Healing Faith

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A reader named Katherine recently e-mailed me. She had lost her husband, a man some years older than she, to multiple myeloma and Alzheimer’s disease. She is a Christian, and is struggling to make sense of his death, and the difficult questions of why God allows suffering. She writes, after giving me some details of his life, death, and fine character, and asks:

Why does God allow such terrible illnesses to such a kind person? I know there is really no answer as I know all about Job. The thing I am really afraid is that I prayed for his healing, and it did not happen. When I became a Christian back in the 80’s, the health and prosperity gospel was big at the time, and I guess it really influenced me more than I care to admit as I now know it is false. Even though I know it is false, I have become obsessed that God did not answer my prayer because of not being able to get rid of all the sin in my life (as if this were possible to do). One of the teachings of that movement was that if your prayer for healing went unanswered it was either because of lack of faith or sin in your life. I kept thinking that I don’t always put God first in my life, and that I spent more time reading secular magazines than reading my Bible and listening to more secular music than Christian music. These were my “main” sins, at least in my mind and thinking. Can you shed some light on this for me? I would be very appreciative.

The problem of suffering and evil is an ageless one. It poses a particular challenge for Judaism and Christianity, because of the seemingly insoluble tension between a world filled with suffering and evil, and the belief in a God who is good and all-powerful. Solutions to this dilemma, both adequate and inadequate, abound. It is the desperate hope of the atheist that this logical incompatibility proves beyond question the nonexistence of God. Others, less willing to ditch a Divine order, have concluded that God is good, but impotent; or that God is detached and uncaring, or capricious, or moody, or sadistic — and therefore not good.

It must be said plainly that answers to this paradox are neither simple nor entirely satisfactory. The dilemma as it stands may be solved in a global and satisfactory way — as has been done by both Judaism and Christianity — but invariably the lofty principles seem to break down at the moment when a solution is most needed: in the time of crisis when we ourselves experienced the depths, hopelessness, and irrationality of suffering in our own lives. CS Lewis, whose tightly reasoned treatise The Problem of Pain provides an extraordinarily deep and thorough discussion of this dilemna–later in life nearly repudiates his faith and sound theology after the death of his wife, a process painfully detailed in his diaries, A Grief Observed. It is indeed unsettling to watch Lewis discard all of his carefully reasoned and theological understandings of pain and suffering in the brutal crucible of unbearable pain and loss. Nonetheless, he ultimately comes to terms with the paradox, and undergoes an embracing of this profound dilemma far deeper than the intellectual by means of his own trial of fire.

At the heart of this difficult issue lies the human heart. God undertook a vast and dangerous experiment when creating man: He wanted, not merely another animal — of which there were countless — but an animal capable of something He alone understood: love. He gave this exalted animal vast intellect — but this was not sufficient to engender love. He gave His creation powerful emotions, the capacity for both creation and destruction, which He alone had possessed — but this also was not sufficient. For love — the utter, uninhibited emptying of self for another — required that most dangerous license of all: free will. This being thus created, designed with the capacity to love, must of necessity be utterly free to choose — for choice is the very heart, the very essence of love.

It was, by all measures, an experiment gone wildly awry. Having given this creature the extraordinary capabilities required to love fully — intellect, emotion, passion, empathy, the ability to feel intense pleasure and pain both physically and spiritually — he set this creature free to love, first of all Him, and then others of its kind. And the first choice of this pinnacle of creation was the decision to turn away: to replace the intended objects of love with the sterile altar of self. Thus was unleashed the monstrous liability of a truly free creature: the ability to hate, to cause pain, to kill, to destroy.

If we are to be honest, much of the pain and suffering which comprise the evil of the world is due to nothing more than this: that man, having been given the ability to choose, chooses wrongly, and uses the gifts and abilities given for the purpose of love to instead elevate himself at the expense of others, often in ways stunningly malicious and utterly wicked. Look around you, at the world both near and far: pride, selfishness, greed, lust, rage, jealousy — all these things manifest themselves in our lives and those of others, causing great pain and endless suffering. The child abused; the wife abandoned; the drive-by shooting; the greedy CEO who bankrupts the company and rapes the stockholders; the serial killer and the rapist; genocide; wars of conquest; torture; senseless massacres: these are the actions of men and women putting self above others — and each of us does it, to a greater or lesser degree, though we minimize our own roles to justify our own actions. We all wish for a world where God would eliminate evil — but all assume that we ourselves would be the only ones left standing when His judgment is delivered. A world in which God eliminated evil would by necessity be emptied of all mankind.

Yet there also exists those evils which have been called, in days past, somewhat ironically, “acts of God” — those circumstances or events which cause pain and suffering, not directly engendered by human evil. Thus the child is born with a severe birth defect; hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes cause death and destruction; chronic and devastating diseases fall upon those who seemingly deserve a far better fate. It is with this, this seemingly capricious evil, with which we struggle most earnestly, straining to understand, yet to no avail. Judaism and Christianity both imply that some such evil may be consequential, the result of punishment or predictable consequences for the malfeasance of man. A more robust theology is less accusatory and thereby more coarsely granular — maintaining that such evil has entered the world because of the fall of man. Under such design our divine divorce has corrupted not only behavior, but our very natures, and all of creation. Yet such theology is of little comfort to those who are the objects of such seemingly random evil; we demand to know of God, “Why?” — and in particular, “Why me?” Yet there is no answer forthcoming, and we are left assuming a God either powerless to stop such evil or unwilling to do so.

Yet the problem of a good God, an omnipotent God, and an evil world of His creation is not entirely insoluble. Much lies in our projection of human frailty onto the nature of the Divine, and the impreciseness of our definitions of good and omnipotent. When we say God is good, we tend to mean that God is “nice” — that he would never do anything to cause us pain or suffering. Yet even in our limited experience, we must acknowledge that pain and suffering, while not inherently good, may be a means to goodness. We choose to have surgery or chemotherapy, though painful and debilitating, that our cancer may be cured. The halls of Alcoholics Anonymous are filled with men and women who, having faced both personal and relational destruction, have used their former liabilities as a gateway to a new, more fulfilling life — one which could not have taken place apart from their harrowing journey through alcoholism. To a misbehaving child, the discipline of a loving father is not perceived as good, but such correction is essential for the development of personal integrity, social integration, and responsibility. Our inability to discern the potential for good in pain and suffering does not by necessity deny its presence; there are many who, when asked, will point to painful, difficult, and unbearable times in life which have brought about profound, often unexpected good in their lives, unforeseeable in the midst of their dark days. There surely is much suffering which defies our capacity to understand, even through we strive with every fiber of our being to find the goodness therein. But the fact that such inexplicable suffering exists, and that answers are often lacking, does not preclude the possibility that God is good, or that such suffering may ultimately lead to something greater and more noble than the pain endured.

In our egocentricity we often neglect to look for the benefit in our suffering which comes not to us, but rather to others. Caring for someone suffering unbearably provides an opportunity to the caretaker to experience selfless love, compassion, tenderness, patience and endurance — character traits sadly lacking in our selfish world, which routinely turns its back on suffering to pursue an untroubled life of self-fulfillment and self-gratification. It is not inherently evil to be called to give beyond our means and ability — as caring for someone suffering always demands — for in the exhaustion and inadequacy thus revealed, we may discover unknown inner strengths, and come to a richer, and more fulfilling dependence on God. We are, as CS Lewis so accurately described, “not merely imperfect creatures that need improvement: we are rebels that need lay down their arms” — and finding how shallow are our reserves of love, compassion, and strength, we may through this brokenness seek to acquire them, humbly, from their Source.

But surely an omnipotent God has the power to stop suffering — is He not either impotent or evil when failing to use such power to remove our suffering? The omnipotence of God, like His goodness, is but dimly perceived. For the power of God is in perfect harmony with the purpose of God, and is thus used to advance these purposes for the greater good. Thus, the good deed of creating man with free will — and thereby capable of love — by its very nature restrains the omnipotence of God to violate that free will. The evil of the world exists in large part, if not wholly, because this free will has been abused. Yet the abuse of free will must be permitted, that the proper use of free will — the laying down of arms, the surrender to the sovereignty of a wholly good God — may take place, freely and unfettered as required by love. God must tolerate the existence of suffering and evil, that all may have the freedom to choose the good — though many will refuse to do so. Yet he does not merely tolerate the presence of suffering, but provides for its very redemption: that suffering, though itself evil, may ultimately produce good. Thus pain, suffering, death, and evil need not triumph: they may provide the means that some may turn toward the good, or bring forth further good for themselves or others. This is redemption: to buy back that which is destructive, worthless, of no value, evil, and make it worthwhile, valuable, even priceless.

Christianity, throughout its history, has struggled with and largely resolved the problem of pain, within the confines of the mystery of God. Yet Christianity in its many doctrinal eddies has sometimes chosen the wrong path and the wrong answers to this challenge. Such errors generally fall into two broad categories: the concept of suffering as punishment or retribution from God, and the manipulation of God for man’s gratification. The first of these runs counter to the core doctrine of the cross: that God has chosen to provide in Christ a sacrificial lamb — that Christ, through his suffering, may bear the justice of God, so that we may see the mercy of God. Our suffering is not a punishment for sin, as such punishment negates the purpose of the cross. Correction, it may be; discipline, it often is; opportunity, it always is; punishment, it never is.

The countering position — that of God as divine opiate, ever present to kill our pain — is a variant of the faith which has become perniciously widespread, feeding on a culture of ease and self-gratification which creates God in its own image. Thus God becomes a font of wealth, of health, of prosperity, of a trouble-free materialistic lifestyle, a divine vending machine whose coinage is faith. Faith, however, in such a worldview is no longer a profound trust in a God who is beyond understanding and infinitely wise, but becomes instead a means of buying from God all which we demand. Hence, we may be wealthy, if we only have enough faith; we may be healed, if our faith is sufficient; we will not suffer if we will but strengthen and enlarge our faith. Our faith must be prefect, lest our pleas go unheard. The strength of faith matters more than its verity; we charge the gates of heaven with the bludgeon of self-will.

The perniciousness and destructiveness of this perversion of historical Christian faith lies in removing from the hands of God decisions of life and death, health and illness, wholeness and suffering, while burdening us with the hopeless demand that we steel our faith to impossible heights to coerce and manipulate the will of God. That such efforts are typically fruitless seems self-evident: God most surely is capable of healing — and does indeed do so at times — but most surely does so in accordance with his divine wisdom and will. Should His wisdom dictate that suffering, poverty, brokenness, even death and despair would better serve the purposes of drawing men to Himself, what measure of human obstinacy and recalcitrance will change this will? When such “faith” proves futile, it destroys trust in God, and not infrequently leads to utter loss of belief, a bitter agnosticism born in false expectations and misplaced hope. Hence, we demand of God that which we alone deem to be good, then blame Him when He pursues a greater good beyond our understanding. This is the struggle to which Kathleen is alluding, as she questions the goodness of God in failing to heal her husband, blaming her own “sins” for his untimely demise. To us, such a healing seems only good — in so far as it mitigates our pain and loss, as well as that of those we love — but like the surgeon’s knife, sometimes such pain must not be withheld that evil may be conquered by the good. Were he healed, and restored to full health, would he not then face death on yet another day? Our lives have both purpose and a proper time: we live for that purpose, and we die when that purpose is fulfilled. That those who are left behind cannot grasp that purpose — and appropriately suffer profound pain and loss at this separation — does not negate that purpose nor impede its culmination.

We live in a time when our expectations of health, of prosperity, of a pain-free life are increasingly met in the physical realm, while we progressively become sickly, impoverished, and empty in the realm of the spirit. Despite our longer lives, we live in dread of death; despite our greater health, we obsess about our ills; despite our comfortable lives, we ache from an aimlessness and purposelessness which eats at our souls and deadens our spirits. Though we have at our command the means to kill our pain–to a degree never before seen in the history of the world–yet we have bargained away our peace in pursuit of our pleasure. The problem of pain has never been an easy one; in our day, it has not been solved, but rather worsened, by our delusions of perpetual comfort and expectations of a trouble-free life. Until we come to terms with suffering, we will not have comfort; until we embrace our pain, we will never have peace.

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21 thoughts on “Healing Faith

  1. The world is not evil; it is lawful. The persistence of its laws makes it possible for every species that lives to acquire a predator species that will feed upon it. Given that time runs forward only, we cannot undo such developments, except by fighting them, in accordance with the laws of the universe, as best we can.

    When God decided to make the universe a temporal domain — quite a contrast from His own digs — He necessarily made it a place where all living things must have a beginning, an end, and an eat-or-eaten relationship with some number of other living things. One might object, “Well, He could have made it an atemporal, causeless place, where all things would be unchangingly pleasant and good. That would have saved us all this effort and agony.” But it would also have completely negated the possibilities of learning, of moral choice, and therefore of mental and spiritual growth.

    Hearken to the following conversation between journalist Lee Strobel and Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft, from Strobel’s book The Case For Faith:

    CITATION BEGINS:

    I was glad that Kreeft had brought the conversation back around to the woman from Templeton’s photograph [an African woman holding a baby who had died during a terrible drought — FWP]. I didn’t want the interview to get too far away from her. She personalized the issue of suffering, standing as a powerful representative of the world’s one billion destitute people.

    “If she were here right now,” I said to Kreeft, “what would you say to her?”

    Kreeft didn’t hesitate. “Nothing,” he said simply.

    I blinked in disbelief. “Nothing?”

    “Not at first, anyway,” he said. I’d let her talk to me. The founder of an organization for the multiply handicapped says he works with the handicapped for a very selfish reason: they teach him something much more valuable than he could ever teach them. Namely, who he is. That sounds sentimental, but it’s true.

    “One of my four children is moderately handicapped, and I’ve learned more from her than from the other three. I’ve learned that I’m handicapped and that we’re all handicapped, and listening to her helps me to understand myself.

    “So the first thing we’d need to do with this woman is to listen to her. To be aware of her. To see her pain. To feel her pain. We live in a relative bubble of comfort, and we look at pain as an observer, as a philosophical puzzle or theological problem. That’s the wrong way to look at pain. The thing to do with pain is to enter it, be one with her, and then you learn something from it.
    “In fact, it’s significant that most objections to the existence of God from the problem of suffering come from outside observers who are quite comfortable, whereas those who actually suffer are, as often as not, made into stronger believers by their suffering.”

    CITATION ENDS.

    To break free of the seeming paradox presented to us as “The Problem of Pain / Evil,” we must learn to transcend.

  2. Dr. Bob,

    I don’t know about embracing pain, though I have been accused of doing just that. I would say rather that pain serves to reveal things that are worth embracing.

    A minor quibble to be sure. But when I tried to say something along the same line as what you have said I was accused of glorifying despair. That was not my attention and I am sure it was not yours either. Yet it is easy to be misunderstood as saying that.

    This is especially true because there are traditions within “Christianity” that glorify those who deliberately seek out pain. One thinks of the St. Jerome for example….

    But I think you will agree that the worth of both pain and pleasure can be found in what it reveals, not in some magical properties of the sensation itself. Both pain and pleasure are vain to those who see nothing of meaning in them. And there is no guarantee that those who cannot see meaning in pleasure will be able to see it in the pain.

  3. Dear Dr. Bob:

    I’ve been reading your blog for a year or two. As someone who has watched a loved one destroying himself through active alcoholism, I particularly appreciated your series on addiction. This post on Healing Faith will be another favorite.

    The alcoholism of another drove me to a deeper faith and a clinging to the cross as never before, but the particular answer to my prayers that I wanted for the alcoholic was deliverance, health and wholeness, restoration. I definitely would have liked God to remove my loved one’s free will. But He didn’t.

    This week I wrote a devotional piece that included the following: “Often the answers I received were not what I wanted. But God is still God and He is still good. Because of who He is and not what He does for me, I continue to praise and trust Him. After more than thirty years as a follower of Christ, I have arrived at one important truth, and it is this: Nothing, absolutely nothing, enters my life that isn’t either caused or allowed by my loving heavenly Father so that I might become more like Jesus. I am tested and refined in the fires. And so I praise Him, no matter what.”

    Streams in the Desert by LB Cowman has become a source of encouragement and hope for me in the past year, helping me to see the many ways that God uses pain and struggle in the lives of His children.

    Thank you again for this thoughtful blog post.

    Robin Lee Hatcher

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  5. Dear Dr. Bob,
    Thank you for this post. My first grandchild has just been born, and she has cystic fibrosis. So much of what you have said here rings a chord in my heart.
    I shall send this post to my son for his reading when he’s ready.

  6. Dear Dr. Bob: Thank you for your insightful answer to my question. I want to print it so I can always have a reference. I shall, however, have to wait until Monday when I return to work as my home printer is broken. What you said about manipulating resonated with me as I think that was the impetus behind my thoughts that “if only” I could be good enough and do enough “Christian” things, God would be more likely to look kindly upon my request. I even feel shame in writing this as my logical mind tells me that this definitely is not God’s way. These thoughts are “leftover” ideas from the health and prosperity teachings I learned. I know now that no one, no matter how good, can control or manipulate Almighty God, nor should we even try.

    Again, thank you so much for using my mail and for your extremely helpful comments. They helped me more than you will ever know.

    There was only one error – my husband was quite a few (18) years OLDER than me. It’s okay – I forgive you!!

    Kathleen

  7. I have long believed that, when a Christ-follower succombs to an illness or fatal injury, the ultimate healing takes place. I don’t think this is pablum theology, to say, “Oh, he’s no longer in pain!” I accept it as fact, tho’ I’m in no position to prove it, until I’ve been through it.

    I agree–this post is another favorite. C.S. Lewis had nothing on you, Dr. Bob–IMHO.

  8. I’m sorry; that last sentence could sound flippant, not to mention disrespectful of a man whose thought and writing have meant so much to me. I meant it as an expression of my deep appreciation of your own ability to plumb the depths more deeply than I can, and to express yourself so beautifully.

  9. Dr. Bob … yet another post that I’m going to have to read, reread … and reread again, in order to absorb the meanings between the lines, the words said – and unsaid.

    Echoes of things written before – and yet not: new each time they’re read.

    If you were to lose what you have, a very many others would become so much poorer …

    Thank you. Again.

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