Why is there so much pain in the world?
Thank you for your letter. I grieve over the heartache in the world too. The Boundless staff has already referred you to the article “Pain,” so I won’t cover that ground again. However, I do want to speak to you about how to interpret the trial that you are experiencing. There are many different kinds of “dark night of the soul,” and they do not all have the same roots.
A sensitivity to suffering so great that you want to cry all the time may be any of four things. It may be the first sign of a strong gift which will eventually empower you for ministry, like the tears of the “weeping prophet,” Jeremiah. This doesn’t mean you don’t need help, because if your unusual sensitivity to the pain of others is a gift, then you need to learn how to use it instead of being crushed by it. What it does mean is that you need spiritual rather than psychological help. Do you have a spiritual advisor? Your minister, or perhaps one of your teachers? If so, turn to your spiritual advisor now. If not, find one immediately — preferably, an older person of greater spiritual discernment and maturity, and of the same sex as yourself.
The second possibility is that your grief is a sign, not of a spiritual gift, but of a psychological affliction. If this is the case, then you should regard it not as equipment for ministry but as a hindrance to ministry. In this case the psychological approach would be appropriate, but you need to consult a Christian rather than a non-believing psychologist, one who understands the difference between a gift and an affliction. I have a friend who is bipolar, and I thank God for the medicine which enables him to live normally. Yet what a loss it would have been had the prophet Jeremiah merely been diagnosed as depressive and given pills.
The third possibility is that your tears are a sign, neither of a spiritual gift nor of a psychological affliction, but of grievous experiences that you need help in dealing with. They may past experiences, like the sorrow of your parents divorcing or of your father dying. Or they may be present experiences, like people who make impossible demands or whom you don’t know how to love. Perhaps you didn’t allow yourself to grieve when you needed to, and the grief has returned to you now. Or perhaps you need guidance in dealing with some difficult person or situation. Here too you need counsel — but a different kind of counsel than in either of the two previous cases.
The fourth possibility is that your great sadness is a sign neither of a spiritual gift, a psychological affliction, nor a grievous experience, but of something in your life which you have not yet yielded to the Lord. Most often, the unyielded thing is a sin. It may be a sin which you have tried to forget. In this case too you need help — someone to confess to, who can help you repent, who can help you get back on the right track. For example, many men and women suffer agony because at some point in their lives they committed the sin of abortion. That’s why crisis pregnancy centers run Christ-centered recovery groups.
It is crucial that — with help — you discern which one of these four possibilities is actually the case. If what you are experiencing is the first sign of a gift, then the gift needs to be purified and developed; if it is an affliction, then the affliction needs to be healed and overcome; if it is a grief, then the grief needs counsel and consolation; and if it is a sign of something you have not yielded to God, then you must yield that thing to Him.
Asking God to show you which of these is the case, I think, should be the focus of your prayers for the time being. Don’t worry that prayer itself brings out the tears: “[T]he Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27, RSV). Remember too that the Lord has kept count of your tossings; He keeps your tears in His bottle (Psalm 56:8, RSV).
Now this is important: Don’t cut yourself off from friends, from worship, from your normal activities, or from your mentors during this time of trial. Don’t yield to the temptations to sloth and despondency which are sometimes strong at such times. Confide in your spiritual advisor, and ask for the help of your advisor’s prayers and counsel in discerning the meaning of your experiences. Pray for wisdom not only for yourself, but for your spiritual advisor, and pray that God’s good will, in allowing these things to come to pass, may be done.
I will pray for you too. “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Psalm 30:5, RSV).
Grace and peace,
Copyright 2001 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Professor J. Budziszewski is the author of more than a dozen books, including How to Stay Christian in College, Ask Me Anything, Ask Me Anything 2, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, and The Line Through the Heart. He teaches government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin.