If there is a question that has endured the test of time, this is the one: If God is good, why is there suffering in the world?
To be 100% honest with you, I don’t know the answer. Sure, I’ve tackled why evil is necessary for love, which is a similar conversation. But I don’t think I’ve ever answered this question directly. Neither can I now. But I do think the question behind the question is pretty interesting.
We can safely assume that whenever someone asks how pain exists in the world if God is good, what they are really struggling with is how the two coexist. In other words, does the presence of pain and suffering disprove a) that God exists, or b) if he does exist, that he is not good. This works from the assumed absolute that pain and good are opposite each other. Why might even substitute the word evil for pain and suffering to ask the question, “If God is good, why is there evil in the world.” Why I believe is a very different questions. Pain, suffering and evil are not synonymous.
In fact, part of the problem with the conversations that occur around this topic is that everyone is not working off the same sheet of music. Though the question is worded the same, what the question actually means is often different from person to person. Which means folks in the conversation often think they are talking about the same idea, when they are not.
So then, if we are really looking for answers we have to recognize the subjective nature of the question. All the main parts are subjective: God, good, pain, and suffering. As evidenced by the mosaic religious landscape of our world, “God” means different things to different people. As does the words good, pain, and suffering. We could run the gamut on meanings of these words, and on some level we’d all probably be partially right. Still, if we really want to have a productive conversation about the question, we must agree on what these four subjective ideas actually mean. And that’s quite the challenge.
So then, let’s discuss it together. I will provide a summary of my definition of these words, and we can try to hold our conversation in the comment section.
God is the ultimate transcendent being. He is outside of time and error. He is the creator and sustainer of our world. I hold that God has all power, is all knowing, and is basically everywhere, all the time. Because of this belief, I hold that God is unable to be grasped fully by humanity. I believe God always existed (was not created), and that humanity has a special place in his view. God is the ultimate authority and judge to which all created things submit. He is highest form of wisdom, love and justice.
This is probably the most subjective concept of all the words. I believe goodness is ultimately determined by purpose. That is, how good a thing is is determined by how well it fulfills its original purpose. A “good” wrench will work on the most stubborn of bolts. How good a fridge is can be determined by well it keeps things cold. And on and on. This of course means that we must understand the purpose for a thing’s existence or an event’s occurrence to judge how good it really is. For example, on the surface, adding eye drops to your eye will sting and hurt… and thus equal a “bad” experience. Except, the eye drops are meant to cure some eye ailment, and if a little stinging is the result of such a cure, it’s a good thing. In this sense, a weak eye drop solution (that may not sting) may feel soothing, but be seen as “bad ” for its ineffectiveness.
So then, goodness is tied to purpose. And purpose is tied to its creator.
We referenced a form of pain in the definition of “good” when we offered the eye drop example. Pain has to do with comfort, or lack thereof. Pain, it seems, is defined by an extreme discomfort in a given moment. Though most of the time, pain brings with it a negative connotation, I see it rather neutral. I have experienced pain that was both detrimental and healing, and the amount of discomfort was the same for both. Most commonly pain is a warning signal that something is infringing on the natural course of a thing. We feel pain with the prick of a needle because our fingers don’t expect to be pricked. We feel pain when a spouse cheats on us because we don’t expect they would break the bond a committed relationship. We feel pain when our fingers bend the wrong way, when the our bodies are invaded by outside germs, and when someone breaks our unwritten moral codes.
But we also feel pain (or discomfort) when we have finished a mile run. We have experienced discomfort when we have finished a surgical procedure, or had to ask someone to forgive us for some way we’ve hurt them. We experienced pain when we hear “no” from our parents when we wanted to touch the pretty fire.
In the end, pain must be viewed with some neutrality, because that’s the way it functions. We can, then, simply define pain as “uncomfortable feeling.”
Suffering refers to a prolonged state of pain. It is, in essence, the same as pain but for a longer stretch.
Now these definitions are intentionally cold and without emotion. And that is intentional. Because one of the big hurdles to understanding the harmony of the existence of a good God with pain and suffering is the emotional baggage we attach to the words. It seems most beneficial to look at the words as neutral as possible so that we can really reconcile them.
So now that we have defined the words, let’s chat about it. Do you agree with these definitions? And if so, how then, do you reconcile a good God with pain and suffering?
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