By Ben Swift
“Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.” (C.S. Lewis)
When it comes to the problem of trying to make sense of pain and suffering in this life, surely no human being has been exempt from their own personal set of tribulations. Perhaps that’s why the country music scene has such a huge following as people identify with the melancholy, story-telling lyrics of broken relationships and the struggles we all face in the changing seasons of our lives.
As the old saying, “There’s a fine line between pleasure and pain,” suggests, the experiences of life can be perceived as pendulum-like, swinging us from emotion to emotion as our circumstances drag us from ecstasy to despair and everywhere in between. If we pour all of our energy into bringing this pendulum to a grinding holt, however, what will be the consequence? If we attempt to walk the fine line between pleasure and pain, placing ourselves in protective bubbles, will it lead to the exclusion of life itself?
If we turn to the book of Ecclesiastes and to Christian existentialists for advice, we begin to gain some interesting perspectives on what C.S. Lewis refers to in the opening quote. The goal common to much of humanity in seeking above all else personal happiness through wealth, fame and physical pleasure, are in fact likened to chasing the wind. The values of the common man are reduced to vanity.
‘Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labour on which I had toiled; and indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun.’ (Ecclesiastes 2:11)
The thirst for comfort, wealth and fame is unquenchable and consequently snuffs out the parts of life that point us to truth and meaning. Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, took this line of thinking to the extreme. It was said that Kierkegaard refused a parsonage which would have brought him a steady income, left his fiancée and the chance of a settled family life and deliberately used his talent as a thinker to bring ridicule upon himself. Why? Because he recognised that comfort, money and public approval are inferior values.
To anyone living in a modern, Western society, this way of thinking seems absurd as it goes against everything that the world has programmed our minds with since the day we left the womb. But then again, is it absurd to recognise the futile pursuits of the world, attempting to replace them with a way of living that actually awakens us to who we really are and who we have been created to be?
In relation to suffering Karl Barth suggests, “Participation in suffering means to suffer with Christ, to encounter God, as Jeremiah and Job encountered Him; to see Him in the tempest, to apprehend Him as Light in the darkness, to love Him when we are aware only of the roughness of His hand.”
Whether we willingly plunge ourselves into suffering in the way that existentialists do or not, the reality still remains that to live is to experience both pleasure and pain. This is life. This is a truth that cannot be avoided. The problem with pain and suffering is that we cannot avoid what is outside of our control. We cannot eliminate life’s continual bombardment of factors that contribute to the world in which we exist.
Consider the phenomenon known as ‘The Butterfly Effect’. As part of an idea used by physicists in Chaos Theory, a minute alteration to an initial state of a physical system can result in a large, significant difference to the state at a later time. The concept famously uses the exaggerated example of a butterfly flapping its wings in one country only to cause a cyclone in another due to the initial environmental change caused by the beating of the wings.
In a sense, The Butterfly Effect can help us to understand the problem of pain because life appears chaotic. It is chaotic in that outside factors such as other people, the natural world, financial instability and disease can be the cause of our suffering and we have little to no control over how they will affect us personally and collectively. What we do have control over is how we will respond when bad things happen, not in the sense that we won’t feel broken and torn apart, but in relation to who we turn to in order to make sense of life and its tribulations. It is here that by the work of the Holy Spirit we will see that only in Christ the perceived chaos is actually all under control; there is an endpoint and there is comfort in the refuge of our God.
Theologian Martin Luther was certainly subject to his fair share of trials and tribulations and offers us the following thoughts:
“It is impossible for the human heart, without crosses and tribulations, to think upon God.”
“When left and forsaken of all men, in my highest weakness, in trembling, and in fear of death, when persecuted of the wicked world, then I felt most deeply the divine power which this name, Christ Jesus, communicated unto me.”
As frail human beings we need to become wrapped in the One who is greater than ourselves. If we are to take up our cross and follow Christ, we would do well to embrace the following words of David:
Hear my cry, Oh God; Attend to my prayer. From the end of the earth I will cry to You. When my heart is overwhelmed; Lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For You have been a shelter for me, a strong tower from the enemy. I will abide in Your tabernacle forever; I will trust in the shelter of Your wings. (Psalm 61: 1-4)
As life continues to pour its heavy weight on your shoulders, may you learn to shelter in the wings of your Heavenly Father. There you will find rest.
 Olson, Robert. An Introduction to Existentialism. (Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, New York, 2017). p. 2.
 Barth, Karl. The Epistle to the Romans. (Oxford University Press, Oxford, translated from the 6th Edition by Hoskyns, Edwyn, 1968). p. 301.
 Luther, Martin. The Tabletalk of Martin Luther. (Christian Focus Publications, Scotland, 2003). p. 364.
 Luther, Martin. The Tabletalk of Martin Luther. (Christian Focus Publications, Scotland, 2003). p. 186.