Conversatio Divina

Part 1 of 18

Finding God in the Midst of Pain and Suffering

Gary W. Moon

01.  Introduction

A tailor prayed, “Lord, I cheat on pieces of cloth; you let babies die. But I am going to make you a deal. You forgive me my little sins and I’ll forgive you your big ones.”

Lew Smedes included that haunting anecdote in his important little book, Forgive and Forget.See Lewis Smedes. Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve (New York: HarperCollins, 1984), 111. He uses it to call attention to a concept that might be more comfortable to ignore: theodicyTheodicy is the attempt to solve the riddle of how God can be all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing, and yet bad things happen to good people. and the problem of pain. Or more to the heart of the matter, what is the impact of our pain and suffering on the way we view God?

We are promised pain in this world (John 16:33), but can we find the promise of a loving God in the pain? Trying to find a personal answer to that question is one of the reasons Smedes’s story has stuck with me through the years. I read it while still reeling in the pain and confusion caused by the death of my best friend and cousin. Chuck died tragically at age twenty-one. He was a young man sprinkled with stardust, having a brilliant mind, amazing musical talent, and an adoring girlfriend. His shocking death almost killed my uncle. And it wounded a lot of people’s faith.

While my uncle was in the midst of a living hell, several “counselors” tried to help. Three were memorable, in part because each was speaking from one of the classic theodicies—Augustinian, Irenaean, and Kushnerian. Each meant well.

An Augustinian comforter—my uncle’s pastor at the time—encouraged him to blame sin and the Fall for what happened but not God. It seemed to my uncle that the primary motivator for that helper was to relieve the Creator of any responsibility for the existence of evil.See, J. Hick, Evil and the God of Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), 236. The blame was placed, instead, squarely on the shoulders of dependent beings that have misused their freedom. Much talk was made of “the Fall” and “original sin,” as evil and tragedy were renamed based on philosophical justifications.

To my uncle, the chasm dug by the Augustinian apologist—between the God who continues to make creatures who are cursed and the God of love and comfort so often described by Jesus—seemed so great that he could not imagine crossing it during that time of dark suffering.

An Irenaean counselor—the hospital chaplain—assured my uncle that “there is always a purpose in everything that is allowed to happen, and there is always a good and justifiable reason. You will see much good come from all this in time.”

An Irenaean type of theodicy stands in marked contrast to the Augustinian type. There was no attempt to relieve God of the responsibility of evil. The main motivating interest seemed to be showing my uncle that while God is fully in charge, evil exists for good and justifiable reasons. Just as the body of an athlete is strengthened through the pain and stress of rigorous exercise, the soul can only mature in an environment that permits pain. No pain, no gain.

To say the least, the words of this comforter left my uncle cold. He felt the young man was minimizing his present pain while asking him to look through his profound grief and catch a glimpse of the future good. Surely a man bleeding from the stumps of two amputated legs would not be expected to ignore his pain and experience joy at the news that someday prosthetic procedures will provide him with new legs which will allow him to dunk a basketball.

The third helper could have been called a Kushnerian—after Rabbi Kushner, who wrote the popular book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He wrote the book as a result of living a personal nightmare. He watching his son die of old age before he was fifteen. His son suffered from progeria, rapid aging.

The Kushnerian comforter said to my uncle words very similar to these: “I heard about the terrible tragedy. It’s horrible. Senseless. As someone who is also a Christian—and who recently lost a son—I just wanted to leave you with a few words that will, hopefully, be of comfort. God is not perfect. He has let you down by permitting this tragedy. But never, not for a second, think that he doesn’t love you. Although he can’t—or at least doesn’t—stop tragedy, he loves you deeply.”

So much of this theodicy is appealing. It is aimed at the heart. The focus is not on the responsibility of either God or humanity. A strong case is made for the randomness or natural origins of much evil. What is primary is our reaction to tragedy. It is “the ability to forgive and the ability to love [that] are the weapons God has given us to enable us to live fully, bravely.”See H. S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Avon, 1983), 148.

So much of Kushner’s thesis is appealing, but it is doubly distressing that he leaves us with something less than God. Where the Augustinian and Irenaean positions go through elaborate gyrations in an attempt to preserve both God’s goodness and his power, Kushner is willing to sacrifice God’s power on a cross that will not tolerate paradox and mystery. If the Augustinians err in overemphasis on the past, and Irenaeans err in overemphasis on the future, it seems that Kushnerians err in the magnification of the present. None of these positions proved helpful to my uncle.

Immediately following my cousin’s death, I became a student in seminary. I found myself composing personal theodicies that I hoped to share with my uncle someday. The best of the lot all started with the letter “p.”

I could tell him that we don’t yet have God’s perspective, his cosmic vantage point. If we did, we could see that evil and pain are like the grass while the righteousness and goodness of God are like a seedling that grows with time into a towering palm tree.

Or I might tell him about Jesus as the ultimate tennis player, who participated in our suffering. “He is with you now,” I would say, “and on your side of the net. With his help we can return any shot that is hit. He isn’t the one hitting the tough shots. He isn’t in the stands passively watching the action. He is standing behind you. With his help you can return any shot.”

But in the end I settled on paradox. Profound religious truth, it seems, is always found in paradox. The small vessel that is our intellect can’t contain the vast truth of God. Divine intelligence always sloshes out on both sides. We are like children trying to understand the minds of an adult. Just as an infant cannot understand how an object can still be present in a room when it is hidden from vision, we cannot fathom how God’s love can still exist when it becomes concealed by tragedy. Evil is not a problem. Problems have solutions. Evil is a mystery. It defies solution through human intellect. Only faith can remove us from the dark dilemma.

In time I did share some of my thoughts with my uncle in a letter. He has kept that letter for years, and by God’s grace he attributes the words written on that now-faded paper with keeping him alive. But it wasn’t the reasoning that I scribbled that brought him life, it was the emotion inserted between those written words. And it was the compassion of other helpers who simply sat with him, offering no more than watery eyes. That is what he needed. That is what kept him alive.

We’ve dedicated this issue to facts of evil and pain. The existence of these two twin demons may well be the most serious objection to belief in a God of love. It is not surprising that so many attempts have been made to preserve God’s love in the presence of human pain and suffering. As you read about the “problem of pain,” we hope that you’ll experience the promise of God’s love in the pain.

02.  What You’ll Find First in This Issue:

This issue begins with reflections on Job and the problem of theodicy from theologian, Jerry Gladson. Then Philip Yancey enters into a transparent conversation on the topic, “What good is God, in a pain saturated world?” Several writers—Pat Russell, Don Simpson, Keith Meyer, Mark Buchanan and Larry Crabb—write bold and inspiring accounts of personal experiences with pain and disease in their bodies. Richard J. Foster provides a very balanced overview of the dark side of spiritual reality, Satan, and then offers practical considerations for dealing with demonic forces. And Jan Johnson reminds us that we are with a God who weeps with and for us.

And before Mindy Caliguire gets the “last word,” you’ll hear from our team of feature writers: Ken Boa, Ruth Haley Barton, Kim Engelmann, Michael Glerup and Robert Spiotta. With each of our writers you’ll continue to observe the desire to present you with the takeaway of something practical. May this issue help you to hold on to a God who is all loving and all powerful—even in the midst of your pain and suffering.

03.  Forgiving God

Problem, paradox, promise. In the coming pages, you’ll read the candid, raw and moving stories of people who have wrestled with pain. We hope to offer you more than just stories, though. Our desire is to bring support, inspiration and even hope. In that light, we’re publishing the full-length article “Forgiving God: A matter of heart over head” by our executive editor, Gary w. moon, on our website.


Gary W. Moon, Executive Director of the Dallas Willard Center for Christian Spiritual Formation at Westmont College, founded (with David G. Benner and Larry Crabb) Conversations Journal, directs the Renovaré Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation and has authored several books. He still teaches at Richmont Graduate University when they let him.