What is the purpose of pain and suffering in a Christian’s life?

Submitted to  in partial fulfillment  of the requirements for the completion of SEMI 500-CO5 Introduction to Seminary Studies by Joyce Gerald October 5, 2014

Contents

Introduction. 1

Influential Experiences of Suffering and Pain That Impacted Lewis. 2

Second Influential Experience – Injured in World War I 2

Third Influential Experience – The Death of His Wife. 2

What Were the Result of These Influences?. 3

Biblical Foundations Related to Suffering and Pain. 4

Biblical Foundations – Lewis’ Experiences with Suffering and Pain. 4

Suffering and Pain Enhances a Christian’s Faith. 6

Old Testament Examples. 6

New Testament Examples. 9

Suffering and Pain Shows God as Protector and Provider 11

God the Protector 11

God the Provider 13

Conclusion. 13

Annotated Bibliography. 15

 

 

Introduction

The topic of this paper is what is the purpose of suffering and pain in a Christian’s life? Human beings experience suffering and pain.  Suffering and pain impact the beliefs of many believers.  It also provides atheists with the ammunition that they need to deny the existence of God. Many Christians do not expect to experience suffering and pain after conversion.  Some Christians will cite scriptural references to support this position.[1] However, the Bible does not guarantee Christians a life free from suffering and or pain.[2]  With this is mind, how does a Christian come to terms with the suffering and pain that they experience in their walk with Christ? How do they explain the suffering and pain that they live with to the outside world and their family members who are not Christians?

There is ample evidence that Christians do, in fact, experience suffering and pain.[3] The book of I Peter 4 (NIV) addressed suffering and identified it as an event that all Christians will experience.[4] C. S. Lewis experienced pain and suffering in his life. Lewis developed a personal viewpoint of the constructs of suffering and pain as evidenced in his writings. [5] The writer of this paper will present an argument that suffering and pain in a Christian’s life enhances faith and trust in God as their protector and provider.

 

Influential Experiences of Suffering and Pain That Impacted Lewis

The first influential experience of Lewis that led to his thoughts on the topic of pain and suffering was the death of his mother.  The death of Lewis’ mother and the emotional pain experienced due to the loss, in addition to being sent to boarding school, led Lewis to become an atheist.[6]   Due to his mother’s death, Lewis simultaneously experienced an emotional distance between himself and his father.  Lewis had no emotional support to enable him to process the loss of his mother.[7] World War I also resulted in suffering and pain for Lewis.

Second Influential Experience – Injured in World War I

Lewis suffered grief and loss when he returned from World War I after being critically injured.[8] The author was a brilliant scholar who had difficulty finding individuals who were of the same intellectual caliber.  However, Lewis found such a person who became his wife.  However, this union resulted in Lewis’ third experience with grief.

Third Influential Experience – The Death of His Wife

Lewis met and married an American writer, who was just as brilliant as he was, and they were both Christians.[9]   In her, Lewis found an intellectual and spiritual soul mate.  Lewis wrote A Grief Observed after the loss of his wife to cancer. Lewis posited, “A Grief Observed” is a stark recounting of one man’s attempts to come to grips with and in the end defeat the emotional paralysis of the most shattering grief of his life.”[10]

Lewis became an atheist because the challenges with evil in the world overwhelmed him, and he could not accept the fact that a loving God could allow His children to suffer so much pain.[11]   He discovered answers to these troubling thoughts as his exegesis of the scriptures provided answers to the question, “What is the purpose of suffering and pain in a Christian’s life?”

What Was the Result of These Influences?

Lewis penned the book The Problem with Pain to resolve some of the conflicts he experienced with the topic. While Lewis was an atheist Lewis considered the universe to be a cold, dark and empty place.   However, now that Lewis was a Christian, the book proffered clarity for believers who are struggling with the construct of a loving God and His allowance of suffering and pain.  He identified God as loving, omnipotent, and omnipresent.   Although, while he was an atheist the juxtaposing of suffering and pain with a loving and caring God presented itself as an oxymoron in his thought process.

The book clarified this position for the reader.  Lewis states, “Pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experiences of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving.” [12]

With this is mind, how does a Christian come to terms with the suffering and pain that they will experience in their walk with Christ? How do they explain the suffering and pain that they live wth to the outside world and their family members who are not Christians? How did Lewis resolve those dichotomies in his writings?

Lewis contended, “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 His creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.”[13]  The statement posited by Lewis is the problem that many Christians have with suffering and pain.  Lewis offered a resolution to the problem based on his experiences with suffering, pain, and grief.

Biblical Foundations Related to Suffering and Pain

Biblical Foundations – Lewis’ Experiences with Suffering and Pain

The biblical or theological foundation that led to Lewis’ thoughts on pain and suffering is the fact that God is pure and good.[14]  God also wants the best for his children.   This realization did not come about until after Lewis left the construct of atheism and returned to Christianity. The understanding of pain and suffering is problematic for non-believers, but Lewis considered this construct explainable within the confines of the Christian belief system.  He argued,

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. Just how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently, atheism turns out to be too simple.  If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning.[15]

Lewis’ recounted his personal experiences with suffering and pain in the book he wrote about these two events in a Christian’s life.  He proffered an argument that two forces in this world exist in a parallel manner.[16] Those forces were good and evil. The existence of good and evil in this world and humanity’s interactions with both forces impacts their understanding of why humans must experience pain and suffering.[17] A believers’ interaction with the forces of good and evil results in suffering and pain.[18]  Scripture posited such an example in the book of Job. Job experienced suffering and pain to a level of intensity that is not paralleled anywhere else in the Bible.

Again, the necessity of suffering and pain is foreign to the atheistic mind. However, Christians reference the experiences of Joseph, the son of Isaac, and what Joseph said to his brothers when he revealed himself to them.  Joseph made it clear to them that God used their behavior towards him for good (Genesis 50:20).  Lewis’ sentiments mirrored Joseph’s statement. Lewis spoke of God’s quietness when pleasurable events occurred in the lives of believers; however, at times He used suffering and pain to bellow at the quietness of a Christian’s conscience to heighten their awareness of him in their lives.[19]  Sometimes this resulted in a miracle as an answer to prayers offered for the release of suffering and pain.

Lewis experienced unanswered prayers and his need for a miracle when his wife died.  He believed in miracles and wrote extensively about them as the demonstration of a “living God” who used miracles to relieve the pain and suffering of His children.[20]

Lewis’ experiences with pain and suffering intertwined with his theological belief in the deity, sovereignty and justice system of God.[21]  Lewis identified that God wants to make humans His sons, but the process, “would not have been painful or difficult if the human race had not turned away from God centuries ago. They were able to do this because he gave them free will: [Why would God do that?] He gave them free will because a world of mere automata could never love and therefore never know infinite happiness.”[22] Without free will humanity would not be able to reach its human potential and arrive at the state of oneness with God given to it by the death and resurrection of his Son; Lewis called this the grand miracle.[23] However, with free will, man is subject to the results of the decisions that he makes. [24] These decisions sometimes lead to pain and suffering.

Consequently, it is evident that Lewis’ theological foundations stem from his understanding of the deity of God and humanity’s ability to choose how it lives its life. Keller described the process of growth that occurs as a result of pain and suffering as a horrible event that ends with eternal beauty.[25]   A life focused on God as its savior and redeemer can still experience suffering and pain. Therefore, how do suffering and pain enhance a Christian’s life?

Suffering and Pain Enhances a Christian’s Faith

Old Testament Examples

Due to the limitation of space, the author will focus on two specific Old Testament examples of suffering and pain.  Job and Joseph are two Old Testament characters who demonstrated how their faith and trust in God grew due to suffering and pain. Regardless of the circumstances that they were in, and the undue suffering and pain that they endured, they remained steadfast in their faith and trust in God

Job 

The story of Job, as detailed in the Bible by a book of the same name, described Job as a wealthy man who loved God and aspired to live a righteous life.  He despised evil with his whole being (Job 1:1).  Lewis refers to evil as one of the two forces that exist in the universe.[26]  These forces were at work in the life of Job. Satan appeared before God and challenged him.  Satan told God that if he took away everything that Job possessed Job would remain faithful to, or trust, him. God told Satan to go ahead, “. . . but on the man himself do not lay a finger” (Job 1:12).  This statement “but on the man himself do not lay a finger” demonstrates the limitations that God has placed on Satan and the provision he made to protect him.  At this present time, during periods of suffering and pain, Christians have that same assurance from God.

Satan took all that Job possessed in this world, including his family.  Job was devastated by the suffering and pain; however, Job saw them as an opportunity to demonstrate his theological foundations.  Job acknowledged that everything he had come from God and it was his to take at any time (Job 1:21).  During this entire ordeal Job did not sin against God (v. 22).

However, Job’s period of suffering and pain was not concluded.  Satan came before God once again and argued that if he afflicted Job’s body he would turn from God. The Lord stated, “Very well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life” (Job 2:6).  Satan gave Job a disease of sores and boils (v. 8). Job had nothing left.  Nonetheless, Job maintained his faith and trust in God as his protector and provider.  His theology was a living theological construct. [27] He did not waiver in his faith.

Despite all the pain and suffering that Job endured, The Bible stated that Job’s faith, trust, and understanding of God increased as he developed a personal relationship with God (Job 42:5).

Joseph 

Joseph was the firstborn son of Rachel (Genesis 30:23-24).  The concept of Joseph being the, “. . . son of his [Jacob’s] old age”, presented a dysfunctionality within the family that resulted in jealousy and envy (Gen. 37:3-5).  Jacob praised Joseph more than his other sons and gave him a unique coat of many colors (vs. 5).  This action added to the rivalry, jealousy, and envy among the brothers.  The brothers were also jealous because Joseph articulated the prophetic dreams that God sent to prepare his family for the future that they were about to face (vs. 5-10).

The interpretation of the dreams indicated that Joseph would be a great leader, and all members of the family would bow down before him.  Even his father was incensed by the interpretation (Gen. 37).  The brothers plotted against Joseph and sold him into slavery.  Joseph experienced emotional suffering and pain due to the dynamics of his family, but now he was going to suffer separation and enslavement (vs. 18-25).

Joseph endured numerous hardships during his enslavement.  One of those hardships culminated in Joseph’s incarceration for something that he did not do (Gen. 39).  At no point during the history of these events did Joseph demonstrate misgivings of his faith in God.  His future was attached to the suffering and pain that he endured. The suffering and pain opened doors for leadership and training that would not have opened had he stayed with his family (Gen. 40).   Joseph used his gift of interpreting dreams to bring him closer to the goal God had designed for him.

While in prison Joseph interpreted the dreams of two members of the Pharaoh’s Staff (Gen 40).   One of them was Pharaoh’s Cup-bearer. The act of trusting the Cup-bearer culminated in him becoming the ruler of Egypt.  Joseph’s suffering and pain saved the nation of Egypt and prevented the starvation of his family and the world (Gen. 42-44).  Through this instance Christians come to understand that sometimes suffering and pain benefits others as well as themselves.

The Bible concluded Joseph’s story with this statement, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen 50:20).  The end of Joseph’s story is reminiscent of the sentiments that Lewis presented in The Great Divorce.  Lewis stated, “. . . . evil can be undone, but it cannot ‘develop into good’. . .”.[28]   The book ends with reflections of heaven and hell. It implied that human beings have a deep desire for heaven, but its spirit is too weak to endure the suffering and pain that presents itself to them on a daily basis.  Through this example of Joseph, Christians come to understand that sometimes their suffering and pain benefits others as well as themselves.  The Bible records many other examples of suffering and pain that end with a blessing for all involved (Hebrews 11).

New Testament Examples

The New Testament is replete with examples of people who endured suffering and pain for the sake of the Gospel.  The Apostles all experienced and wrote about suffering and pain. The author will focus on the writings of three specific apostles; they are James, the brother of Jesus, Peter, and Paul.

James 

James considered suffering and pain to be a part of the believer’s life.  He expressed, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4). James’ thoughts on suffering and pain indicated that it is a process that the believer must consider a joyful experience.  He provided a progression from the testing of faith to completeness or maturity in Christ (vs. 4). Humanity does not see suffering and pain as a vehicle to completeness or maturity.   At the same time, Peter presented a case for suffering and pain that is similar to James.

Peter

             Peter encouraged believers to “greatly rejoice” while they are suffering and proposed that it, and trials, is an integral part of the Christian walk (I Pet 1:6). He continues by stipulating that suffering and trials come to prove the “genuineness” of the believer’s faith (vs. 7).  Consequently, what is the purpose of suffering and trials?  Peter proposed that sufferings and prosecutions refine believers in the same manner that gold was refined by fire (vs 7). He postulated that the end product of suffering and trials results in praise and glorifies Jesus Christ the Redeemer.  In like manner, Paul suggested an explanation of suffering and pain that is similar to both James and Peter.

Paul

Paul, in his letters to the Romans, pointed to the fact that believers must prove an attitude of “glory’ when they are faced with tribulations [suffering and or trials] (Rom 5: 3).  Moreover he, like James, revealed that suffering and trials were at the beginning of a process that “produces perseverance, character, and hope [or faith]” (vs. 4).  According to Paul, this occurred because the love of God was poured into the hearts of all believers (vs. 5). In his letters to the Philippians, Paul chronicled his personal experiences with suffering and pain; he referred to the fact that they brought him a sense of contentment (Phil 4:11).  He mentioned that he was able to endure those experiences because he did not rely on his strength (vs. 12).  Paul reported that he had a “thorn in the flesh” that God would not remove (2 Cor 12:7-8).   He recalled what The Lord told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (vs. 9).  Paul mentioned, as both James and Peter did, that he would boast, or glory, in his infirmities because it led to the “power of Christ resting on him” (vs 9). He concluded, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10).  Paul’s statement implied that God used suffering and pain to grow his faith.

Unlike the teachers described by Lewis in, The Abolition of Man, when God taught He spoke from his knowledge base.[29]  His Word teaches that suffering and pain brings a believer to a deeper understanding of His will in their lives and strengthens their faith.  All of the examples presented in both the Old and New Testament confirmed and agreed with the thesis statement that suffering and pains do increase a believer’s faith.  For a believer to develop faith they must also trust God, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” (Prov 3:5-6).  In like manner, suffering and pain also teach the believer that The Lord protects and provides for his children.

Suffering and Pain Shows God as Protector and Provider

God the Protector

The Old and New Testament demonstrated that suffering and pain developed the faith and trust of believers. In addition to this, the scriptures also proved that God protects his people during their times of suffering and pain.  He protected Job from Satan by establishing barriers of protection around Job (Job 1:12 and Job 2:6).  Satan cannot cause the death of a Christian.  He protected Joseph from prolonged incarceration by using his gift of the interpretation of dreams for the servants of Pharaoh.  Not only did God provide protection for Joseph, but his protection of Joseph resulted in the protection of his servant Israel and the nation that would proceed from him.  The entire Bible is replete with examples of God as the protector of His people.

Peter described the protection of God, “[Christians] who through faith are shielded by God’s power” (I Pet 1:5). Thus, Peter admonished Christians to be confident that their future is secure regardless of the pain and suffering that they were experiencing.  Paul detailed for the church in Corinth the numerous floggings, perilous journeys, and dangers that he endured (2 Cor 13:21-27).  Paul described the protection that God provided by citing a list of hazards, “from Jews, Gentiles, in the city, in the country, at sea, [and even at the hand of] false believers” (vs 26).  Paul provided those examples to inspire the Corinthians and appraise them of the fact that God remained their greatest protector.  If God protected the saints of old a generalization that He will protect His saints today is tenable.  Keller discussed that protection and provided a contemporary example of suffering and pain in his book.[30] Emily, a character in the book, admitted that she heard of God’s protection, but never personally experienced it until she started her journey of suffering and pain.[31]  At that point, the reader ascertained that God was faithful to His children and He used suffering and pain to develop faith and trust in them.  God also used suffering and pain to show His love for them by protecting them.  The author presented the following facts about God and how He used suffering and pain to teach His children about God the protector, and finally, God the provider who strengthened the faith and developed the trust of His people.

God the Provider

Emily recalled that her image of God was very limited. [32]  She affirmed that God was a distant figure of whom she had an earthly father figure image[33]  Like Job, Emily lost everything she owned; however, Emily learned that God kept His promise of provision for her and her children.[34] Emily taught her children about faith in God and how His hand of provision worked in their lives; her grasp of the beauty and magnitude of the lessons learned from suffering and pain were evident in her discourse with her children.

In the midst of this horrible situation, where my whole identity and where my family has been attacked, I see glimpses of what God is doing and how my life and our lives will be changed— and I get excited to see who I get to be at the end of all this. Like being in a race, . . . You can’t go around it, you have to go through it— and the rain and the mud are weighing you down— you can’t go through it fast; you must concentrate on each painful step . . . but at the same time, something is keeping you upright and compelling you to continue. In the distance, you see what appears to be a sheet of rain (almost like a car wash rinse) and then you see it— the sun; it is perfectly clear . . . The person you will be there will be stronger, with more understanding of how to run this race, and with satisfaction /peace. . . I have explained it to my children like this: In every fairy tale, there is always a tragedy, and the protagonist faces that adversity, overcomes it, and thrives because of it. God is giving us our fairy tale— what do you see at the end?[35] In the same way, that God provided for Job at the end of his life, He also provided for Emily. God will do the same for all of his children.

Conclusion 

 The author presented the following thesis question, what is the purpose of suffering and pain in a Christian’s life?  The thesis statement stipulated that suffering and pain in a Christian’s life enhance faith and trust in God as their protector and provider. Examples of the work of C. S. Lewis proffered evidence that suffering and pain grows out of the present evil world; however, God used it to develop faith, trust, and made protection and provision for His children as they experienced the process of suffering and pain. Old and New Testament examples were offered to demonstrate that God does allow suffering and pain to afflict His children, but He limits its impact on their lives.

The current research on suffering and pain and its impact on the lives of Christians is not conclusive. However, the generalization that suffering and pain enhanced faith and trust as modern Christians experienced their walk with God was has demonstrated in this paper.  Finally, the other generalization presented is that God protected and provided for His people throughout the Bible and does so today.  The paper was limited in its scope of inquiry into the spiritual benefits of suffering and pain. The author ascertained that further qualitative research is needed in this area to support the spiritual benefits of suffering and pain in the lives of Christians. 

Annotated Bibliography

“Clive Staples Lewis,” Bio.com. Last Modified July 21, 2014. Accessed September 23, 2014. http://www.biography.com/people/cs-lewis-9380969. This site provides an overview of the life of C. S. Lewis from his childhood to adulthood.

Keller, Timothy J. Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2013. Keller presents a biblical answer for why there is pain and suffering in a Christian’s life, and a process of how to walk with Him when this occurs to you personally.  It is considered the most recent book on the answer to the question of why Christians experience Pain and Suffering. 

Lewis, C. S. The Abolition of Man. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2002. This book addresses the teaching of English in the upper form (middle and high grades in the US) schools in the UK.  It defends science, but cautions against using it to set aside values.

Lewis, C. S. The Great Divorce. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2002. This theological fantasy reflects on the Christian concept of heaven and hell.

Lewis, C. S. A Grief Observed. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2002. This book is a collection of Lewis’s reflections on the death of his wife.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2002. Kindle. Mere Christianity is the written from of a series of radio discussions that were presented by Lewis during World War II. This is a theological work and is well known among Christian apologetics.  This writer has heard Ravi Zacharias and other Christian apologetics make reference to it more than once on the radio.

Lewis, C. S. Miracles. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2002. Lewis addresses the exactitude of miracles and whether or not they have occurred.

Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1996. Kindle. This book was written to provide an intellectual explanation for suffering and pain to Christians. The book also addresses and clarifies the concept of theodicy.

Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2002. This satirical work could be classified as fictional as well as non-fiction because it addresses an issue that is believed only by Christians.  The existence of hell and what happens to people who when they arrive there.

Slick, Matt. “If God Is All Powerful and Loving, Why Is There Suffering in the World.” Carm.org. 2014. Accessed September 23, 2014. http://carm.org/if-god-all-powerful-and-loving-why-there-suffering-world . This article explains why God does not stop suffering in the world. It states eleven points to clarify the author’s assertion that humanity has the right to choose how it lives its life.

Notes

[1] Psalms 103:3 (NIV) “who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases” Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced are in the New

International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998).

[2] Romans 5:3 “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings”

[3] R. C. Sproul, Surprised by Suffering: The Role of Pain and Death in The Christian Life

(Lake Mary, Fla:Tyndale House Publishers, 2009), 419-421, Kindle.

[4] I Peter 4

[5] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2002), 1.

[6] Ibid., 485.

[7] Ibid., 486.

[8] “Clive Staples Lewis,” Bio.com, July 21, 2014, accessed September 23, 2014,

http://www.biography.com/people/cs-lewis-9380969.

[9] Douglas Gresham, introduction to A Grief Observed, by C. S. Lewis (New York, NY: Harper Collins,

2002), 652.

[10] Gresham, A Grief Observed, 652

[11] Lewis, The Problem of, 1.

[12] Ibid., 14.

[13] Ibid., 1.

[14] Ibid., 91.

[15] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2002), 37-38, Kindle.

[16] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2002).

[17] Ibid.

[18] C. S. Lewis, The Problem.

[19] Ibid.

[20] C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2002), 373.

[21] Ibid.

[22] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 183.

[23] Ibid., 398.

[24] Matt Slick, “If God Is All Powerful and Loving, Why Is There Suffering in the World,” Carm.org, 2014, section goes here, accessed September 23, 2014, http://www.carm,org/evidence/suffering.html.

[25] Timothy J. Keller, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2013)

[26] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape.

[27] C. S. Lewis, The Problem.

[28] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2002), 462.

[29] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2002), 721.

[30] Keller, Walking With, 29.

[31] Ibid., 32.

[32] Ibid., 33.

[33] Ibid., 34.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., 33.

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