Pain

Sep 23, 1999 |J. Budziszewski

With headlines so full of senseless tragedy, how can you reconcile the goodness of God with the pain and suffering of this world?

One day it pleased the triune God to test the heavenly beings. "Having created the heavens and peopled it with yourselves," He said, "I will now create a world, peopling it with the children of men. If its fashioning were up to you, how would this mighty work be done?" All His realms fell into silence as the spirits considered His question. With the swiftness of the spheres they took counsel, each with the next, all through their ninefold ranks: Cherubim, Seraphim, and Thrones, Dominations, Virtues, and Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and Angels, and then back up again.

One of the multitude, bright as a falling star, stood forth to give the spirits' answer. "The question is beyond us, Mighty One. Yet because it pleases You to ask us, we would advise after this fashion. Do not make the children of men in Your image, because Your holiness must not be demeaned by imitation. Do not give them freedom, because they might use it for ill. If you do give them power to sin, then do not let their deeds have consequences, because they might hurt themselves. So fashion the world that bullets do not pierce, wounds do not bleed, hatred wants the best, betrayal has no barb, and promises can be shattered and yet fulfilled. Make your creation invulnerable to their sins, that its goodness may be preserved.

"But if you will not do these things, Eternal One, then above all hold yourself aloof from them. Yea, should they bring suffering upon themselves, let them bear it alone, for you are God."

God replied to the heavenly beings, "You have answered according to the measure of your wisdom; now hear what I will do. I will make men in my image, that My Name may be glorified among them. I will give them freedom, for if they have no power to rebel, then neither will they have power to love. Know then that they will be my children, not my pets. I will give them abundant power to hurt themselves, for if their deeds have no consequences, then neither will they have meaning. I will make them the lords of my creation, every inch of it vulnerable to them, because they themselves are my chief work and the apple of my eye. Know then that if they fall, all nature will groan like a woman in travail.

"Above all, I will not hold myself aloof from them. Though I go to make a world in which pain and sorrow are possible because of them, I will take the worst of it upon myself. Already I foresee their sin; already I am slain. Yea, I will make myself one of them, I will sweat drops of blood, I will die that they may live."

Hearing God, the angelic beings were amazed, and longed to look into these things. But some of them were scandalized, and there was war in heaven.

It is scandalous, isn't it? There is that in us which would side with the rebellious angels. We don't want a God who suffers; we don't want a God of such terrifying good. God lifts us to such a height that we are capable of ruining ourselves, and we say "Thanks, but no thanks." He bears the penalty of our sins, and we say "How dare you call it sin?" He comes to share our burdens, and we say "Couldn't you just make us comfortable?" He offers the privilege of sharing His sufferings so that we may share His glory, and we say "You call that a privilege?" Yes, and when He promises that one day He will wipe every tear from our eyes, we say "We would rather not cry in the first place."

We want a God whose goodness is of some other kind than His holiness. And so when John Donne writes "Truly ... affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it," we gape as though Donne were a madman — and to the eyes of the world, I suppose he is.

But Donne was right. In this fallen world, the door of love is named Sacrifice and the door of wisdom Pain. Looking back over the decades, I see that I have learned almost nothing from my good times, almost all from my bad ones. God's mercy I learned only after deserting Him; His wisdom only after discovering that I was a fool; His calling only after I had burned out my ambitions. I learned to honor my father only when his body was old and sick, his mind and memory crumbling, and I had to be father to him. When one of my children was in rebellion and I was close to despair, I accused God, in prayer, like this: "Lord, we're told that you can sympathize with our weaknesses because when you became man, you shared in everything but our sin. But it isn't true. There is something you haven't shared. In your earthly life, you were never a father."

He replied to me in words: "Am I not?"

My body shook with the shock of memory and comprehension. "I and the Father are one." "He who has seen Me has seen the Father." "When you pray, say 'Father ...'" How could I have forgotten these Scriptures? Obviously, because I had never understood them. There was some level which even the story of the Prodigal had never touched. God is the Model for all fathers, not a copy, but the Original from which all earthly fatherhood is drawn. He knew all about a father's suffering, for He knew His own.

There are blackboard solutions to the problem of suffering, perfectly good as far as they go, but they only scratch the surface. When Job asked the reason for his pain, God did not recite logical formulae. What He did was pay a visit; His answer was Himself. The visit could not have been an easy one, for he came to Job in the whirlwind. But Job was satisfied.

When we see Him face to face, so shall we be satisfied; those who seek His face will praise His name. Blessed is the name of the Lord.

Copyright 1999 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.

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