In this third installment on Unapologetic, Francis Spufford’s case for the emotional coherence of Christianity, we come to the problem of pain. Spufford writes “Without faith, there’d be nothing but indifferent material forces at work. It’s only when the idea of events having an author is introduced that the universe becomes cruel, as opposed to merely heavy…In the absence of God, of course, there’s still pain. But there’s no problem. It’s just what happens.” To be clear, I don’t think he’s saying that pain isn’t unpleasant for people who don’t believe in God – it’s definitely a problem in that sense – but as a challenge to their belief structure, he is saying that suffering in the world is uniquely an issue for God-believers.
I’m not sure I agree with him here. I’m left wondering on what basis someone who denies the existence of God can say that suffering or pain is evil or a bad thing – I think at best, they can say “I don’t like it.” And maybe Spufford agrees here – he says without God pain is ‘just what happens’ – it’s neither good nor bad, just a fact. But I have spoken with too many people who reject the idea of a God, and at the same time whose hearts break over the suffering in the world. We’ve worked together to care for the homeless and fight against human trafficking. They do not believe in God, but they are moved to action by the suffering of others, because that suffering is not right. So here’s the problem: If you deny the existence of God and at the same time want to call the pain and suffering of the world ‘evil’, or ‘bad’, or ‘cruel’ – then you have a problem with your belief system too – because there’s nothing on which to base that assessment outside of your own dislike of pain. Christianity does not have a monopoly on ‘the problem of pain’. It’s a problem for all of us, unless you’re really completely indifferent to pain and simply see it as a given, neither good nor bad.
But getting back to Spufford, pain is a problem for us Christians. And we’ve tried all kinds of arguments to solve the problem. “We suffer because God is refining us.” “We suffer because God has a plan in which our suffering is necessary.” “We suffer as part of a package deal that gives us free will.” “We suffer, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s only a momentary prelude to heaven.” Many of these arguments have an element of truth to them, but ultimately they all fail, because for Christians the problem of pain is not solved intellectually. It’s confronted relationally.
Spufford writes: as Christians, “We say: all is not well with the world, but at least God is here in it, with us. We don’t have an argument that solves the problem of the cruel world, but we have a story.” And that story is of Immanuel – God with us. What God offers us is not a defense of himself as creator, but simply himself to stand with us through it all. As I finished the chapter on the problem of pain, I was left feeling a bit unsatisfied – surely there is more to it than just ‘we have a story’!
But then I read the next chapter, and was reminded of the contours of that story. I can’t do justice to Spufford’s retelling of the story of Jesus; you’ll just have to read his chapter called Yeshua. But here’s how he ends it: one of Jesus’s friends has gone to his tomb after his execution, and finds the tomb already robbed and his body missing. She is in anguish. But then Jesus walks up to her. “Don’t be afraid, says [Jesus]. Far more can be mended than you know.” Folks, there it is. The Christian story that stands side-by-side with the pain of this world is not simply that God is with us in it (though he is, and that can be a great comfort). It is not an answer to solve the problem of pain, nor a denial that the world is, in fact, irreparably broken. It is a story that holds out hope that the death and resurrection of one man began the process, which is taking millennia to complete, of fixing the unfixable. “Far more can be mended than you know.”