The Problem of Pain

By Valerie Tarico

This post is excerpted from The Dark Side: How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth.

Thou to Whom the sick and dying Ever came, nor came in vain, Still with healing word replying, To the wearied cry of pain —Godfrey Thring1

ONE OF THE MOST POTENT CHALLENGES THAT NATURE RAISES AGAINST THOSE who want to believe in a just, loving, and omnipotent God is human suffering. We may diminish or even dismiss the suffering of “dumb beasts,” but we know that our own pain hurts. Worse, empathy makes it difficult to ignore the many forms of trauma suffered by our fellow humans.

Very empathetic people may find themselves unable to ward off the pain around them even when their own lives are relatively intact. An attorney lies awake in the wee hours, thinking about the battered clients she represents. A father, tucking his child into bed, is intruded by images of other children, burned or missing limbs, in hospital beds in a war-torn country. A third grader develops nightmares and stomach aches because a classmate is undergoing chemotherapy. Human pain can be mild or horrific, and we know it.

Volumes have been written on human suffering from a Judeo-Christian perspective. The title of this chapter, “The Problem of Pain,” comes from a book of the same title by famed Anglican writer, C.S. Lewis. Publishers have reprinted it and readers have consumed it steadily for more than half a century. When Bad Things Happen to Good People,2 written by a Jewish Rabbi on the same topic, is selling in a Twentieth Anniversary Edition. So, why bother to comment, when brilliant men have sold millions of books addressing this concern? Here is why. The answers don’t work. They don’t work emotionally, morally, or intellectually.

Despite being armed with volumes of justifications and explanations, Christians continue to think suffering is bad. So did the writers of the Bible: God showers blessings on those he favors and rains plagues and destruction on their enemies. The suffering of the righteous is attributed frequently to Satan. Illness, sterility, and death are blamed on bad behavior; they are punishments, terrible but deserved. Some suffering is described as lessons or tests that strengthen the faithful. But nowhere does the Bible attempt to argue that all misery serves some good end. In fact, most of the miracles attributed to Jesus involve healing— easing the burdens of illness and pain. Orthodox Christianity insists that God both cares about human suffering and intervenes in a myriad of ways to relieve it.

My moral vision, instincts, and emotions were formed in the bed of Evangelical imagery and belief. And what I find when I attend to their prodding is that the explanations writers like C. S. Lewis offer up for human suffering are unsatisfying in part because they contradict those foundational beliefs and images. The Twenty-third Psalm echoes in my memory:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (KJV)

If the psalmist isn’t saying God offers peace and comfort in this life, then what is he saying? Alternately, if he is talking only about his own experience and not how God generally cares for his beloved, then why does this psalm hang, illustrated by soft-hued portraits of the Good Shepherd cradling a lamb, in bedrooms around the world? “Let the little children come unto me,” said Jesus. My primary childhood image of Jesus is that of the Teacher, seated, with a child on one knee, his hand raised in an act of blessing or teaching a small cluster of trusting innocents. What does it mean to say that he watches over little children if it doesn’t mean he protects them from horrors like molesters and spinal cord tumors and napalm? Ask an Evangelical child what it means, ask her parent. Ask her pastor. Ask a hundred. Without exception, they will tell you that Jesus watches over his beloved to protect them from earthly harm, not just spiritual harm.

Marjorie’s Story

My mother, daughter of a church organist and a devout believer herself, recently called me, crying. Her friend of thirty-five years, Marjorie, was in excruciating pain. “It isn’t fair!” Mom sobbed. Marjorie’s life during those thirty-five years had revolved around her Evangelical beliefs. She attended church regularly, prayed regularly, listened to Evangelical radio stations, gave to her congregation. She otherwise lived an exemplary life, working long hours for long years to provide for two daughters whom she raised alone, all the while declining to divorce the philandering husband who had left her decades before.

A few months earlier, Marjorie had been on the verge of a vacation she had dreamed of for months and saved for longer. She was going to Hawaii with her daughter. Her son-in-law, my mother, and a nephew would tag along. They ended up going without her. Shortly before the scheduled departure, Marjorie, not feeling one hundred percent, had sent home the kids from her childcare business and gone to the doctor for a checkup. There she learned her kidneys were failing. Instead of going to Hawaii, she went to dialysis where she caught a staph infection that left her writhing on the bathroom floor, waiting to be found. She was given pain medications that made her, briefly, psychotic, and instead of providing a hotel bed by the sea, her money went for a bed in a nursing home.

Is there some good in this that we can’t see? Possibly. Was God trying to teach her a lesson? Maybe. But couldn’t he have waited till after Hawaii?

I’m a reasonably good parent and am crazy in love with my kids. Yet I’m willing to cause them pain for their own good—if I think there’s no other way to get that good or if I think my causing them pain will prevent greater future suffering. They had their immunizations. Their warts got frozen even though it made my stomach hurt. I endure complaints about raw cheeks from orthodontic devices and tears about homework, as long as I feel confident there’s no other way. In fact, I think less of myself when I am unwilling to cause them short-term discomfort for their long-term good. I understand how one might argue, by extrapolation, that a loving heavenly father must be willing to cause pain, although this does raise questions about omnipotence.
So, I’ll be reasonable. Maybe there is some good in Marjorie’s situation that Mom and I couldn’t see. Maybe God was trying to teach Marjorie a lesson. Maybe it couldn’t wait.

Now let’s suppose Marjorie had died on the bathroom floor. She didn’t, but her situation is far from unique. If you’re not actually living it, her story is almost mundane. Plenty of people do die alone in very similar circumstances and leave behind evidence that theirs weren’t exactly peaceful passings. What lesson then? You’re in pain, you’re in pain, it’s all you can think about (because when physical pain exceeds a certain threshold we humans can’t really process anything else), and then you’re dead. A lesson? Perhaps. But it does get a little harder to imagine.

I’ve heard it suggested, in situations like this, that the suffering, the lesson, might be for the benefit of someone else. This sounds reasonable at first, but consider: Now we’re saying that God, all good and all powerful, is causing someone to suffer without his or her consent, to suffer an excruciating, can’t-do-anything-but-be-in-pain kind of pain and then to die, for the benefit of another person? If a human did that, most of us would say it was bad. It’s not okay for me to decide for you to die a painful death for the benefit of someone else without your having a say in it. Is it possible to construct some moral dilemma in which this would be the right thing to do? Perhaps, but it requires no small amount of mental and moral gymnastics.

Joey’s Story

My own faith-crunching encounter with this kind of suffering came when I was working at Children’s Hospital in Seattle. I was a psychologist trainee on the Consult and Liaison Service, a cadre of mental health professionals who visited children on the medical units and their families and their staff, and helped them to deal with the emotional ramifications of injury and illness. I was assigned to Joey, a two-year-old with a spinal tumor. Joey was, as you might imagine, too young to understand why he couldn’t walk any more, why he had to drag his legs around. He was too young to even ask whether he would get better. (He wouldn’t.) He was too young to understand suffering unto death or any of its hypothetical benefits. He was too young for lessons.

The thought that he might be suffering for the benefit of an unknown someone else did little to comfort me. It didn’t seem to help his mother much either. What it did, instead, was to discredit this kind of rationalization, which functions primarily to medicate those who might otherwise suffer from an excess of empathic pain. In the unfettered world of imagination, where anything is possible, it is easy to imagine that someone somewhere might benefit from a child’s journey toward death. And since such conjectures are impossible to test, they can never be ruled out, no matter how unlikely they may be. But the whole exercise is not only rationally dubious, it is morally repugnant if one assumes that the whole affair is enabled by an omniscient, interventionist God. In what moral system is it fair to torture a two-year old for the benefit of anyone?

From my experience in the hospital, it was a small step to contemplate the suffering of other innocents, meaning children too young for “lessons,” in other times and places. Pick a time, pick a place. You don’t have to look far for the images: a child watching her parents get shot in Cambodia while waiting for her own bullet; another feeling the napalm on his back in Vietnam and not being the lucky survivor; an infant starving to death in Africa, anonymous to all but the pagan mother whose bony arms and dry breasts have nothing to offer; American children, natives, whimpering fever-glazed in small-pox-infested blankets. What lesson there? What goodness?

The fact is, no visible benefit outweighs the harm. Quite the contrary. Suffering can be unspeakable or unbearable, and the presumption that the benefits are greater than the horrors has little basis in evidence. This presumption is faith and faith alone, and as such it illustrates both the best and worst aspects of ungrounded belief.

How? At best, this belief may help us to function, even to survive in a world where every work of art, every note of music, every glimmer of joy, every act of kindness has occurred in parallel with atrocities and death. When we can convince ourselves that the suffering is meaningful, useful, justified, or deserved, we can fend it off. It hurts less, and we are more able to experience life’s goodness. Finding just the right explanation for the awfulness we see around us works emotional magic. It relieves anxiety and empathic pain and replaces them with feelings of safety and peace. The attorney can fall asleep again, nestled in the comfort of her own home; the father can tiptoe away, relishing the beauty of his own sweet child.

What’s Wrong With a Little Comfort?

At worst, though, this very same faith mutes one of our most important biological and psychological alarms. It teaches us to deny the evidence of our senses, our minds, and our powerful empathic resonance. It makes us more able to cope with realities, but less able to change them. We don’t throw ourselves quite as forcefully into peacemaking if we can excuse war deaths. We don’t give quite as much to help cure cancer when we can convince ourselves that those little cancer victims have brought goodness into the world. Pain, including empathic pain, motivates us to do something, to fix something, to do whatever it takes to make the pain stop. If we can dull the pain with rationalizations, then it loses its power to compel action.

Insistence that suffering is meaningful also stunts compassion. None of us wants to live in a world in which bad things, unbearably bad things, happen at random to other people. This would mean that they might happen to us or to those we love. So, we want to believe that what happens to other people is predictable, deserved, or within their control. One kind of justification we use routinely is what psychologists call blaming the victim. We convince ourselves that another person’s suffering was caused by something that person did or failed to do: That rape victim should have dressed differently. My poor neighbor is lazy. Those families that got killed in Fallujah were doubtless supporting terrorists.

Blaming the victim diminishes our empathy and our willingness to help individuals and solve societal problems. Ironically, it fits quite comfortably with the notion of divine justice and may even be necessary if one hopes to sustain belief in a God who is fair, loving, and omnipotent. The irony lies in the fact that, if there is a God who is loving, just, and powerful, the process of rationalizing suffering actually makes his followers less god-like on all three counts.

To reiterate, Evangelicals agree that earthly harm is bad, which is why, when it occurs, it must be justified. When they argue that suffering is good or meaningful, they talk about specific suffering, not suffering in general. Even then, they begin with a premise that is tautological. It is good, this suffering, because it must be good, because God is good. It is justified, because it must be justified because God is just. Then, like good attorneys, they search for evidence, any evidence, that might support this a priori position. When no such evidence is forthcoming, even when the evidence is to the contrary, we are told the good effects must be there, because God is good and they are simply not visible to us.

To humbly and hopefully take such things on faith in the absence of evidence is what faith is all about. But to take such things on faith in contradiction to the best of our logic and experience and moral comprehension is to render logic, experience, and the word “good,” meaningless.

If you liked this chapter, The Dark Side: How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth is available at

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