Every Problem of Pain
“On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your pain today, Sir?”
Ironically, the question, a hospital’s attempt to understand and manage the pain of cancer patients, only seemed to cause my father more pain. He hated the daily inquiry that seized him almost as consistently as the sting of the growing tumor. It aggravated him deeply, more than I could say I understood. It was a philosophical quagmire for him that somehow mocked pain and amplified the problem of suffering. If he answered “10” in the midst of a painful morning, only to discover a greater quantity of pain in the afternoon, the scale was meaningless. The numbers were never constant, and what is a scale if its points of measurement cannot stand in relation to one another? If he answered “10” on any given day would that somehow control the ceiling of his own pain? He knew it would not, and that uncertainty seemed almost literally to add painful insult to an already fatal injury.
Considerations of pain and suffering are among the most cited explanations for disbelief in God, both for professionally trained philosophers and for the general public. If a good, powerful, and present deity exists, why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? Even for those who argue that the existence of God and the presence of evil can be reconciled, the vast amount of suffering in the world certainly compounds the dilemma. We can sympathize with Ivan Karamazov in his depiction of the earth as one soaked through with human tears. Imagine not merely one person measuring their pain on a scale of 1 to 10 but innumerable individuals: the temptation is to add all of these scales together as one giant proof against God.
In his 1940 book The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis warns us against espousing such a temptation. “We must never make the problem of pain worse than it is by vague talk about the ‘unimaginable sum of human misery,'” he writes. “Search all time and space and you will not find that composite pain in anyone’s consciousness. There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it.”(1) Or, said in another way, there are as many problems of pain as there are conscious beings—and God must deal with each and every one of them.
For someone like my dad, for whom weighing pain was both disparaging and unfeasible, this would perhaps have been one comfort in a maddening abyss of darkness. It means his own problem of pain was not lost in a sea of meaningless scales and indescribable measurements. It means that his frustrating, inconsistent ceiling of sorrow was itself held in the arms of God—and not vaguely absorbed in an immeasurable sum, nor given a distant, theoretical answer. It means that God had to come near not simply to pain in general, but to him and his cancer in person.
This is the scandalous confession of Christian hope. As Hans Urs von Balthasar writes, “When life is hard and apparently hopeless, we can be confident that this darkness of ours can be taken up into the great darkness of redemption through which the light of Easter dawns. And when what is required of us seems too burdensome, when the pains become unbearable and the fate we are asked to accept seems simply meaningless—then we have come very close to the man nailed on the Cross at the Place of the Skull, for he has already undergone this on our behalf and, moreover, in unimaginable intensity.”(2) On the cross, in the person of Christ, the problem of pain was God’s own, felt acutely, absorbed personally, endured as one person—and answering as many problems of pain as there are sorrowing creatures.
(1) C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 103.
(2) Hans Urs von Balthasar, “The Scapegoat and the Trinity,” You Crown the Year with Your Goodness: Sermons through the Liturgical Year (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1989), 87.
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