine sovereignty and power, God sets out to ensure that His fame fills the universe and that His greatness is demonstrated in and seen by everything He has made. Sometimes, God’s glory is advanced by giving gifts to His children that cause them to run around squealing with delight. Sometimes, God’s glory is advanced by withholding gifts, enforcing discipline, or otherwise bringing about what we would call “suffering.” God is even glorified by granting us free-will, which opens up the possibility for our outright rebellion, or by severely punishing His enemies, or even by allowing Satan temporary dominion over the earth.

sculptor chiseling art from rockIt’s not as if God is somehow directly glorified in our pain. But God is most certainly glorified in our redemption, which requires great sacrifice and pain. If the stone could feel, it would experience great pain in its being chiseled into a masterpiece for the artist’s benefit, but it would no less be the artist’s right to chisel it.

I’ve met many people who experience a fairly extreme allergic reaction to statements like these. Perhaps you do too. They interpret all this with no small measure of cynicism and incredulity… “So God is willing to sacrifice my happiness or cause me pain just so He can somehow make Himself look good!? And what kind of ‘good’ God looks good because I suffer?!”

Well, in a word, yes, God is willing to sacrifice your happiness for His glory, but I wouldn’t put it exactly in those terms. And I would certainly spend some time unpacking the implications of such a statement to make sure we’re starting with valid assumptions. So, let’s do that…

First, God created the universe, including us. His role as Creator inherently gives Him the right to leverage His creation for His own purposes, which (let’s face it) we don’t truly understand.

Second, why should the world revolve around our happiness? How does that work? If you have kids, do you gauge the value of your parenting by how happy your kids are all the time? We’ve already talked about this at some detail, so we know that the only way to have a remotely healthy view of life is to get yourself out of the center of it.

Third, God is everlasting, all-powerful, infinitely-amazing, utterly-perfect majesty. If anything or anyone was going to be famous, wouldn’t it obviously be Him? In fact, for praise or glory or fame to flow to anyone or anything other than God would constitute a phenomenal injustice. It’s the very definition of idolatry. Such misdirected glory is at the core of every wrong and broken thing in this universe. Far from being some kind of injustice, the only way (by any meter stick) in which things can be right with the world is when, at all costs, God is glorified.

Except by the meter stick that says that *I* should be the one glorified instead of God.

broken-meter-stickIn part, I think one reason we bristle against such comprehensive statements about God’s right to make us implements of His glory because we fear pain. Some of us also reject this thinking because we want the glory for ourselves (the aforementioned faulty meter stick). But I suspect the most common reason is that we dramatically underestimate and undervalue God. We don’t see Him as worthy of relentless glory. In the final analysis, we’re not actually all that concerned with Him. We wrongly consider other things (for example, our personal happiness) to be approximately as valuable as He is.

All of which is because we’ve never really seen God.

But check out the prophet Isaiah’s account of what happened when he came face-to-face with God…

I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above Him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices, the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” (Isaiah 6:1-7)

Come Let us Worship and Bow DownIsaiah really saw God. And as a result, he didn’t protest that somehow God has no right to be glorified at his expense (or do whatever else He wants). Instead, he fell on his face before God and volunteered for whatever mission God wanted to send him on. And in so doing, he set an example for us on many fronts. Ultimately God sent Isaiah to Israel as a prophet who would spend the rest of his life pounding his head against a brick wall … proclaiming God’s word to a people who kept on hearing, but not understanding, who kept on seeing but not perceiving, who had dull hearts and heavy ears and blind eyes. But I guarantee that Isaiah didn’t feel like God had treated him unjustly … especially when He got to heaven and realized that it was all worth it in order to know and love God the way He did (see Isaiah 6:9-10).

Many years later, Isaiah clearly still believed what we too must fully internalize…

Woe to him who strives with Him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to Him who forms it, “What are you making?” or “Your work has no handles!”? Woe to him who says to a father, “What are you begetting?” or to a woman, “With what are you in labor?”

Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, and the One who formed him, “Ask me of things to come; will you command me concerning my children and the work of my hands? I made the earth and created man on it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host. I have stirred him up in righteousness, and I will make all his ways level; he shall build my city [do my work] and set my exiles free [be instruments of justice in my hands], not for price or reward [but because I am his God and he is my son],” says the Lord of Hosts. (Isaiah 45:9-13)

So it is clearly God’s right to form whatever pot He chooses from the clay, or sculpt whatever statue He chooses from the stone. And though the clay and the stone will almost certainly feel discomfort and uncertainty, pain and hardship in the sculpting, they will also feel great wonder and awe as they share in the glory of the One who molds them … because their glory is in their becoming works of art, not in remaining raw materials. Our problem is that we are too enamored with ourselves as raw materials, and not enamored enough with the Artist and the astounding beauty of what the Artist makes.

Will we not look back and consider the pain we experienced in the molding to be well worth it when we are works of art instead of lumps of rock?

Potters hands

Shall the potter be regarded as the clay,
That the thing made should say of its maker,
    “He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
    “He has no understanding”?

Isaiah 29:16


Read more about the goodness of God, and how and why God introduces suffering into our lives.

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Painful Love

mother teresa serving children

God causes suffering in order to perfect others

refiners-fireAlthough it’s sometimes very easy to live like it isn’t true (especially in the American cultural context), the fact is that I’m not the only one in the universe God is working on. God is creating a “bride” for His Son, a diverse body from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages (Revelation 7:9). God does His refining work on a global, all-of-history scale, “that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word, so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:26-27). This means that it’s not all about me, and that God may do a sanctifying work in someone else which costs me something to achieve.

I’ll be honest… This is the point in the conversation where I have struggled the most in my life. I remember how frustrated and resentful it used to make me to think that God might “throw me under the bus” for the sake of someone else’s development. I had very little interest in being the flux added to someone else’s gold refining process. Perhaps you’ve felt the same way? Does it make God a sadist to introduce pain into your life for the sake of another? Does it constitute unjust favoritism on God’s part … a callous using and discarding of one person for the benefit of someone He loves more?

two children sharingThese are all very pertinent and emotional questions, but each of them is focused on the wrong thing … me. We can no more expect to avoid all the pain in the process of God’s redeeming and reconciling His bride than we can expect to horde all the blessing. It’s about sharing. It’s about being one body. And if I want to be more like Jesus, if I want to learn to actually love my neighbor, then wouldn’t I rush to help someone or serve someone, even if it cost me something? This concept of God’s withdrawing from your account (so to speak) to purchase something someone else desperately needs is a classic act of love. It’s what Jesus did for you, isn’t it? And it’s what God has every right to require of those who would say they are His children. It doesn’t make God sadistic or callous, it makes Him consistent…

For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that rebellious, selfish, profane, God-hating, comfort-loving, goodness-hoarding rebels could be made His family and dwell in intimate communion with Him forever (John 3:16, slightly paraphrased).

This reminds me of the story Jesus told about an unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35, in which one servant owed his master a debt so large that he couldn’t have repaid it in several lifetimes. But the master (representing God) was merciful, and in a moment of compassion, forgave the entire, unimaginably-large debt. Overjoyed, the servant rushes out into the street, only to bump into another servant who owes him a few dollars because the first servant had spotted him a burrito at lunch the week before (or equivalent). The second servant didn’t have the money, so he too begs for a continuance — just as the first servant had done with their master. But instead of showing mercy, the first servant (who had been forgiven much) treats the other servant with harsh contempt and throws him in prison. Remember what happened when the master found out…

He summoned [the unforgiving servant] and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart. (Matthew 18:32-35)

The price Jesus paid so that you could be reconciled to God and consecrated as His child was quite literally unimaginable … so much so that it required the incarnation and death of the divine, eternal Son. Who could even truly understand the dramatic scope of that statement, let alone replicate it?! In the face of such a high price paid for your glorification, can you not spare the cost of some pain and suffering in this life — perhaps even extremely difficult (though in any eternal sense, brief) pain and suffering — for the sake of God’s work in someone else? Doesn’t it mean something incredibly profoundly valuable that this, in a way little else could, makes you more like Jesus?

soldier sacrificed for youAnd all that says nothing of the price others have perhaps paid for your sanctification! What has your spouse endured, that you might be drawn into God? What have your parents endured for you? Or your kids? What about the countless soldiers who have fought, bled and died for you? What about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who’s life and imprisonment and death have taught the church about mission and community? What about Joni Eareckson Tada, who was paralyzed in a tragic accident and now reaches millions? What about the Apostle Paul, whose personal sacrifice for the gospel is likely unsurpassed in all of history? What about childbirth and parenthood? We could go on for days.

Do you think you are alone in suffering so that others might be rescued from hell or grow in godliness or be found more in Christ each day? What if we looked at the insanely difficult and complex work that God is doing to redeem the universe as something we are all in together, and are sharing the load of the brokenness of sin in the universe?

We must learn to love! Not pat-someone-likable-on-the-head kind of love, but sacrifice-a-little-bit-like-Jesus kind of love. I think then we would be slower to fixate on or complain about our own pain (even if it is legitimately severe), and quick to rush to the side of others in need.

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24)


Read more about the goodness of God, and how and why God introduces suffering into our lives.

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God’s House of Pain

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God causes suffering in order to perfect us

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God’s goals for His people are exceptionally lofty. He is not satisfied to leave mankind in its fallen state, or to leave the rest of the cosmos broken by sin, for that matter. Instead, He brings about — through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of His Son Jesus — the spectacularly audacious plan of drawing us into Himself. In Christ, we are made perfect and holy (James 1:2-4), reconciled fully to God (2 Cor 5:18-19), considered God’s friends (John 15:15), adopted into God’s family (Ephesians 1:3-6), even made partakers of God’s divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) and united directly with Him (John 17:20-23).

We will be His people, and He will be our God (Ezekiel 37:27; Revelation 21:3).

That is some pretty serious and amazing stuff. But it’s not easy. In fact, it’s SO hard that it required the sacrificial death of God’s very own Son. And even then, it also requires a serious work of refining and regeneration in the lives of God’s people at the hands of the Holy Spirit.

working-out3Simply put, God has not given us life so that we would kick back, live the easy life, and indulge our desires until they become a spiritual beer gut or major heart disease. Instead, God’s love for us is a perfecting love. He refines us as fire refines gold (removing every impurity). He prunes us so that we will bear more fruit. He disciplines us in order that “we may share his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10). He develops in us what we need to run the race to win. At the risk of creating a cheesy metaphor, God works us hard at the gym (the “House of Pain”? — sorry!) to develop muscle where there was once flab, fitness where there was once dysfunction, confidence where there was once fear, and holiness where there was once self-indulgent pride.

working-out6All these processes are painful and difficult. They all necessarily inflict discomfort and take from us that which we, in an earthly state of mind, would rather keep. But that’s because God is doing something greater in us than we understand or could do for ourselves. Until you’ve felt firsthand the benefits of being in shape (or the even more painful consequences of being severely out of shape), it’s very difficult to desire the challenge and pain of working out hard to get in shape.

Nobody is prepared to win the race without the pain of training.


Read more about the goodness of God, and how and why God introduces suffering into our lives.

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Idol-Snatching Ninjas

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God causes suffering in order to wrestle our idols away from us

Pain and suffering play a key role in our sanctification. Without them, we might become content with earthly things, which cannot ultimately satisfy us. When life is peachy, we tend to ignore God. Only when life becomes hard, do most of us acknowledge our frailty and cry out to Him. God’s purpose and desire for us is far greater than anything that earthly possessions or ambitions or the American dream could possibly have to offer. If God allowed us to bow down and worship those idols in peace and happiness, undisturbed by divinely-ordained, attention-getting, distraction-shattering pain, we would end up destroying ourselves. Many of our earthly desires are nice to have, some even seem essentially, but can anything in this world actually contend with the greatness of the heavenly benefits God would readily give us? Not a chance! What God gives us not only lasts forever (unlike anything else we could long for), but is also better for us today (whether we realize it or not).

teens-textingAugustine has said that “God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full — there’s nowhere for Him to put it.” We view it as an unbearable suffering to have what we love ripped from our kung fu death grip, but that’s only because we (in our inestimably pervasive idolatry) do not rightly assess the relative value of that thing compared to that which God is trying to hand us instead. Even very good things can become temptations which we desire too much for a loving God to let us keep them … because they would displace the amazing fruit He desires to bear in our lives if we would just allow Him to do so.

I may want a child more than anything in the world. And it is indeed terribly difficult to be unable to have children. But is it possible that God has purposely sent such a trial — withholding the blessing of children — in order that I might worship Him instead of worshiping parenthood?

asleep-at-workI may have gotten passed over for the 3rd promotion in just as many years, maybe even for unjust reasons, and it hurts to think that life is so unfair. But is it possible that, knowing me as He does, God is acting intentionally to ensure that I will not love position or power or prosperity more than I love Him?

CS Lewis writes about a friend who once said that “we regard God as an airman regards his parachute: it’s there for emergencies but he hopes he’ll never have to use it.” This view of God leads to hell. A good and loving God, explicitly then, may use what we call suffering to wake us up to the reality that God is not a parachute. He’s a King! If that suffering can derail our idolatrous self-sufficiency and drive us to a place of hard-fought willingness to lay down our pocket gods and pick up the much greater life of worship and eternal union with God, then God considers suffering to be eminently worth it.


Read more about the goodness of God, and how and why God introduces suffering into our lives.

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God’s Megaphone

danger sign coastal defences

God causes suffering in our lives in order to warn us about sin

danger_zoneCS Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain,

The human spirit will not even begin to try to surrender self will as long as all seems to be well with it. Now error and sin both have this property, that the deeper they are the less their victim suspects their existence; they are masked evil. Pain is unmasked, unmistakable evil; every man knows that something is wrong when he is being hurt.

God uses pain to get our attention … to identify “error and sin,” as Lewis puts it, in our lives. If we were perfect, bound for heaven (eternal unity with a perfectly holy God), and living a sin-free existence, then pain would have no place in our lives … as it will have no place in heaven. But since we are in this life anything but perfect and are everyday greedily accumulating the wages for our sin — which is death (Romans 6:23) —, how incredibly unloving and un-good would God be if He allowed us to barrel uninterrupted toward death in our comfort and ease and apathy?! God loves us far too much for that.

megaphoneInstead, God uses pain, again quoting Lewis, as a “megaphone” used to call us off the road to hell:

We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities; and anyone who has watched gluttons shoveling down the most exquisite foods as if they did not know what they were eating, will admit that we can ignore even pleasure.

But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world. A bad man, happy, is a man without the least inkling that his actions do not “answer”, that they are not in accord with [God’s laws].

In other words, if there were no pain and no suffering, then there would be nothing to tell a bad man that he is in fact being bad. And he would dance with merriment and comfort in (painless) sin until he suddenly woke up in hell! We already know about this kind of pain in the physical dimension of life, because it warns us to stop what we’re doing before our bodies get hurt. For example, what if there was no pain from heat? Would we not then be in far more danger of routinely being burned alive?

campfireI once burned my hand on a hot stove as a kid. 2nd degree. Not good. Mega painful! But imagine sticking your hand on a hot stove and not feeling pain… You’re distracted in conversation, and casually lean on the stove while you chat. You become burned, but don’t notice. While you stand there, the severity of the burn ratchets up from stage to stage, but you haven’t yet smelled burnt flesh so you don’t know it. You literally catch fire. It’s down to the bone now. You’re being burnt worse and worse until you’re eventually left with nothing but a charred stump that has to be amputated. Um … bad day! I know it’s graphic, but that’s exactly what would happen without the pain God built into the “system” to tell you something is wrong.

cliff-road-guard-railsSo is it in the spiritual world. The danger of sin is very real. Hell — eternal separation from God for our rebellion — is very real. Because God loves us, He inflicts pain to keep us on the narrow road … to get our attention when we start to veer off course into danger. It hurts to scrape against the guard rails at the top of the mountain, but it would hurt a lot worse to careen over the cliff and plummet to our deaths 1,000 feet below because the (admittedly painful) guard rails weren’t there to protect us.

Some suffering sent by God is the suffering of guardrails and searing heat. Would you really want to try to live without them?

Thomas Aquinas said of suffering, as Aristotle has said of shame, that it was a thing not good in itself, but a thing which might have a certain goodness in particular circumstances. That is to say, if evil is present, pain, at recognition of the evil, being a kind of knowledge, is relatively good. For the alternative is that the soul shall be ignorant of the evil, or ignorant that the evil is contrary to [the soul’s] nature. Either of which, says the philosopher, is manifestly bad. And I think, though we tremble, we agree.

—CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain


Read more about the goodness of God, and how and why God introduces suffering into our lives.

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God’s Goodness vs Refining Fire

refiners-fire3

How can a “good” God directly cause suffering?

(Question 4 of 8 in the Goodness of God series)

The world is full of pain and suffering, but not all pain and suffering is the same. We’ve already talked about the fact that some of the sources of suffering in our world come from sin (ours and on the part of others) and some is more or less in our heads. Some of what we call “suffering” is rooted in a failure to have our expectations met. I wanted a relationship to work out, but it didn’t. I wanted a promotion, but it didn’t happen. I lost big on a financial deal. Etc. This suffering is very real, but is probably best addressed by training ourselves to fix our hearts and eyes upon Jesus … to increasingly reorient our lives away from worldly desires and toward seeing the world the way God does.

Other suffering is so serious and painful that I can hardly bear to describe it, and can only be explained by the presence of evil in human suffering. For example, how many shootings and other violent public acts (racially motivated or otherwise) are we up to in 2016 alone? And I was just reading about a teenage girl named Elisabeth who had been kidnapped at the age of 16 and sold into forced prostitution in South Asia, until she was rescued by International Justice Mission. THAT is suffering. And evil! And it doesn’t even get into all the wars and famine and oppression that goes on every day in our world.

In all these cases, when we feel that the world is collapsing around us or are watching injustice play out so vividly in the lives of others, it’s easy to question our theology, “Is there a God? If so, who is He? What is He really like?” and to ask, “Where is God in the midst of all this suffering?!”

The Question of God’s Sovereignty

Given these questions, we could quickly and easily quagmire into a debate about what it means for God to be “sovereign”. Does God cause everything or does He simply “allow” certain things? Does God do and know everything, or position Himself to react to our choices out of His exhaustive knowledge of all our possible choices? How do we understand the concepts of predestination and free-will? Etc.

Many thousands, perhaps millions, of pages have been written on this topic over the course of thousands of years, so I’m not going to try to tackle it here. There is a sense in which God allows the suffering that Satan or the sinful choices of others inflicts on our lives, as we’ve discussed. But there is also a very real sense in which God actively causes suffering in our lives. And it is with this presupposed reality that I would like to contend for a moment.

God directly causes suffering

Maybe you’re thinking, “I don’t buy it! Why in the world would a good God intentionally cause me to suffer?!”

As I see it, there are five important reasons…

1) … In order to warn us about sin

danger sign coastal defencesGod uses pain and suffering as a megaphone to get our attention. They are guardrails on the road of life. Just as fire burns us when we get too close, causing us pain to prevent our doing serious damage to our bodies, so the burning pain of this life prevents our doing serious damage to the next. Would a loving God allow us to walk around without those safeguards in place?

Read more about God’s Megaphone.

2) … In order to wrestle our idols away from us

idol-snatching ninjaGod uses pain and suffering to wrench our idols away from us … to draw us away from worshipping useless things to worshipping Him. How unloving would it be of God to allow us to be fat, dumb and happy in our idolatrous lives, as we careened into hell? So He introduces suffering to create dissatisfaction with this life and longing for Him and His Kingdom.

Read more about Idol-Snatching Ninjas.

3) … In order to perfect us

God's house of pain working-out5God isn’t interested in making us just good enough to have a better next Tuesday. There’s no such thing as being a little bit redeemed. God’s vision for us is total and complete perfection. If we wanted the perfect body, we would have to work and sweat and bleed to get it. We’d spend a LOT of time at the gym, and it would hurt! Why do we think perfection of heart and soul would be any less painful?

Read more about God’s House of Pain.

4) … In order to perfect others

mother teresa serving childrenGod is no less interested in the sanctification of others than He is in yours. But we can get so fixated on ourselves, that we never consider what sacrificial love might look like and how valuable it might be to God. The ultimate example of this kind of love is Jesus, who, though He was God, suffered immeasurably for us. If we claim to love Him, wouldn’t we insist on being at least a little like Him in the way that we sacrifice for others?

Read more about Painful Love.

5) … In order to bring Himself glory

gods-gloryGod is the great Artist of this universe. In the same way that a sculptor is due the glory for what he creates from gloriless lumps of stone, so God is due the glory for His work in our lives. Through the artist’s creative genius, even the stone (once crafted into a beautiful sculpture) takes on a reflection of that glory, so God makes us glorious as well. And just as it would be painful for the stone to be sculpted if it were alive, but it would consider it worth it in the end, so will it be in eternity when we reflect back on God’s amazing (but often painful) work in our lives.

Read more about Selfish Glory.

Conclusion

We are God’s handiwork. He is a good God and a loving Father. He is transcendently holy and utterly beyond us, and He does what we cannot understand. He gives us free-will out of that goodness, love and holiness, even though the consequences will be dire. He then redirects all the evil that comes from our choices into purifying, redeeming and reconciling us. He sacrificed Jesus to accomplish that. He even uses Satan and his brood to that end. He uses pain and suffering in our lives and uses us in each others’ lives. And in the end, after all the pain and suffering in this world has done its part in our redeeming work and all evil has been finally destroyed, those of us who choose to see and choose to submit, whom God has called unto Himself, will recognize the genius of it all, and…

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Revelation 7:9-12)

worship-together


Epilogue: The “Complex Good”

A merciful man aims at his neighbor’s good and so does “God’s will”, consciously co-operating with “the simple good”. A cruel man oppresses his neighbor, and so does simple evil. But in doing such evil, he is used by God, without his own knowledge or consent, to produce the complex good – so that the first man serves God as a son, and the second as a tool. For you will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John. The whole system is, so to speak, calculated for the clash between good men and bad men, and the good fruits of fortitude, patience, pity and forgiveness for which the cruel man is permitted to be cruel, presuppose that the good man ordinarily continues to seek simple good. [But if ordinary men seek simple evil,] it is not indeed to break the divine scheme but to volunteer for the post of Satan within that scheme. If you do his work, you must be prepared for his wages.

— CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain


The Goodness of God Series

  1. How do we know that God is good?
  2. If God is good, why didn’t I get what I want?
  3. Why do bad things happen to good people?
  4. Where does evil come from?
  5. How can a good God directly cause suffering?
  6. Should we actively avoid suffering?
  7. How can a good God send people to hell?
  8. Does God change His mind?

CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain

For further reading on this extremely deep and difficult subject, I recommend the following from CS Lewis, whose exceptional work has benefited me greatly in thinking through this issue:

Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain. Revised ed., New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2015.

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