by C Michael PattonMarch 18th, 2013 44 Comments
A few years ago I was diagnosed with “severe degenerative disc disease.” This is a lower back issue. For the last six years, the pain has often been tremendous, keeping me from doing many things. Last year, I thought God had healed it, but if he did, he did not do so for long. Last week the pain was so bad I could not walk for days. I am back on my feet today, but residual pain has kept me from doing some things I really need to get done. I take care of my mother full-time, lifting her, changing her, and moving her from place to place. We have had to make some adjustments with her care for now. When the pain comes on, 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 legs 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 can 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 feel 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 meaninglessly 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 try to put the puzzle of her death together and, whether my interpretation is right or not, I can see a picture of some hope. But, looking through a different lens, I can also see an interpretation of compounded tragedy and pain that seems meaningless. My mother had an aneurysm and stroke that happened two years later, at the age of 56. She is unable to walk or talk (except some really odd phrases) and seems to have a child’s mentality. I take care of her full-time, as there is no one else that is strong enough to lift her. I often grope to find meaning here too. It just depends on the day.
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 that life 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 does have some biblical warrant.
However, 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. We should not have a dictionary which gives it any life. 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 our pain seem 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. When God did not show up to give him the answers he wanted, he left the faith.
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 wasps that lay eggs. And he knows what he is doing with you. Just trust him even if you don’t ever get the answers to the “why?” questions.
- Webbed Feet on Dry Land: When Pain Seems Meaningless
- An Outline of What I Taught on Suffering and Evil
- Atheist Counseling During Tragedy
- Dealing With Pleasure and Pain of Others When We Can’t Relate
- Sometimes Believing God is the Cosmic Telos of Our Suffering