By Mark W. Hamilton
The Bible helps us answer the question. A good beginning point is in the psalms of lament.
Pain and suffering. This word pair names one of the most difficult problems facing Christian faith and practice today.
Some Christians seek to dodge the problem by imagining that suffering always marks the presence of sin and that God, because he is good, wishes us to escape pain in all instances. This despite the obvious facts that the pain of Jesus lies at the very heart of the gospel, and that he called us to imitate him as suffering servants, not bow to the insidious idol of health and wealth.
Still others, with greater moral integrity but less hope, decide that since a good God should not allow suffering in the world, then perhaps God is not good, or even is a figment of our imagination.
So yes, what C.S. Lewis called the problem of pain remains with us as an intellectual and, more importantly, spiritual challenge.
Yet, if we are to address this challenge, we must look more deeply at it. Does the Bible, as the basis of Christian reflection on the world, offer guidance in this discussion? Can we say something meaningful without opting for easy or dishonest answers? Can we praise God while also honoring human experience?
Psalms of Lament
The most expressive biblical texts about pain perhaps appear in the book of Psalms, an anthology of poems exploring the full range of human emotions, including the most negative. In particular, the psalms of lament speak to God of human suffering in its many forms because they assume that God both cares for human beings and will act in our favor to reduce suffering, and may even use it to sculpt our souls.
The psalms speak of suffering in relationship to God, both thanking God for deliverance from it in hymns of praise, and asking God for help in psalms of lament. Since most psalms fall into one of these two literary categories, and since praise and petition go hand in hand as expressions of an honest faith in a trusted God, it should not be surprising that both of the great psalm types (and sometimes even the lesser psalm types such as wisdom psalms) speak of human pain.
The most accessible depictions of this human reality appear in the psalms of lament, which discuss pain and suffering in several ways: as a destructive impact on the body, as social alienation (enmity from others or a sense of isolation), and as a sense of distance from God. Consider some examples of each aspect.
Impact on the body—First, what we would call physical pain: the Psalms often speak of the disturbance and malfunctioning of the body. So the famous lament, “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are distended” (Psalm 22:14*), as well as “I can count all my bones” (Psalm 22:17), both indicate malnutrition and possibly gastrointestinal distress or even dysentery.
Or Psalm 102:3-5 regrets that, “For my days dissipate like smoke, and my bones are burned like a hearth. My heart is struck like grass when it withers, for I have forgotten how to eat my bread. At the sound of my outcry, my bones stick to my flesh.”
The painful degeneration of the body causes both grief (as we will see) and the physical symptoms of wasting away connected to an inability to consume food properly. Or again, Psalm 38:3 says, “There is no health to my flesh because of your anger, no wholeness [Hebrew: shalom] in my bones because of my sins.” In this case, the psalmist may have in mind a particular sin that causes a physical ailment, but more likely, the line simply connects two key themes in lament and penitential psalms: the pain of a physical ailment and remorse for sin. Both are emotionally and spiritually intense experiences for the person of faith because both involve the brain’s capacity for fear, anger, disgust, and despair.
The expression of physical pain may even be associated with the carrying out of a sacred mission, as in the lament in Jeremiah 20:7-18. When the prophet speaks of the “fire burning in my heart, locked up in my bones” (v. 9), he is not expressing enthusiasm for a welcome call to preach. Quite the opposite. He is horrified by his mission and experiences physical agony because of it. Yet the fact that he can speak so boldly to God says something about his assumption that the One who commissioned him with a miserable task also cares enough to listen to his objections.
All these texts, then, indicate that pain marks a departure from the ideal state of things as God intended them.
Isolated from others—Second, this nonideal state of existence also shows itself in the second form of pain, social alienation. Various psalms speak of the opposition of enemies, which may be real or symbolic, while others mention a more internal state in which the one praying feels a distance even from himself or herself. Thus we read, “My life’s enemy pursues and overtakes” (Psalm 7:5) and “My life’s enemy pursues and smashes my life to the ground” (Psalm 143:3) and “See, my enemies are many, and they hate me with a violent hatred” (Psalm 25:19).
Over the years, scholars have proposed a number of explanations for this language, which appears in numerous psalms. Sometimes, the enemies may be workers of black magic, or political foes, or simply symbols for various conditions humans can face, whether social hostility or disease or even a mental illness. The psalms seem deliberately imprecise to allow the one praying to situate his or her problems within the overall view of the prayer itself.
Another way of talking about social isolation involves use of animal imagery, such as “wild dogs surrounding a city” (Psalm 59:14) or “a lion sizing up its quarry or a young lion sitting in its hiding place” (Psalm 17:12) or even a combination of them (Psalm 22:16).
The wildness of the animals implies the absence of human civilization to keep them at bay. Devoid of the protection of other people, and thus isolated from family and friends, the petitioner in these cases finds pain on every side, except in the act of prayer itself. Only the cry of prayer offers relief, because God’s presence compensates for the absence of human intimacy, as symbolized by the wildness of threatening nature.
And this raises the third point. Psalms of both lament and praise usually open with an address to God often expressing either trust that the human-divine relationship will lead to the removal of pain or gratitude that it has. A nice example of this phenomenon might be the beginning of Psalm 102. The ancient scholars who wrote the superscriptions before some psalms (the words usually printed in tiny type in English Bibles) entitled this text, “a prayer for the afflicted when he is humbled and pours out his cry before the Lord.” The psalm itself begins by saying, “O Lord, hear my prayer, and let my cry come before you. Do not hide your face from me in the day of my misery. Bend your ear to me. On the day I call, answer quickly” (Psalm 102:1, 2).
Such confidence in divine help undergirds most of the book of Psalms, in part because such trust is fundamental to religious life. Without trust in God, faith is impossible, and religion is pointless or worse, a sham.
Distance from God—Yet, what happens when that trust is strained and God seems absent? The most famous psalm expressing such a level of pain is, of course, the one whose opening Jesus quoted on the cross, Psalm 22’s “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
The choice of such a psalm is telling. Some people have argued that in citing these words, Jesus really had in mind the rest of the psalm, which ends with a lovely resolution of pain when God intervenes. However, I doubt that this interpretation is correct, for three reasons: (1) the New Testament does not run to the resolution part of the lament, but concentrates on Jesus’ death and the social isolation and physical pain associated with it; (2) although the New Testament writers often cite a short bit of a biblical text and expect the reader to know the rest and to think about unquoted material as well, it is hard to point to an example in which a single line can stand in for a whole section (what we would call a chapter); and (3) the happy-ending reading of Jesus’ last words seems suspiciously like the wishful thinking of our Disneyfied, 30-minutes-to-sew-up-the-conflict kind of sitcom world. Attributing happy thoughts to Jesus on the cross looks like an attempt on our part to take the scandal out of his death and the too-human fear out of his words.
But since he was really also a man, and not just pretending to be one, we must leave room for a genuine cry for God’s help. He really did join us in our pain, in all its dimensions. Sometimes the happy ending has to wait, and by refusing to wait we can do an injustice to people in real pain by pretending it away or worse, blaming them for it.
In any case, some other psalms do express a sense of God’s absence and the pain that comes from it. A good example appears in Psalm 38, which opens by asking God not to “rebuke in your anger or discipline in your wrath” and continues by noting that God’s arrows have lodged in the psalmist because of his sins. Similarly, the repeated request, “Lord, do not be far away from me” (Psalm 22:11; 35:22; 38:21; 71:12) expresses the deep longing for God that lies at the heart of biblical faith. To the religious person, a perception of divine absence opens the deepest source of pain, and it reinforces all the others.
Praying Like the Psalmist
This last point explains much of the conversation in the book of Job, which owes a great deal to lament psalms. In that story, a righteous man experiences acute social isolation from his family and friends, profound physical pain, and, most destructively, a sense of God’s hostility (with alternating bouts of feeling God’s absence and God’s suffocating presence). The story can end only when Job’s isolation from God and human beings ends, and he is reintegrated into society as one whose pain has been acknowledged and honored. In praying like the psalmists, Job finds a road through which pain can lead to a greater spiritual depth.
How does this come about? Or to draw the main lessons for ourselves, what should the biblical views of pain say to the contemporary church? Perhaps this: if we become more honest in acknowledging that many people experience a range of pain, that hiding it usually leads to spiritual sickness or death, and conversely, that acknowledging it and bringing it to God for help is a way of growing spiritually, then the church has a way of addressing the problem of pain.
We do not offer simplistic answers (“who sinned, this man or his parents?”), much less drive away the sufferers (“don’t trouble the Master”). We recognize that God can be trusted with our pain, and that God’s people exist as a body so that we can help bear each other’s burdens of suffering.
We can quit being a social club for those pretending to have only the socially acceptable forms of pain (cancer, say, or mixed-up children) and become more open to the real work of God in the most broken bodies, hearts, and souls. Then we can truly be a house of prayer for all people and a hospital for the soul.
*All Scripture quotes are the author’s translation.
Mark Hamilton serves as Onstead professor of biblical studies at Abilene (Texas) Christian University.