The Problem of Pain: What Story is This?

Spring came early this year and I’ve really enjoyed the long days,the warm weather; there is work to be done in my gardens and new books to read and films to watch.  There are times, like these, when it’s easy to see the world as a good place – at least the small bit of time and space that are mine for the moment. But then I read the news: riots in London (Ontario?!), graphic details of the brutal rape and murder of Tori Stafford, a school shooting in France by a murderer who jumps to his death several days later, and so it goes. And suddenly the facts that much of this world is not the way it ought to be reveal a world that is sick and in need of healing.

Perhaps I’m being a bit naïve, but I would argue that the common reaction to such atrocities is similar, no matter one’s religious orientation.  There is a deep-seated longing for things to be made right. We long for justice, for peace, for harmony, for shalom – even if we disagree on how to attain any of these good things.  There is, even if it’s not articulated, an appeal to some shared standard of the Good, a standard that we are constantly failing to meet collectively and individually.

But for the person of faith, this raises some obvious problems: what is one to do in the face of such injustice when he or she foolishly subscribes to the notion that there is an all-powerful Deity who is also, apparently, benevolent?

Theodicy, the name for this dilemma, is nothing new and I realize I am wading into theological and philosophical waters that are of a depth I’m unqualified to plumb; however, this question has come up time and again in a first year English course I am teaching and I thought I’d blog on a few of the insights that have arisen from our discussions.

So, consider this to be a layman’s response, and nothing more.

For people of faith, perhaps the answers can come (too) easy and (too) ready-made when it comes to talking about suffering in an abstract sense; but when suffering finds its way into one’s own life, an understanding of the truth is much more difficult to hold on to.  Faced with the reality of our own suffering, can we, like Milton, “justify the ways of God to men”?

It is hard to judge the nature of God, or man, or good, or evil, if we are only doing so with the fragmentary moments that make up our lives because “man is a giddy thing.”  We are fickle, prone to change and inconstancy.  We act like confused teenagers, plucking petals in order to determine whether or not we are loved.  As I’ve mentioned already, my mood can change with something as arbitrary as the weather, and sometimes my notion of God changes based on the circumstances of the moment. I often feel like Harold Crick in Stranger than Fiction, ticking off the events in my life that suggest it is a comedy and those suggesting otherwise.

Stranger than Fiction is actually a helpful way to think about theodicy because it poses the right question: what kind of a story are we in?  Once we can get a picture of the play as a whole, perhaps we can begin to make sense of our particular act and scene.

As the observable evidence suggests, the play is going to end the same for all of us.  And – spoiler alert – it’s a tragedy. As the writer of Ecclesiastes observed, the same end is meeting the wealthy and the poor man alike. Dust to dust.  To be absorbed back into the primordial elements, to lose our material goods, our friends and loved ones, our bodies and our sense of self are the facts as we can know them. Our stories, as we can see them, conclude with a stage that is littered with dead bodies.

If this is the case, there is tremendous pressure to write our own stories and work quite hard to give them as much “comedic relief” as possible before the closing of the curtain.  And if, despite such efforts, the story seems to move from bad to worse, from darkness to darkness, why keep going?  (Wasn’t this the central question Camus believed faced the 20th century individual?)

But what if there is more to the story?  What if our vision is limited and contingent upon time and change?  What if the observable data is not enough for a complete story?

In Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” four men are stranded just off the coast of Florida.  For several days they exist in the precarious position between life and death and the correspondent wonders: “If I am going to be drowned — if I am going to be drowned — if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods, who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees?”  It’s a good question, and perhaps a question we should ask each day things are going well.  If death is coming, what is the point of any fleeting joy?

Crane’s conclusion: When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers. Then, if there be no tangible thing to hoot he feels, perhaps, the desire to confront a personification and indulge in pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying: “Yes, but I love myself.” A high cold star on a winter’s night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation.

What a chilling story, and I wonder if it is the story that many people tell themselves. It definitely gives you very little to live for and absolutely nothing to die for.

 Now literature is filled with people who wrestle with such questions, but perhaps none so poignantly as Job. In the course of several days, Job loses his wealth, his home, his children, and even his health.  But the most interesting thing about Job’s story is how God talks with Job at the end.  I always expect God to sheepishly admit to Job that the cause for all his suffering was a bet being made between He and the Devil: “Satan thought you would crack, but I showed him.”  But this is not what happens.

God simply questions Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”  And as the questions proceed and the litany of things God has done and controls beyond Job’s scope of vision are presented, Job’s ignorance and lack of control are exposed. God shows Job that a much bigger story is taking place, one that has been going on long before him.  While the story ends as a comedy (Job gets everything back, although not his former family which still troubles me somewhat), we should know that there will be a second time where all these things are taken from Job: his death.

But what if the bigger story has something beyond death? What if, instead of lying cold in the ground, we awake to the final act of the play and see that Comedy has finally trumped Tragedy?  Wouldn’t that make this “vale of tears” endurable.  Even if the observable facts reveal we are all inching our ways towards darkness, it will take a leap of faith to suggest otherwise. And this is not so much a leap in the dark as it is a leap towards the light.

The world can be an amazing place and the fleeting glimpses of Shalom, small though they be, are important gifts to be enjoyed.   Pain is also real and it’s a burden to be endured.  But pain is something that can be more fleeting than joy if we believe the right story.

Of course, such a belief would have to maintain, against the facts, that there is such an author who is benevolent enough to write an alternative, comedic ending and powerful enough to enable his characters to die into such a denouement.