A person sensitized by suffering might well ask the question, If God exists and he is loving, why does everything hurt so much?” There are no easy answers that we can give because the “so much” is something that only he or she can know. Nobody can sense the meaning of another person’s “so much” to give any kind of answer to that anguished person. When we try to give answers we must inevitably fail because the pleadings of those in agony are not merely for answers or understanding, but also for relief from the anguish. If there is anything real in life, it is pain. If there is any feeling that all people seem to share at different times, it is pain. If there is anything which begs that we explain it, it is pain. Yet unless our answer contains something that brings ease from distress, we merely exacerbate that pain.
The Problems, Pressures and Pains of Life
The pains of life press in around us. To want to escape the pain, the problems and the pressures is only human. It is also impossible! While to some it would be paradise to somehow escape the problems and pains of aging, not many want the escape of a youthful death.
The problem of pain is as old as Adam and Eve. Today we express our consternation with reflections like: “An all-powerful God should remove pain. If he can and won’t, then he is not a God of love; if he wants to remove pain but can’t, then he is as weak as we are and can’t be called God.”
This accusation is not very different from Cain’s outcry to the Almighty:
My punishment is too great to bear! (Which is better translated from the original Hebrew, “Is my iniquity too much for Thee to bear?”) Since you have banished me this day from the soil, and I must avoid Your presence and become a restless wanderer on earth-anyone who meets me may kill me! (Genesis 4:13-14)
It was, however, Isaiah the prophet who pleaded t eloquently when he turned to God and said,
If You would but tear open the heavens and come down, So that mountains would quake …When You did wonders we dared not hope for, You came down. (Isaiah 64:1, 3; in Hebrew 63:19, 64:1)
In this outcry one almost sees the summary of the world’s pain; from Cain through Job, through the Holocaust and to the dying child with leukemia whose mother calls out “If You would but tear open the heavens and come down…” and stop it.
Rabbi Harold Kushner has answered this outcry to his own satisfaction. He says,
I believe in God …[but] I recognize His limitations. He is limited in what He can do by laws of nature and by the evolution of human nature and human moral freedom. I no longer hold God responsible for illnesses, accidents and natural disasters, because I realize that I gain little and lose so much when I blame God for those things. I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it, more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die, for whatever exalted reason.1
But are Kushner’s two options—that of God who is limited or God who is arbitrary—the only explanations? This writer maintains that God is not limited, nor is he arbitrary. God does not cause suffering, nor does he stand by helplessly as it takes place.
Sometimes, God actually does tear the heavens open and come down. This happened after Job cried out in pain and convulsions,
Is my strength the strength of rock? Is my flesh bronze?…Would that I knew how to reach Him, How to get to His dwelling-place .…I cry out to You, but You do not answer me; I wait, but You do [not I consider me. You have become cruel to me; With Your powerful hand You harass me. (Job 6:12; 23:3; 30:20, 21)
God does answer Job, and out of the whirlwind he speaks perrsonally to the angry, embittered man:
Gird your loins like a man;
I will ask and you will inform Me.
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?
Speak if you have understanding.
Do you know who fixed its dimensions
Or who measured it with a line?
Onto what were its bases sunk?
Who set its cornerstone …? (Job 38:3-6)
God was not giving Job a nature lesson. Job didn’t only have a pain problem; he also had an identity problem. That was knowing who God was and where he was at this time of great distress.
Yet in the face of this challenge and in the midst of Job’s despair, God spoke to remind Job whom he was addressing. Once he realigned his thinking to see the identity of the Almighty, Job’s response was repentance, trust and belief in God who is without limitations:
“I know that You can do everything, [bold supplied]
That nothing you propose is impossible for You.
Who is this who obscures counsel without knowledge?
Indeed, I spoke without understanding.…”
(Job 42:2, 3)
One of the Hebrew verbs for pain, parpar expresses the idea of “moving convulsively, struggling, twitching, jerking” such as is found in Job’s description of his pain: “I had been untroubled, and He…shattered [vai-pharpereni] me.” (Job 16:12)
In modern Hebrew, however, the same word is transformed into a noun to denote a “butterfly.” The reason is as follows: The beautiful butterfly with its multi-colored appearance was first an ugly grub. Then came the time for its transformation and by extreme convulsions, pain and struggle, the ugly grub became a golden butterfly. Hence the same word in Hebrew for convulsions and butterfly.
The prophet Isaiah saw God’s power to tear the heavens and descend to rescue his people when Sennacherib brought siege against Jerusalem. At that time, Rabshakeh, the Assyrian commander, taunted Hezekiah, king of Judah, with these words:
Do not let your God, on whom you are relying, mislead you into thinking that Jerusalem will not be delivered into the hands of the king of Assyria. (Isaiah 37:10)
Rabshakeh was mistaken! God did act by the instrumentality of the “angel of the LORD” who 64 went out and struck down one hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp…So King Sennacherib of Assyria broke camp and retreated, and stayed in Nineveh.” (Isaiah 37:36-37)
For another 120 years Judah dwelt safely in its land. Judah and her king saw the might of Assyria defeated and destroyed while she enjoyed security under the protection of her Lord.
What About the Holocaust?
A whole generation has passed yet we are still standing dazed and amazed at this greatest tragedy in Jewish history. Despite the thousands of books that have been written, the many court transcripts, the TV specials and films, and the eye witnesses, the person who was not there shall be forever unable to grasp the horror and pain. No one has tried so hard to give us a glimpse into the pain and utter despair of the victims of the Holocaust as Elie Wiesel.
He writes in Night of his first night at Birkenbau:
Never shall I forget that night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. ever shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.2
As a result of the Holocaust, Wiesel abandoned all hope in a loving God. Belief in God had no more significance for this sensitive, serious humanitarian. But his response to the horror of the Holocaust was not the only one on the part of survivors. After Auschwitz, another wrote:
It never occurred to me to associate the calamity we were experiencing with God, to blame Him, or to believe in Him less or cease believing in Him at all because He didn’t come to our aid. God doesn’t owe us that, or anything. We owe our lives to Him. If someone believes God is responsible for the death of six million because he didn’t somehow do something to save them, he’s got his thinking reversed. We owe God our lives for the few or many years we live.…3
Ultimately, in this person’s view, God tore the heavens open and came down to the rescue of his people Israel. Deafening defeat and discomfiture came to the Nazi powers.
Some have even seen good rise from the ashes of the evil conflagration. The survivors found homes as they were welcomed in many countries. And it is said that the nations were conditioned to realize that the Jewish people could no longer be secure in Europe. The horror of the Holocaust provided the emotional impetus and the modern state of Israel was born; a Jewish homeland with doors opened wide for those who had been stripped and laid bare, the scattered exiles of her people.
Messiah, Pain and Relief
The Jewish seeker who believes the word of God has an even greater event in history to confirm God’s presence with his people. At the juncture of history when B.C.E. ended and C.E. began, a new era was announced with the sounds of a most beautiful angelic song. It was chanted by a special choir for the benefit of a few Jewish shepherds who had to stay with their flock by night.
The reason for the song was the birth of the promised Messiah of Israel in Bethlehem, the city of David. Most people were too busy to notice it; they went about doing their own thing. Others were so crushed under the burden of pain, persecution and suffering, they did not expect relief to come from such a humble source. If relief should come, they reasoned, it would come by God sharpening their swords so that more of Israel’s enemies could be killed.
But the heavenly angels knew another and better way, and simple shepherds saw and believed.
And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone .…And the angel said to them [the shepherds in Bethlehem’s fields], “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord.” (Luke 2:9-11)
This was the beginning and the start of a career of pain and suffering; of jerking, twisting, convulsions, persecution and flight from the cruel Herods; of homelessness and human hunger; of beatings and lashes; the plucking out of the hair of his beard and placing of a crown of thorns on his head by cruel Roman soldiers. Finally, the same ones nailed his hands and feet to a tree as our prophets foretold, “They pierced my hands and my feet” (Psalm 22:16) and “they will look on Me whom they have pierced.” (Zechariah 12:10)
Rabbi Kushner says he doesn’t know what it means for God to suffer. “I don’t believe that God is a person like me, with real eyes and real tear ducts to cry, and real nerve endings to feel pain.”4
Yet the life and death of Yshua (Jesus) is a gripping experience of God’s identification in suffering with us, his creation. God became a man and lived and died as a human, enduring the cruelty and pain of men, so that the way of salvation could be achieved.
The prophet Isaiah spoke of how “by his [the Messiah’s] bruises we were healed” and how he took upon himself “the guilt of all of us.” (Isaiah 53:5, 6)
In that event, there was a new lesson of love and of the power to transform pain to glory, convulsions of the cross into a crown of conquest, for the Messiah. And it was done by the spirit, not by the sword.
To catch a glimpse of what that transformation from pain to glory means, the following poem is offered. From time to time we hear of martyrs, people who are murdered because of their beliefs. The widow of one such slain missionary in Quito, Ecuador wrote this poem to be read at her husband’s memorial service. It’s a look at pain from the other side of the grave.
The Other Side
This is not death—it’s glory;
It isn’t dark—it’s light;
It isn’t stumbling, groping, or even faith-it’s sight;
This isn’t grief—it’s having my last tear wiped away;
It is sunrise—the morning of my eternal day;
This isn’t praying—it’s speaking face to face, and it’s glimpsing at all the wonders of his grace;
This is the end of all pleading for strength to bear my pain; not even pain’s dark memory will ever live again;
How did I bear the earth life before I came up higher? before my soul was granted its every deep desire? before I knew this rapture of meeting face to face with that one who sought me, saved me, and kept me by His grace?
This is not death—it’s glory!5
Coping With Pain Today
We must not see a tragedy as a thing in itself. Sickness is the absence of health. Death is the absence of life. Chaos is the absence of order. Accidents are the absence of proper performance. There are intermittent lapses in the way that things ought to be, and God does not intervene because of our insistence. He has given us the moral capacity to choose between good and evil; God’s will or ours. This choice was made by our first ancestors and we live with the consequences of their choice and ours today. Evil, pain, cruelty, injustice, hatred, strife, and sickness as well as death exist because of choices to exclude God. And He has absented himself in response to the human desire to do without him.
Not everyone will be satisfied with such an answer. But the willful dissatisfaction of people is part of the problem that keeps God from intervening and repairing the continuum of the universe so that we don’t have the disruptions.
One might ask, “What do we need pain for? Couldn’t we accomplish the same things with pleasure?” The answer has to be that in pleasure we focus on ourselves and our feelings and our perceptions, which makes us to be mindful of ourselves and our will to be pleased; whereas pain helps us to focus outside of ourselves, to reach beside ourselves, to find out what’s there. Pleasure tends to make one self-centered, whereas pain tends to make a more noble person, other-centered and, hopefully, God-centered. A crisis becomes an occasion for declension or advance. A self-centered person in a crisis can become more self-centered and wallow in self-pity. God-centered or God seeking persons can be propelled forward in their quest for meaning.
It is important to know that we are not helpless and we are not hopeless. We can choose to decide how we will deal with pain. We cannot choose whether or not we will have pain, but we can decide whether or not we will allow problems to affect us.
That we will feel pain is inevitable. The Midrash Tehillim, commenting on Psalm 16: 11, says, “If you want life, expect pain.” To live is to endure the pressures of life. But we can decide if we are going to let these things press us down or if we are going to let them lift us up.
What that pain will mean to us, what it will accomplish in our lives, and what, if any, use it has depends on what we believe about God and man and how the two interact. If there is no God, then pain is the occasional and accidental absurdity, a prelude to death so that we can drag our bodies and beings off the scene to make room for another who in due season will suffer and die like us.
But if there is a God who cares, pain becomes the occasion for us to look up and see God beckoning to us from beyond, letting us know that he does care and that he will willingly enter into our suffering…letting us know that the suffering we endure is to lead us past the experience of this life and into eternal joy.
*The Midrash Tehillim
Editor’s note: Some of the material for this article was gleaned from the writings of the scholar Rachmiel Frydland who died a painful death from the ravages of stomach cancer. He survived the Holocaust and was known to all his associates and students as a man who was able to handle all experiences with joy.
- Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen To Good People, (Avon Books: New York, 1981), p. 134.
- Elie Wiesel, Night, (Avon Books: New York, 1969), p. 9.
- Reeve Robert Brenner, The Faith and Doubt of Holocaust Survivors, (The Free Press, 1980).
- Harold S. Kushner, ibid., p. 85.
- Richard A. Fowler, Winning by Losing, (Moody Press: Chicago, 1986), p. 148.
Translations used for Scripture passages were from:
- Tanakh. (Jewish Publication Society: Philadelphia, 1985).
- New American Standard Bible. (The Lockman Foundation: La Habra, 1971).