I recently had a conversation with a friend about God, Hell, and pain. Especially the latter. Because of the enormity of pain and suffering she had observed in her life, she was certain God couldn’t exist. It was a heavy conversation. And, as a Christian engaged in full-time ministry, I felt the extreme pressure to always have an answer — a come-back to her conclusions about the existence of God. I think we as Christians feel this pressure often when engaged in similar conversations. It is a burden that sometimes feels thrust upon us by our wider Christian culture: you need to have the right answer to help this person stop believing a lie.
In light of this conversation, I was reminded of the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter of the mammoth book The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. In this section the “main” brother, Alexei sits and listens quietly while his brother Ivan (the most intellectual of the four brothers) bares himself completely, telling a story which encapsulates what he believes to be the ultimate argument for unbelief in God — essentially the problem of gratuitous pain and suffering. In response, Alexei says nothing in defence of his faith or his God. Instead, he answers Ivan’s questioning and argument in the same way Christ may have responded to the Inquisitor’s attacks, giving his brother nothing but a loving, comforting kiss.
I love this. I could sit and ponder this answer for days (and believe me, I have)… because, honestly, what kind of answer is this?!? It isn’t one. And I find it so frustratingly Biblical.
To me, this answer echoes of the God who answered Job’s cries for rescue from suffering, not with an explanation or immediate relief, but instead with a long exhortation saying nothing more than he is God and Job is not. It likewise echoes of the Messiah who, though the Jews hoped he would ride into their world in triumph and on a war horse, instead rode in on a donkey. And his triumph was in his death (and resurrection). All of these answers to the very real question of pain were, to say the least, underwhelming. Like the kiss with which Alexei bestows on the problem of his brother’s pain, these answers seem to ignore the question completely.
But, if we stop and think for a moment… what other answer could we want, than this? What are we really asking for when we challenge God to prove himself, to answer us, to explain our pain?
God, in response to Job’s suffering offered himself instead of answers. And God himself, in the person of Jesus, offered himself as the answer to the oppression and slavery his people felt by taking on himself the full weight of this oppression, the very root of this oppression—sin. Think about it. Jesus didn’t explain or argue away the oppression, the pain, and he didn’t explain or argue about why he came to die instead of fight. He only said that this is the way it had to be. He fully accepted the question his people were asking as valid enough to die for, important enough to require a living response rather than a lengthy explanation. And in doing this, he actually fully removed the threat of this oppression—death itself—from his people and the entire world, should they choose it.
How breathtakingly beautiful this is.
And in light of these answers, then, I think we are faced with the main question at the root of all other questions. Does the world really just want answers and justifications and logic? Could it be that what the world, face with pain and suffering, is looking for is God himself? At the end of the day, when it is all said and done, when the fat lady has sung and every last one of those cows has gone home, aren’t people really asking for a Person not an argument?
Because the real answer isn’t an explanation, but God himself. Only the presence of God himself would fully satisfy these, the deepest questions.
While my friend was confessing her unbelief in God, propped up by the pain in her own life, I thankfully resisted the urge to defend my religion and argue against what she was sharing. I, only by God’s grace, responded as I felt Christ maybe would. I listened, giving validity to the truth in her statements, because there was great truth in her statements.
I am thankful because, though I wanted to fight against it, I now can see that I was witnessing a Good Friday moment. It was a moment where I caught a glimpse of the hopelessness and helplessness that weighed on the cross Jesus carried. The hopelessness and helplessness I am conditioned to fight against, and the very same weight that God himself stepped into and humbly carried through the person of Christ. And somehow, by simply listening and not fixing, I stepped into her hopelessness and helplessness too.
Perhaps from the cross we learn to resist the knee-jerk tendency to respond to questions of pain, anger, frustration, etc… with explanations. God does not ask us to defend him with mere arguments. We must follow Jesus’ example. When we are faced with such pain, we should wrap our arms around it, dig our shoulder in, squat down (lift with the legs, not with the back), get a good grip on it and lift it right up. All the while praying we don’t get a hernia and that God will give us the strength to carry it.
Even as people mock us for it, deeming it futile weakness.
Even as the world demands answers from us.
Let us continue to carry their pain, as faithful witnesses to the cross of Christ and the love of God.
Let us share in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of a God whose love for the world he created outshines the dark shadow cast by the problem of pain.
Photo by (Flickr CC): Ricardo Miranda