Divine Love and Human Suffering

Have you ever been in a position where God seems so distant? Where you come to question His very power or benevolence, or both? Many of us find ourselves in this place after a tragic event or intense period of suffering. We cry out to God, but we can’t seem to find answers. We scream and wail, only to encounter silence.

C.S. Lewis once articulated a problem related to human suffering:

“If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness or power or both. This is the problem of pain in its’ simplest form”

The Problem of Pain, Chapter 2

This world is filled with evil and suffering. If you haven’t experienced this phenomenon yet, you’re simply living under a rock. In light of this suffering, how in the world could we ever picture or even worship a God who is considered to be all loving and benevolent? And how do we make sense of the pain and suffering within this world, within ourselves and among those around us?

C.S. Lewis, among other philosophers and theologians have wrestled with these questions. The age-old attempt to reconcile divine love and human suffering is nothing new. While it would seem “easy” to throw in the rag and give up Christianity or the concept of God altogether, some of the most brilliant thinkers have concluded that human pain, and even hell, are not sufficient reasons to deny a benevolent God. This is good news for those who cling to their faith for dear life.

When we come to think of what the world “should” be like, many of us might envision a world free from suffering and filled with creatures who are happy and carefree. Feelings of dread, horror, doubt, fear, and confusion would be far removed from our human experiences. We’d picture a God high in the sky, who looks down at His happy creatures and gleefully smiles at them. This, we might say, is a picture of what a “loving” God would really do.

But is it really?

Without moving into a full fledged theology lesson on the nature of free will (although I’m quite tempted to do so), we must recognize that love can only truly exist when it flows from personal choice, unhindered by outside forces or constraints. Freedom implies choice; and choice implies the existence of things to choose between. God created mankind with the ability to choose between good and evil. With the ability to choose good, however, also comes the ability to choose evil. While God may allow bad things to happen, and use them to accomplish his purposes, it doesn’t mean he is always the direct cause. Yet when he allows bad things to happen, he also allows us the freedom to choose how we might respond. In these moments, we can either push Him away and choose to wallow in self-pity, or, we can embrace this new wilderness and use it as an invitation to deeply thirst after Him.

In the Problem of Pain, Lewis draws on some analogies of divine love. He draws on the relationship between a painter and his beloved piece of art. We are, in a sense, a “Divine work of art,” something that God is making and will not be satisfied with until it has a certain “character” or appearance. Lewis terms this the “intolerable compliment,” as we cannot escape this process. For we are not merely a simple sketch, but a work in which God deeply loves, and will not let go of until it is exactly what it is meant to be. Perhaps, after being rubbed, scraped, and smeared for the 100th time, we may wish were were simply an easy thumbnail sketch. One which could be created and perfected within a mere minute. But, in the end, this would reflect a less glorious, less arduous piece of work. Here, we would wish for less love, rather than more.

Or, look at the love between a stray dog and man. Lets’ say a man takes a stay puppy into his home. He tames the stray primarily that he may love it, not that the dog might love him. But, as Lewis states, that the man might love the dog cannot be fully attained unless the dog also, in its’ fashion, loves the man. Nor can the dog serve the man unless the man, in a different fashion, serve the dog. In the stray dog’s natural sense, it has awful smells and annoying habits which can frustrate man’s love. The man washes his stray dog, house trains it, teaches it not to jump or steal, etc. The stray may resist at first, for this whole process goes against its’ natural desires. For the stray may fight back and question the mere goodness of man. From a dog’s perspective,baths and Trifexis are a curse! However, after the stray grows into a full-grown, trained dog, free of fleas and ticks, he may leave behind such doubts. For a life cuddled up on a couch, with treats and chew toys seems much more pleasant than a life on the streets searching for shelter and food all day. We may wish at times for God to leave us where we want to be. We don’t want to be trained or groomed, but want to live out our natural impulses. But, we again would be asking not for more love, but less.

Lewis goes on to state:

“When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that He has some ‘disinterested’, because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly involved, the ‘lord of terrible aspect’, is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child….”

The Problem of Pain, chapter 3.

Divine Love and Human Suffering

In order to grasp this concept of divine love, or to better understand why a “loving God” might exist amidst a world of suffering, we must remember that God does not exist for the sake of man, and man does not merely exist for his own sake. We were created to be objects of divine love, not simply to live for ourselves. In this way, if we were to ask that God should be perfectly content with who we are, we would fail to recognize His deeper love for us. The deeper love that seeks to refine, mold, and shape us into a better reflection of Him. After all, we are all image-bearers, whether we decide to accept this identity or not. Every single person carries a unique reflection of God Himself.

Our culture seems consumed with the pursuit of happiness. Self-help books providing advice on this issue continue to gain traction and popularity. But maybe, just maybe, this end goal of infinite happiness, or a life without suffering, reflects a rather shallow goal. What if God, in His infinite wisdom, knew we wouldn’t be satisfied with feeling “happy” all time. Perhaps in his divine love, he uses suffering to shape us into a stronger, wiser, more resilient beings who are more capable of experiencing joy and fulfillment — not without, but in spite of life’s challenges? Or, maybe we really can’t understand true joy and freedom until we first catch glimpses of hell. Perhaps it would be impossible for us to actually seek out a loving, gracious God, if the only thing we experienced was happiness and bliss. When you’re not extremely thirsty, that glass of water is just water, taking up space.

Now, I am not suggesting we simplify all forms of suffering to fit into this mold. For I am in no place to claim why or how certain things happen to people. But I can cling to a promise in Romans 8:28, where Paul famously states: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose…” Some of us may not see this “good” here on this side of heaven. But fortunately, this side of heaven isn’t all there is.

Instead of spinning our wheels, trying to figure everything out, perhaps we are called instead to simply push forward and trust. Trust that through whatever suffering we encounter, our “paintings” may be more refined and polished in the end.

Originally published at https://thejourneyofintegration.com on November 28, 2019.

Clinical social worker, Anglican Christian, autoimmune patient; seeking wholeness in mind, body, & spirit — www.elizabethanndixon.com

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