Back to the Garden: Pain. Suffering. Love.
"If God were good, He would make His creatures perfectly happy, and if He were almighty He would be able to do what he wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness or power or both.” -C.S. Lewis
The above quote from Lewis, speaking on behalf of those who use the existence of pain as evidence against God’s power and goodness, is an argument that anyone who practices apologetics will likely hear at one point or another. It has also served as a stumbling block for many in their journey towards God whether they were raised in the faith or began exploring Christianity later in life. It’s one of the best points someone can offer when contending against the idea of a benevolent God.
Suffering is something that every person inevitably faces due to man’s fallen nature. Some will suffer more than others, but everyone experiences some kind of pain at some point whether it be physical, psychological, or spiritual. To many, it seems that if God exists, His unwillingness to eliminate our torments shows a lack of regard for humanity.
Pain is Unnatural
Suffering prompts many questions in both the Christian and the nonbeliever: “Why me?” “Why did that happen to them when they were so innocent?” “What’s the point of all this?”
Besides answering the question, one has to address why we ask these questions in the first place. After all, if pain were our natural state, we would never question it just as we never question our own happiness. This is seen in how a child only asks his parents “why?” when he’s told he can’t have something but never does so when he’s granted the permission he seeks. This is because pain is a shift from how we were meant to exist.
Our nature drives us to pursue happiness; no man willingly seeks his own suffering. For example, those addicted to substances perceive euphoria as a good that’s better than maintaining a healthy body and mind. People addicted to sex and porn are chasing the good of sexuality as a synthetic version of the intimacy and love that their souls long for. A murderer seeks the feeling of power over another person to imitate the feeling of mastery he lacks over his own life. Even suicide victims enact their own downfall because they perceive death as better than facing whatever evil they have to combat in their lives. Man’s vision has become dark, but that doesn’t change the fact that he always pursues what he thinks is good for himself because man was created for happiness. No matter what his circumstances are, he also has the free will he needs to actively choose the good for himself and others. In a perfect world, these two aspects of human nature are complimentary and reflect man’s dignity as being made in the image and likeness of God. But a perfect world isn’t our reality anymore. So, where did it all go wrong?
Back to the Garden
Adam and Eve knew perfect happiness in the Garden of Eden. They faced no threats from nature, they were never hungry or thirsty or sick. Not only that, but their intellects were enlightened, and they lived in perfect friendship with God. They had everything, so why did they choose something else?
It’s because they didn’t know one thing, and the serpent made them aware that there was something they didn’t know. He promised Eve, “your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). To our first mother, evil was only what we might call a “construct.” It was a vague reality that didn’t have any substantive existence. All she knew was good, and Eve saw some kind of value in being able to know more. And given that she had the free will to choose something that she viewed as good, she took the fruit and shared it with her husband. We all think we know what happened from there: God cut us off from the perfect happiness we knew in the Garden. Except, that’s not what actually happened
The separation between God and man happened before Adam and Eve were cast out from Eden. By choosing something that they perceived to be better than God’s friendship, our first parents were the ones to sever that tie. God is so loving that the only way man can be separated from Him is by his own disobedience, and God didn’t make them disobey Him. Neither did Satan, for that matter. They freely chose the darkness into which humanity has been plunged.
“But if God loves us so much,” you might ask, “why didn’t He intervene to prevent Eve from making such a terrible mistake? Why didn’t He stop her from exercising her free will for that one time to save humanity all of this suffering? Why didn’t He just forgive Eve and let things be as they were?” The answer, as is always the case when speaking of God, is love.
God is perfect love. He doesn’t need us to love Him in order to love us, but He greatly desires our reciprocation. In order for love to be reciprocated, it has to be freely offered. Eve’s obedience would have been an act of love if it was done freely. If God had forced her to comply, then He would have been acting against His own Nature. Thus, it is because God loved humanity that He did not intervene to prevent the Fall.
The same holds true as to why things didn’t return to how they were in the Garden. God could have cleansed the souls of Adam and Eve without any action on their part, but He wasn’t going to change their hearts without permission. Ultimately, He wasn’t going to make them choose Him, as much as He wanted them to do so. They chose a life apart from Him, and He respected their decision with unconditional love.
Some then might ask why we inherited the sins of our parents and the consequences for their actions. Surely a loving God wouldn’t place that on subsequent generations! But we were never owed Eden. Was it intended for us? Yes. Were we designed for happiness? Yes. But we were never owed any of it. And to continue this epic love story, God heals the gap between Himself and mankind: Jesus Christ. It is through the Son’s offering of Himself to the Father as fully man and fully God that man is able to aspire to eternal joy and companionship with God.
Some readers might still not be convinced by the argument. That’s to be expected. The problem of evil, pain, suffering, whatever you want to call it, is something theologians and philosophers have been grappling with for centuries. All I can promise as far as its validity is that it wasn’t made in the vacuum of my mind. It was something handed on to me by the teaching of two different professors who are both very intelligent and faithful Catholics. I don’t offer it as the end all answer. There are circumstances I didn’t address because I forgot about them, and there are those which I couldn’t address because of my own ignorance even if I was aware of them.
No matter whether you think this argument is right or wrong, I invite you to do one thing the next time you’re in pain: love. Love God and your neighbor so much that it hurts even more than it already does. Truly loving another in this life is perhaps one of the greatest sources of pain, because love requires sacrifice, and sacrifice hurts. But love anyway. It is love and love alone that provides meaning to agony in this life. If you are suffering spiritually, physically, mentally, or in any other way, live in the realization that you are loved by a God Who chose to suffer because He viewed your salvation as better than His own comfort. Respond to that love with your whole being. Only love can bring meaning to our pain.