A Strong Feeling of Distaste


No matter what we believe about God, it is difficult not to feel the weight of the mystery of pain and wrestle with the burden of the human condition.

In a recent interview Stephen Fry gave “poor old God a bit of a kicking” and sparked off something of a controversy, drawing a response from Krish Kandiah, a defence from the Archbishop of Canterbury and even a reply from Russell Brand, among other things.

People Feel Strongly About Pain

Stephen Fry paints a bitter portrait of pain which draws you in immediately and makes anyone who believes in God a partner in His crimes. It’s a strong emotional appeal and it’s very provocative but it’s strength is in its emotional force, more than anything else.

After hearing what he has to say, you don’t end up thinking something as much as you end up feeling something—very strongly.

It’s easy to see that the problem of pain is not simply intellectual or philosophical—it’s emotional and deeply personal. It’s a problem that does not affect the mind alone and cannot be simply reasoned away.

It’s why Job’s friends only made matters worse for him. They wanted to argue with him when he wanted someone to be present with him. They wanted to reason with him when he needed someone to be silent with him. Sometimes we can feel the force of pain so strongly that a good reason will never be good enough.

People Feel Differently About Pain

While I was drawn in by his strong feelings about God, what is deeply unsettling is that Fry seems to disregard the feelings of people who face the same questions about pain without feeling the same way about God as he does.

A good God in a world of pain makes a lot of people angry with God, but it gives a lot of other people a great deal of hope. For every person who doubts the goodness of God because of pain, there are others who were able to conquer their pain because of their trust in Him.

That’s not to say that the emotional benefit of comfort is a good enough reason to settle the question of God. But it probably can’t be true that an emotional distaste for God is a good enough reason to settle the question either.

I’m usually suspicious of anyone whose feelings are louder than their reasoning.

Whatever we believe about God, if we’re going to be reasonable we probably shouldn’t build our beliefs on the strength of an emotional appeal. If faith can’t be true because of how it makes us feel, it probably can’t be false because of how it makes us feel either.

People Respond Differently to Pain

I felt disappointed with Fry’s anger because it suggests that people who trust in God do not wrestle with the weight of cosmic questions or the anguish of personal pain—that we somehow ignore, repress or undermine the importance of difficult questions, telling ourselves to be satisfied with a practised sense of denial or a blind thoughtless faith.

His rebuke does not do justice to the anguish of Job, the questions of Habakuk, the lamentations of Jeremiah or the desperate cries of David.

Nor does it give weight to the everyday stories of ordinary people in pain who bring their doubts to God instead of turning away in anger.

More poignantly, it does not give due credit to people of faith who lean into the human condition to partner with God and participate in the renewal of all things—people like the Ebola Fighters who last year were named TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year.

In an article in Slate Magazine, an atheist Brian Palmer explored the role of Christian missions in Africa, referring to arguments made by missionary James Levi Barton.

No one complains when the West crams its commercial values down the throats of Africans, Indians, and Chinese…We insist that these unfortunate, uncivilized people buy our wheat flour and bicycles, even though rice and rickshaws are probably just as good. How is that different from what missionaries do? They simply offer Christianity rather than consumerism.

There’s one other big difference between missionaries and Western merchants: The missionaries don’t profit personally from their work. They are compensated very poorly, if at all. Many risk their lives. How many people would risk death to spread the gospel of Western consumer goods gratis?”

Palmer concludes by saying, “As an atheist, I try to make choices based on evidence and reason. So until we’re finally ready to invest heavily in secular medicine for Africa, I suggest we stand aside and let God do His work.

It is difficult to think about pain without being emotional, so we cannot say that Fry is being unreasonable. But though it’s overwhelming, we shouldn’t settle for pat answers from the religious or angry ones from the skeptical.

God Enters Personally Into Pain

The problem of pain is both cosmic and deeply personal. It’s why Jesus enters the conversation in a personal and provocative way—as a fellow-sufferer, not a philosopher.

He leans into the human condition to rescue us from it.

The Gospel literally means good news. It’s a declaration of something that happened yesterday which has radically changed what is going to happen tomorrow and invites us into a partnership with God today.

It’s a cosmic vision that does not pretend to neatly resolve the question of pain, but gives us a new way of seeing the world—with compassion, confidence, faith, hope and love.

In the New Testament, pain is not seen as something to be explained but something to be overcome. There are good reasons to make sense of God in a hurting world, but whenever I find that reason is not good enough, I am grateful that we have good news.


Further Reading:

The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis

Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, Timothy Keller


Image Credit: Roadsidepictures

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