Skip to main content

Why All The Pain?

Thin-ice (Wesley) ~

As an ex-christian, like many - if not most - of you reading this, there are some teachings from this faith that we used to believe, that make me angry, even today. I was reminded of this last week, when I got the monthly email from the alumni department of Multnomah University (previously Multnomah School of the Bible) where I got my Bachelor of Theology. I still receive the newsletter, for the laughs if nothing else!

The particular teaching I refer to is "God uses pain to get your attention". Now, I'm not sure how prevalent this teaching is in, say, Catholicism, or Mormonism, or even traditional orthodox Christianity. But as an evangelical, I was raised with it. Every time something bad or sad happened to me as a youngster, my parents would predictably say, "God is trying to get your attention", or "God is trying to teach you a lesson".

As an example, when I was 16 years old, with a fresh driver's license in hand, I was driving my two closest friends home one night, when in the midst of laughter and conversation I failed to notice the stop sign, sailed through it and slammed into the car of an elderly couple. They were taken to hospital and eventually recovered. But it began several months of trying to learn what lesson God was trying to tell me. Certainly the ONLY lesson to be learned was to pay more damned attention to my driving (and the traffic court judge did that job well by sending me to remedial classes for careless drivers!) But my parents were sure that God was trying to warn me to be obedient to him at all times, and not even think about being rebellious! The car accident to them was a warning shot across my bow. (I guess it worked, because I'm now 63 years old, have never once been drunk, high on drugs, and only had sex with one woman in my life, my wife!)

Back to my current story: in the alumni email was the transcript of a chapel address, in which the chapel speaker told of what lessons God had taught him during a time of his life which was racked by catastrophe. I am going to quote a bit here, so you can read for yourselves the kind of bullshit that Christians use to justify random misfortune:

Dave and his brother, Allen, were in a very serious car accident. Dave and Allen where rushed to the hospital where Dave was treated for the injuries to his side, knee and head. After a couple of days , Allen was still unconscious and when he woke up, it was discovered that he was paralyzed from the neck down. As Allen was undergoing a series of surgeries, sicknesses and complications, Dean lost his battle with cancer and died at the age of 44. Within the same month of Dean's death, Allen died as well.

(Dave Jongeward, the chapel speaker, encouraged his audience to listen intently as he told us of the wisdom that he had distilled from this time of incredible pain):

What was the meaning?
  1. The most difficult journeys can be the most meaningful. Somehow God seems to talk to us more in our pain. As C.S. Lewis wrote "Pain is God's megaphone", which was certainly true as God sculpted the most defining moments of my entire life.
  2. God is God. Do we truly accept and understand that God is a God of the Heavens and he does what he pleases? I can fight with him and I can be bitter or I can align myself with God's plan and be more refined. Be bitter or be better. It's your choice.
  3. . "Trust God even Though" don't understand what he is doing, and even though you are in pain. Job stated his absolute trust in God when he said, “Even though you slay me, yet will I trust in you”. A passage that has continually spoken to my heart through this hard experience is Lamentations 3:31-33, 37-38, and again I am reminded that we need to trust that God knows what He is doing, no matter how bad it seems to us.
  4. God is for me, not against me. When things go badly, you might be tempted to doubt the unconditional goodness of God. I have to remind myself that God does this for my benefit because God desires me, He delights in me and plans for me to gain.
  5. God has the right to take my life. He also has the right to use my life for his glory.
  6. There are worse things than physical death.
  7. God was teaching me at a young age how to die to self. Because of the car accident, I had to wear a neck brace and could no longer play in any sports. Sports had been a very important part of my life, but because God taught me to die to myself, when the time came to take the neck brace off I was able to pray with sincerity, "God, if my life is not pleasing to you, you have the right to put neck brace back on."
  8. Hard things are guaranteed to happen in life, the only thing you can change is your response to those circumstances.
  9. Pain and loss are Gods curriculum for life. When we learn about God through adversity, He develops our love for Him.
  10. God can use our pain, failure and brokenness as a platform for His praise and ministry to others. As A.W. Tozer once said, "It is highly unlikely that God can use a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply."

After I read this, it amazed me to be reminded that I once believed this nonsense! I took up my keyboard and wrote this response:

"I received a Th.B. from Multnomah in the early 70's. For 46 years I was a Christian, with time in Europe as a missionary, and many, many years in para-church ministries. And after much reasoned thought and research, I have had to give up my Christian faith, as it had no correlation with the actual evidence that we have in the natural universe around us. And I have to say, that Mr. Jongeward's reasoning as displayed in this chapel address, is a perfect example of that.

Even Jesus said in Matthew 5:45, that the rain falls on the just and unjust alike. Disasters befall believers and unbelievers with a randomness that is outside the control of supernatural beings, whether they be the triune God of the Bible, or the Greek Zeus. Nature is no respecter of persons. Cancer hits people randomly; sure, there may be a genetic disposition that puts some people at more risk, but let us not think that God is choosing a certain person to inflict cancer upon, because he has a "lesson" that He wants to teach that person, or his family.

I disagree with most points in Mr Jongeward's address. If we as human parents acted towards our children in the way that he says God has a right to act towards us, we would soon be in prison on charges of child abuse. I am so thankful that I am now free of this kind of "God is trying to teach you a lesson" reaction to every negative thing that happens in my life (a teaching that my parents drilled into me from the time of my conversion). Of course, there are times when we see the negative results of certain kinds of behavior, but plain observation of human behavior reveals that. A supreme being is not necessary for those observations, either.

I do agree with Mr Jongeward on two out of the ten points: 1) "There are worse things than physical death", and 2) "Hard things are guaranteed to happen in life, the only things you can change is your response to those circumstances." Those are common-sense facts - no God required.

However, I ask you to see the danger in this kind of teaching found in the other eight points: that when catastrophes occur in life, somehow it's my fault, because God had to get my attention or had to teach me a lesson. This can lead to people feeling responsible for the death or injury of a loved one, when in actual fact it had nothing to do with them. It was the just the universe being the universe.

God did not cause the car accident in which Mr Jongeward had a neck injury because God wanted him to get his attention off of sports. Would you do that to your child? No, of course not. It's about time Christians stopped trying to find God's purpose in every little twist and turn of life. It's just life: nothing more, and nothing less.

I recognize that people do get comfort in having these religious explanations for the hard times in life. If that's what they need to get through these times, then I do not begrudge them that comfort. But I have seen and experienced the other side of the coin, where people blame themselves for provoking God into inflicting pain on themselves or their loved ones, and as a result suffered deep emotional trauma, stress and injury that is totally without rational basis. It is that which I speak against here."

I hope my reply gets printed. I really dialed back my true emotions when writing this response, because in reality I was, and am, furious with the way God gets credit for all the random shit that life throws at us. Then (preachers tell us) we have to figure out what God's next move is in his Cosmic Chess Game, and even WHY he made his last move! Oh, and by the way, C.S. Lewis and A.W. Tozer (what's up with no first names??), whose writings I used to adore, are now being used to start fires in my fireplace.