It’s been almost a year since I saw a doctor for fatigue, which led me to a diagnosis of chronic migraines and treatment using Topamax, an anti-seizure medication. For almost a year I have been tracking my pain on a calendar: red for pain, yellow for fatigue, green for “Hallelujah I actually feel good!” There have been woefully few greens. Finally I got tired of the side-effects of Topamax (mostly the inability to focus, which was becoming a true impairment), and I am almost completely weaned off and trying to cope with my migraines without medication. Lifestyle changes, less stress, that sort of thing.
All this to say, I feel pretty intimate with pain. I have given it a lot of thought in the last year, read a lot about it, and have been trying to understand it. Why does God allow pain? Why do some of us suffer a lot—some every day—and other people seem to just coast through? Really, it’s the same question people have been asking forever: why is there suffering? The same question Siddhartha wondered about. The same question non-Christians ask about God. Why would a loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God allow suffering and pain?
The main argument here is that God loved us so much that he gave us free will; free will leads to choice; choices lead to pain and suffering. God’s creation, which could have been perfect had we just left well enough alone, is not perfect because we have exercised free will. We have chosen to exclude God. We think we can do better without Him. We have historically and continually pushed Him away, and He has honored that choice, the same way that He also honors the choice to welcome Him with mercy and grace and forgiveness. We come to Him freely, and He returns love freely to us. Without this ability to choose, we wouldn't have been the beings He longed for. Because God longed for us to love Him freely, He needed to create free will, and therefore the possibility of pain, suffering and evil. C.S. Lewis says it this way: “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.” C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.
If you have a hard time with the logic of that argument, watch this little video which makes it super easy to understand:
But what about pain not arising out of free will? What about my migraines? Childhood illnesses? Famine? What about losing a loved one? What about a healthy man I know who was suddenly struck down with three life-threatening illnesses at the same time? I struggle with this question, and some of the “pat” answers have always seemed a little empty to me. But I was totally floored recently when I read this, and I need to share it with you:
“The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word ‘love’, and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. “Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.” Rev. 4:11. We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the Divine love may rest “well pleased.” The Problem of Pain, 40-41. (Emphasis mine).
This was a new perspective for me, and while it doesn't answer the question of why God allows suffering, it gave me a new perspective on suffering itself. In our culture which celebrates everything “Me,” including documenting every movement on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and in our evangelical culture which celebrates how I love God, how I need him, how I come to him to worship, the idea of me being beside the point is a little...different. Yes, I believe how I approach God is important. But to take me out of it a little, and remember that I am also the object of His love...well, that changes everything.
So what does it mean (when I am on Day Six of a crushing migraine and would sooner drive a pickaxe into my forehead than look at this computer) that I was made for God to love me, and not (primarily) vice versa? It means that my pain is beside the point. Or rather, it means that I need to continue to worship him, even when in pain. Continue to allow Him to love me, by inviting Him in. In the face of His magnificent, overwhelming, tender love for me, I find that my suffering truly pales. I suspect that response is what He’s after. When we are at our most physically strained, when we are at our most emotionally drained, when we have been beaten down by a world that is fallen and falling around us, the positioning of my soul toward God as it says, “yes, God, you are holy,” that is the fulfillment of His love for us.
I was praying recently, about coming down off of my medication. Worried about an onslaught of headaches, I asked, “God, please will you cure me?” God told me no, that I will still sometimes have pain. But He asked me, in the infinitely patient way He has with my stubborn self, to keep my eyes on Him anyway. I don’t know how to always do that, but if I try, and manage it even part of the time, I trust that the effort alone will bear enough fruit to nourish me as I suffer.
On Easter, this glorious holiday celebrating the resurrection of Christ, it’s worth it to mention that God knows our pain. He experienced every ounce of it on the cross. You are not alone, no matter what you suffer, for Christ has already experienced it with you. In fact, God had to become man in order to experience pain in the first place, and He chose to do so facing the pain not only of whipping and crucifixion but also of every human sin and anguish. He did it in order to know you, the one He truly loves. He created you to love you, and then He joined you in your sufferings as well. He is with you now, loving you and wanting nothing more than your love, freely given, in all circumstances.