Webbed Feet on Dry Land: When Pain Seems Meaningless

I was just diagnosed with “severe degenerative disc disease.” This is a lower back issue. For the last five years, the pain has been tremendous, keeping me from doing many things including my work-out routine and playing basketball. There is a constant pain that goes down into my left hip from a nerve that is being affected. “Severe degenerative disc disease” sounds much worse than it actually is, but it feels as bad as it sounds. The outlook is good. Essentially, it will end up taking care of itself as my spine fuses on its own in my fifties (just a little over ten years to go!).

I was thinking about the pain and its severity the other day. You see, I have been prevented from exercise to some degree, and I love to work out. I love the way it makes me feel. I can always assess how good my workout was by taking account of my pain level the next day. When I can hardly move my arms, I feel a deep sense of satisfaction that my workout was not in vain. We call this being “sore.” If you are not sore the next day (at least to some degree), the workout was a failure, as the lack of soreness is a sign that you did not challenge your muscles enough to tear them down. In this sense, working out intentionally injures our muscles. Sometimes, the soreness is so severe that I cannot straighten my arms. Other times, I walk funny because my quadriceps hurt so badly from the “hip sled.”

But here is the issue: I can deal with the soreness from a good workout all day long. The more pain, the better. Often, when I think about it, the pain from a good workout is just as severe as that from my “degenerative disc decease.” But from one of them, I get a sense of victorious satisfaction. From the other, I have an attitude of debilitating defeat.

Why? Why does the same severity of pain bring about such contrasting attitudes?

Charles Darwin began his journey, according to his testimony, as a Christian. In fact, there was the possibility of him going into ministry before his ride on the Beagle. However, there were some things that changed his mind. No, it was not his “discovery” of evolution that changed him. In fact, it was something else that pushed him into this evolutionary paradigm: meaninglessness. More precisely, meaningless suffering. In his book Saving Darwin, Karl Giberson gives three primary observations in nature that contributed to Darwin’s eventual rejection of God. The first was a species of rhea. They were flightless birds. “Why would God create a bird with so much unused aerodynamic paraphernalia?” A bird with wings that could not fly, according to Darwin, made the wings meaningless and sad (p. 33). The second was a goose that, though it had webbed feet, never went into the water. “If this was the handiwork of God, it was a cruel joke” to make him try to walk on meaningless webbed feet (ibid). Finally, there was the Ichneumonidae wasp. The mother wasp introduces a paralyzing chemical into a caterpillar and then lays its eggs inside. The hatched wasps have instincts that cause them to eat the host caterpillar in such a way that keeps the caterpillar alive as long as possible. From Darwin’s perspective, God could not be responsible for such a horrific and painful process.

There were two other pains that Darwin could not reconcile with his Christian worldview. One was the doctrine of hell. Concerning the idea of eternal punishment, Darwin wrote near the end of his life, “I can hardly imagine anyone who would wish Christianity to be true . . . The plain language of the text seems to show that men who do not believe, and this would include my father, brother, and almost all my friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine” (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters, p. 87). Then there was the death of his daughter, Annie, at the age of 11. This came towards the end of his faith, when he still struggled to believe in a good God. His prayers for his daughter’s survival went unanswered. The remainder of his faith died with her.

Why all of this about Darwin? Because it shows how powerful the idea of meaningless suffering is. One can ascribe meaninglessness to all kinds of things, but when pain loses the force of meaning, its power is enough to rob us of all meaning.

Pain and suffering is a matter of perspective. If we can look up and find the hand of God behind the hurt, then we can bear it. But when God’s hand seems far from our pain, we become disillusioned. I don’t fault Darwin for his loss of faith. Well, let me put it another way. I cannot imagine losing a child, especially at the age of eleven. While I sit here today hoping and aspiring to be able to handle such a tragedy in a way that is fitting for my faith, I honestly don’t know how I would respond.

My sister committed suicide at the age of 33, after a long battle of depression. We all called on God to heal her to no avail. I can look at that right now and find a bit of meaning. In my own subjectivity, I put the puzzle of her death together and, whether my interpretation is right or not, I can see a picture of hope. My mother had an aneurysm and stroke that happened two years later, at the age of 57. She is unable to walk or talk (except some really odd phrases) and seems to have a child’s mentality. As I take care of her each Friday (Fridays are my day), I often grope to find meaning. That puzzle is not quite as easy to put together right now.

On to something less severe (but still retaining faith-disruption potential): Due to financial issues, my family and I are only able to rent a house. We just moved into a house right down the street from the Credo House a year ago. However, three weeks ago, our landlord said that they are moving back into their house and we have thirty days to get out. Financially, another move (finding a new home, down payments, and the cost of the move itself) was just beyond our ability to bear – but we had to do it. It is incredibly frustrating and, seemingly, meaningless. It was like the webbed feet of those ducks. Why? Why do we already have to move, Lord? Why when we cannot afford it? It is hard to make sense of it all.

Let me say this again: It is not just suffering and pain that is at issue. It is that which seems to be meaningless suffering and pain. It is the type which may cause us to think it makes more sense if God is not in control. It is the difference between being sore from a workout and having a sciatic nerve that lays its eggs in your life.

I was telling Carrie (my assistant) the other day that there are two types of Christians out there: those that find immediate hope and reasoning behind every pain and are perpetually joyful, and those who simply “punt to the eschaton” (the end) to find their joy and meaning. More often than I would like, I punt to the eschaton. I am not saying that is the right thing to do, but it is biblical.

The thing that must unite us as Christians is that there is no such thing as “meaningless.” That word does not need to be in our vocabulary. It is a word reserved for the atheist, the deist, and the pantheist, but not the Christian. I am not saying we don’t look it in the face from time to time (God knows I do), I am just saying that we cannot allow ourselves to camp there. That campground is off-limits for Christians. There are so many things out there that have webbed feet on dry land. There are so many sciatic nerves which cause us to cry “why?” There are so many mothers who are unable to walk or talk. There are so many children who die untimely deaths. There are so many times when a move seems meaningless. But our faith is not dependent on finding immediate understanding and fulfillment for our pain. Sometimes we do punt to the eschaton knowing that there is meaning behind it, even if we don’t know what that meaning is today.

Darwin’s problem was that he put God on trial. He required God to give an immediate answer for the oddities of pain. He placed himself above God and became God’s judge, jury, and executioner.

Isa 55:8-9
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.”

Do we really believe this when we are going through what seems to be meaningless pain? Or do we play God and require him to give an account of himself? Do we really believe that all things work together for good for those that love God (Rom. 8:28)? Is the “webbed feet on dry land” destroying your faith?

Pain is a matter of perspective. All things can be either soreness from a workout or a meaningless sciatic nerve. God knows what he is doing with ducks that don’t swim and he knows what he is doing with you.

35 Responses to “Webbed Feet on Dry Land: When Pain Seems Meaningless”

  1. As someone with a history of back problem myself, most recently from bone spurs at L4 and L6 and a subsequent fall down into a ravine last October, I feel you pain. And your perspective and the way you choose to deal with it is admirable. You are such an incredible example, and I’ll be praying for you, my friend.

  2. Profound. God bless you!

  3. Vanessa Boudreaux May 2, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    Thank you. Very timely messsage for me.

  4. Very good post, Michael. Just forwarded the link to someone that I think really needs to hear it, and will bookmark it for the day that I will need it.

  5. Michael,

    Good post.

    Concerning your pain, is there a chance for surgery? I take care of patients all the time who’ve had fusions and such done, and they usually report immediate relief after their surgery. The pain from the surgery itself lingers, of course, for some time, but the pain from the underlying condition is usually much, much less, if not gone entirely. Many say they wish they hadn’t waited this long for the surgery too.

  6. ‘there are two types of Christians out there: those that find immediate hope and reasoning behind every pain and are perpetually joyful and those who simply ”punt to the eschaton” (the end) to find their joy and meaning.’

    I realise this may be an unusual position to take in ‘post enlightenment’ western culture but where does that leave those who merely accept that pain is a part of life, no reason, no meaning, it just ‘is’?

  7. Well written. I have just one question/objection.

    You described the doubter as putting God on trial. Putting himself above God. William Lane Craig said a similar thing in response to Austin Dacey, “why should God have to meet our expectations?”

    Do you really believe that’s what the doubters/unbelievers are doing when they leave due to suffering and evil? The way you frame it, it sounds like they know God is there, but tell Him (there’s no way you know what you’re doing!).

    To me, it seems more like they are unsure whether He is there or not. It is more like they see the apparently meaningless suffering, and take it as evidence that God isn’t there. If I absolutely knew God was there and had a plan, I wouldn’t have the audacity to tell him “you don’t know what you’re doing!”

    But that’s the thing…We don’t know that he is there.

    To sum up… Do you really think the doubter is more like how you framed it, or how I framed it? Or both?

  8. TDC,

    I suppose I mean that when we put our thoughts about what God should do above the way he works and use that as a basis for our rejection we have put him on trial. When we are confused and attempt to resolve our feeling with biblical revelation, this is part of Christian growth.

    However, one thing you should realize is that I think we all have the tendency to out God on trial. I certainly do. I have often presumed during the hearing that my ways would be better than his as I would not create (to continue with the metaphor) ducks with webbed feet that canny swim. In the end, however, if Christ rose from the grave, my trial should be short lived as I ultimately yeild my moral high ground to his goodness and judgment.

    The rejection of God based on these things is ultimately irrational as my subjective feelings about such things have no vote in truth. To think they do would not only be arrogant, but hopelessly non conclusive.

    Hope that makes sense.

  9. I also have a lower back problem, that of a herniated disc which causes sciatic pain as well as back and neck pain. I am only 25 years old and I have been trying to find the meaning in my suffering. Guess it would only make complete sense when I meet God like why did this happen as opposed to another issue which has a solution. This is the first time I’ve heard about a Christian with a similar issue and his thoughts and feelings about it. Keep on writing.

  10. I have a rich imagination, so it was easy for me to come up with a few theological purposes behind my herniated L5-S1 and associated chronic sciatic nerve pain. It’s probably better not to be good at coming up with such associations, though, so your subconscious isn’t tempted to give you an injury when it wants to teach you something theological.

  11. A very thought provoking post Michael. I’ve been processing similar feelings relating to natural disaster. When the world is crashing down around you then intellectual belief becomes meaningless. But I did find that when I was emotionally wounded and empty, I still had a grain of faith that said the regardless what I’m going through, God is going through it with me. I’ve learned that even in tragedy, even in the middle of grief, God is there. It won’t make it “feel” any nicer, but in a way it’s a shared grief.

  12. The best way to believe what all of the NT says, is starting with the evidence of Jesus’s resurrection, and then going back to the cradle and His incarnation, miracles, etc. When Jesus resurrected, the women found the angels sitting inside His tomb (John 20:12) and outside on the rock (Mat. 28:2). That seated position signifies triumph and tells us that this is the way we must receive our tribulations (the nails, the spears, our crucifixion, sickness, pain and death) with faith and patience, and the hope that someday we will have a new body like Him and the explanations of all mysteries (1 Co. 1:19-23).

  13. Truth Unites... and Divides May 3, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    “Concerning the idea of eternal punishment, Darwin wrote near the end of his life, “I can hardly imagine anyone who would wish Christianity to be true . . .”

    Professor James K. A. Smith: “The “I-can’t-imagine” argument makes man the measure of God, or at least seems to let the limits and constraints of “my” imagination trump the authority of Scripture and interpretation.”

    Theological Liberal: “I can’t imagine a Divinely Sovereign, All-Knowing, and Loving God having numerous human souls going through eternal torment in Hell.”

    Excellent post, CMP!!!

  14. Truth Unites... and Divides May 3, 2011 at 2:48 pm


    How much does it cost to buy a house in whatever city you live in, CMP?

    And how much does it cost to rent that house?

    If I lived where you live, I’d help you move. So short of that, my tip is to bend your knees when lifting. It’s better for your back.

    If you bend your back while lifting something, and you spasm yourself into some excruciating pain, you’ll be hating life.

  15. It cost more to rent than to buy. We just don’t have the credit to buy.

    We moved last week! Had to have movers. $2500 bucks! Are you kidding me?

  16. Hi Michael,

    Several points about degenerative disease !!!

    1. BE EXTREMELY CAREFULL which spine MD you see. I can be of help in referring good neurospine MD

    2. It is important to realize that lumbar epidural, facet block, rhizotomy and the like are band aid treatment.

    3. If pain is significant to point where surgical attention is needed please make sure to localize as much as they can the site of pain. The lumbar myelogram is controversial and painful itself.

    If you need more infor I can assist please do not hesitate.


  17. Michael – this really was a profound article. Spoke directly to me. I’ve gone through many disappointments with what I thought God was doing in my life. Yet, He has brought me to a place of faith by thanking Him for “the fleas”. (See “The Hiding Place” by Corrie ten Boom) Your article really hits the nail on the head. Often, I’ve wondered if I could hang on to my faith when witnessing the hell some Christians endure, yet the often report a closeness to God I can’t imagine. Why? Because God gave *them* the grace to endure and draw close to Him; He didn’t give me the grace as a witness to their suffering. Thank you for your wonderful article.

    Gary Brown

  18. I have come to decide that God is all about giving us a choice to love Him (in and though everything and anything). When we have “the opportunity”, we choose to love and trust Him still. That is how He and we know we are truly His. Most of the time it’s our decision. Humbleness to God is really something quite extraordinary to learn. But so worth it. We will need this in the days ahead.

  19. Michael, You are brave – not so much in your statements about God and pain (though it was exceptional), but in your revealing you have back trouble. I used my back trouble as an illustration preaching to the 60 people in my church and I swear 70 people came up to me after the service to tell me how to bend, what to eat, how to stretch, what doctor to see, what their favorite medications . . .
    About the other stuff, VanTil would be proud.
    From the slopes of Mount Kilauea the home of the unwebbed Nene goose,


  20. Nayda Wallace May 3, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    Michael: In addition to the e/mail I sent you, I have a firm belief in the following that has always helped me face troubled times. IF I UNDERSTOOD EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS IN THIS WORLD (to me or others) wouldn’t that mean I was on equal footing with God? Think about it…is it not the ultimate arrogant attitude to think we have the capability to understand ALL of God’s purposes in difficult circumstances with our finite minds. That’s what FAITH is all about. We have to keep praying that our faith in God’s will keep us steady in the midst of trouble.

  21. Oswald Chambers, “My Utmost For His Highest”, May 8:
    “Though He slay me, yet will I wait for Him”.”…You cannot see Him just now, you cannot understand what He is doing, but you know Him. ….”This is life eternal, that they might know Thee.” The real meaning of eternal life is a life that can face anything it has to face without wavering.

  22. great post, my health is good, but i lost my job 7 months ago and even as a believer of 27 years its hard going, my wife is doing her best with all extra hours her boss can find, the one thing i can say its true christ has come closer to me, when iam down, at 62 , i feel that psalm 37 is mine, all mine, my god knows what pain that passes over me at times, yet i feel god will see me over this hill, and he will never let his children beg bread,michael stay strong, your posts keep us thinking, no-one knows the answers but one day we get to see him as he is, oh what a savour, god bless george57.

  23. I am so sorry to hear about your pain. I have not had to deal with intense physical pain; however, I spent two years in intense spiritual pain. At the time it seemed pointless, but it led to the greatest blessing and discovery of my life. Additionally, since that time; I feel extremely close to God. Thus, I have learned that His character never fails. He always has a purpose, and He loves us much more than any of us realize. Blessings! I’ll pray for your back.

  24. As one who has several chronic health issues, a damaged heart and asthma, it does get discouraging sometimes. One thing I would like to say to folks here who are lecturing Michael on how he should feel, please don’t. It just makes things worse to think you aren’t doing things ‘right’ as a Christian. Best just to listen, pray and encourage, and let God do any ‘lesson teaching’ HE has in mind, if any at all. Bad things happen to the best of people. As scripture says, it rains on both the just and the unjust.

  25. God is not Calvinist, Mike. He’s Eastern Orthodox. He does not infringe upon the freedom of His creation.

    If some worms choose to spread their species in a way that’s gonna hurt other cute little creatures, so be it.

    If a bird chooses never to fly or make use of its wings again, thus burying its God-given talent, like that servant in the Parable, so be it: God’s not gonna stop that.

    Or if a goose wants to evolve from being a water-animal to becoming a land-animal, thus offering an example of change and transformation to some people who like to moan and complain all day long that they were “born that way”, so they “can’t change”, so be it.

    If someone chooses death over life, contrary to God’s advice in the Pentateuch, so be it: God’s not gonna force him or her to do the opposite. He may sometimes miraculously save him or her from self-inflicted death, but He’s not gonna just keep on doing that if that person remains hardened and continues to reject Grace.

  26. John From Down Under May 4, 2011 at 4:29 am

    Lucian what do your comments have to do with this post exactly?

    Are we missing something here? Are your comments meant to be an encouragement, a reproof or an allegory that we’re meant to decipher?

  27. I used to workout daily in my mid 30’s and found that a couple tablespoons of L-Glutamine powder a half hour after my workout kept me from having that next day muscle shredding pain yet still achieved the results of feeling great.
    I remember how bad my muscles would hurt when I would run out of the stuff and how much better I’d feel when I got more.
    I remember there being conflicting reports about whether it really worked, but I can attest that it worked for me without a doubt.

  28. Michael,

    Keep up the good fight!

    Your program helped me through my tough times. I lost my mother back in 2003 she suffered a brain aneurysm but didn’t make it. When we pulled her off life support she gasped for air for 20 hours, a painful process to watch. In 2009 my wife and I lost our jobs and our home due to the market and had to relocate out of state for our jobs. Renting can be difficult.

    I am sorry you have problems with your back, if I were in your area I would have helped you move. I just wanted to say thank you for your program and it has brought me to a deeper understanding of my faith.

    Keep the faith, endure to the end.


  29. Forget the Ichneumonidae Wasp. Leucochloridium paradoxum beats it hands down:

    Those are just two of the many facts that would drive any person insane at the horror and meaninglessness of it all if they contemplated them long enough:

  30. I don’t know if God is Calvinist or Eastern Orthodox, but probably neither. Our human categories are transcended by His higher ways. Like Michael, I punt to the eschaton a lot, but horrifying parasites, deformed human babies, medical issues, untimely death, and many other things that some people might consider “meaningless” are simply a result of living in a fallen world filled with sin and corruption. Sin hurts innocent people. And before someone nails me for being like the disciples who wanted to know if the blind man or his parents sinned to cause his blindness, perhaps some things we cannot explain are just there so that God can reveal is glory either now or in the eschaton.

  31. Another amazing essay. Thank you, Michael. I don’t have anything fascinating, witty or profound to offer. Just — thank you. I am blessed to mostly be able to see the positive in life, but it is soooo easy to go down the long dark road sometimes. Your writing always helps me look upward again.

  32. I thought I had it bad moving university kids around to different locations over the last 8 years. I must own part of the U-haul company by now. Sorry to hear of your move and medical problem Michael, I tend to punt hoping to recover a fumble….. I tend to believe that God allows not plans for bad things that happens to us, I usually punt when it’s raining not when things are going well…..typically human I be. Take care , stand strong in him who is able to keep you from falling.

  33. Thank you for the honest posts, these are the ones that bring me back to this site. Sometimes I feel the same way, that as we grow older we see that life is not what we had envisioned it would be. God seems to be at a distance and is more of an observer – so much injustice and unecessary pain. In my case, my efforts to follow Him have backfired and caused me much pain. Or maybe I am just dissapointed and had the wrong expectations. There are pockets of my life where I see His hand but the pockets that i wish He would fix are largeley left alone. When I was younger I thought that I could predict what he would do next, now that I am older I realize he doesn’t do what we expect but works in His own ways. I don’t fault darwin either, the only thing I would say is that God Himself lost his own Child and I think this is the greatest pain. No answers here, pretty much like the book of Job.

  34. Wow! The blog post and some of the comments really hit me where I needed it *today*. God is so funny/uncanny/wise in His timing.

    $2500 for movers: highway robbery! Hope your credit improves. :/

    Funny how we form images of people. I would think that the creator of TTP would “have it made” so to speak.

    That parasite mentioned by one poster: GYAH! *shudder*

    Chiropractors. They are wonderful, wonderful people that CAN and DO help get rid of sciatic horribleness. Hope you can find a good one. As one poster put it, you ARE brave to admit to the back pain, because all of us DO have opinions on what works and most of us share ’em.


  1. suffering links | - May 4, 2011

    […] Webbed Feet on Dry Land: When Pain Seems Meaningless […]

Leave a Reply