God causes suffering in our lives in order to warn us about sin
CS 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.
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?
I 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.
So 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.