A popular argument agnostics and atheists like to use to justify their unbelief in God is that if God existed, there wouldn’t be pain in this world. If God existed, they say, He’d be powerful enough and good enough to make our lives pain-free. There would be no tornadoes, no Osama bin Laden’s, no domestic violence, no cancer, no anything unpleasant at all. In the unbeliever’s mind, the mere existence of suffering proves that God, at least as we Christians define Him (all-powerful, all-knowing, completely good, etc.), does not exist.
But there is a problem with this argument.
Those who argue to this end assume they understand what God’s chief objective is. They assume that God’s whole point for doing anything is to make us humans happy. Don’t get me wrong, I would love for that to be the case. I would love for it to be all about me. Truth be told, I often act like it is all about me and my contentedness.
The end all be all of life is not to have 7 billion happy people running around the planet kumbaya-ing. That would be nice. And God wouldn’t mind if we managed to work that out. But, unlike John Lennon, that simply isn’t God’s main objective for humanity.
God is concerned about more than our happiness.
Notice I did NOT say God is unconcerned with our happiness. He is very much affected by our pain. He grieves for and with us in our suffering (John 11:33-35). He responds with great compassion when we are hurting, which He certainly would not do if He didn’t care about our pain (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
But He is even more concerned with something bigger than our hurt.
His primary concern is having a living, breathing, active, dynamic relationship with each and every person on this planet. Like a father of multiple children, God longs to spend as much quality time as possible with each of us. Why? Just because He loves us. Oh, and it also happens to be in our best interest. The more time we spend really connecting with God, the better off we are. We have more peace, even in the midst of suffering (John 14:27). We gain wisdom and understanding about all kinds of things (Colossians 2:2-3). We become more effective at showing unbelievers that a personal relationship with God is not only possible, it is the most rewarding relationship we can pursue (1 John 5:10-11).
More than our earthly happiness, God wants an eternal relationship with us. And sometimes it takes pain in our lives for us to realize that.
Paul understood that. And he told the church of Corinth about it in 2 Corinthians 1:8-24. As Paul talks about hardships he faced in Asia, he said, “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9). Paul is talking about extreme suffering and pain. How many of us can relate on an emotional level? We find ourselves in circumstances that feel “beyond our ability to endure”, causing us to “despair even of life.”
Why does a good God let us experience such utter misery?
Paul’s explanation is, “this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9).
God allows us to suffer, even though He could stop it, so we might rely on Him? You mean He is more concerned about relationship with us than He is about our happiness?
Before you tell me you don’t want a relationship with a sadistically self-centered God like that, let me make one more point.
Our complete happiness can only be found in relationship with God.
We Americans tend to be an either/or society. Things are black or white, right or wrong, this or that. Never both. Never simultaneously.
Yet, this is not an either/or situation. We are not choosing between happiness or a relationship with God. We can have both. In fact, we can’t truly have either independently. A relationship with God births a capacity for happiness in our lives that does not exist without that relationship being in place (John 15:9-11). I’m not talking prosperity gospel here, which says, “Accept Jesus and you ‘ll be healthy, wealthy and care-free.” Believers certainly have their fair share of hurtful situations. But they also have the ability to find peace, fulfillment, and joy in the midst of pain (James 1:2-4). Not when it is all over; not when things are wonderful; right smack in the middle of their worst days.
Pain has a point. Pain is supposed to drive us deeper into relationship with God. If we aren’t letting pain accomplish that, we are suffering for nothing.
Make your pain count.