The Problem of Pain – Part 1

I have been having a discussion with a friend about whether or not God causes pain in our lives. The specific Biblical story that had started our discussion was Hannah’s (the prophet Samuel’s mother) and her experience of wanting a baby and not having one for many years. This barrenness clearly caused her much pain.

My friend’s contention was that God caused her to be barren therefore He caused her pain. My point was that her pain was caused by her response to the situation. How she responded to the ridicule of Elkanah’s other wife making fun of her, how she responded to society’s expectations of a wife producing offspring for her husband, but a lot – if not most – of it was caused by Hannah’s own desires to have a child in her timing rather than waiting in faith on God to provide a child in His timing. I believe that it was Hannah’s response to these things in her life that were the source of her pain. It was her attitude about her barrenness, in other words, that caused her pain.

If you read the story in the Bible (you can find it in 1 Samuel 1) you will find that it appears that Hannah even went so far as to complain to her husband that he wasn’t giving her a child. His response was “Am I not better than 10 sons?” After all he already had an heir, he had at least one other son to inherit if the oldest son died, he even had at least two daughters so he didn’t need Hannah to give him any children. All he wanted from her was her love, that was enough for him. One commentator says that rabbinical tradition includes the question “Am I God?” in Elkanah’s response, reminding her that only God gives life.

Anyway, I was thinking about our discussion the other morning while I was praying, and I asked God about it. What happened next was something I have never had happen before in quite this way – I got an immediate response, but it was sort of like Job’s answer from God. My answer was this:

“Do you think this world is a basically good world that has bad things happen it, or do you think it is a broken and fallen world that I make good things happen in? Do you think, when I promised Israel I would bring a sword among them if they refused to follow Me that I forced the surrounding nations to attack Israel against their will or did I just quit protecting Israel and allow the surrounding nations to do what they wanted to do all along?”

That was it, nothing more. That was my answer. So, what is my world view? Do I think this is a “good world” in which bad things happen, one in which people’s normal tendencies are to always do good, which seems to be the western church’s view of the world? Or do I view the world as the Bible describes it – as fallen and broken, a world in which people naturally tend to act in selfish and hurtful ways toward each other, a world in rebellion against God? And if I truly believe the latter, what does that mean? What implications does that have for how I should view what happens, both good and bad, in my life?

And if this is a fallen and broken world in rebellion against God how does God’s sovereignty play into the issue of pain in my life? IS God the DIRECT  (or immediate) cause of ALL events that occur or only the ULTIMATE cause? (i.e., He created the world and in that sense ONLY is responsible for all that goes on here, or does He directly and specifically cause each and every event that happens as some believe.)

If I believe that God’s sovereignty REQUIRES that He be the immediate cause of all events, then I MUST believe that HE is the real cause of Adam’s fall, as Adam only did as God made him do. That means that ALL actions whether good or bad are done only because God so decreed that they should be done. This means that the world as we know it is exactly as God wants it to be, as it can be no other way. This also means that ALL pain and suffering that happens in my life happens because God WANTS it to happen exactly in that way and at that time because He MADE it happen. People I know were sexually abused because God made people in their lives molest them – for years, some of my friends were physically abused because God made their dads (or moms) beat them on a regular basis, my dad died when I was 14 because God killed him.

The problem with this view, is that it is not based on Biblical teaching, but is based purely on a faulty understanding of what sovereignty is. I need to stop here and clarify things a bit. Yes there are verses in the Bible that seem to say that God causes everything to happen that does happen here on earth, but there are also verses where God takes responsibility for things that the Bible clearly show people here on earth doing of their own free will. And there are verses that clearly say we are free to act in any way we choose and are also responsible for those choices. So when I say that the view that God causes each and every event to happen is not supported Biblically, I mean that it is not supported unless you very carefully pick and choose which verses you use and ignore a lot of what the Bible has to say about the sovereignty of God and our freedom to do what we choose to do without coercion. In other words, it is not supported by the “whole teaching of Scripture”. It can only be supported by “cherry picking” the verses you use and ignoring the rest, or claiming that they “really don’t mean” what they clearly say.

This view also equates sovereignty with dictatorship. There is a BIG difference between a sovereign and a dictator. Both are in control of a country, but how they exercise that control is vastly different. A Sovereign tells his subjects; “I want the nation to head in this direction, how we get there is up to you.” A dictator decrees; “We are going this way and you are going to do this and you are going to do it in this way, and you all are going to do that and will do it that way, and you over there are going to do this other thing like this.” A sovereign leaves it up to his subjects how to actually get the job done, he just oversees things. He is still in control as he still decides what needs to happen and what the ultimate goals are – he might even assign a job to a particular group or even a specific individual, but the actual minutia of getting them done are up to the people doing the necessary jobs. A dictator controls every aspect of every part of everything that goes on in every life under his control.

What this means is that under a dictator everything that happens is at his command, while under a sovereign things can and do happen that he might not want to happen – things that are actually against his desires. People under a dictator are not free to act as they choose, they can only do as they are told, those under a sovereign can choose to do things their own way, or even go against what the sovereign wanted to happen. That doesn’t mean they won’t end up in trouble, it just means they are free to chose their own way. You might say that people under dictators revolt all the time, well, that is true, but you need to remember that earthly dictators do not have omniscience nor do they have omnipotence, therefore their control is limited, God’s control would not be limited if that is the way He chose to rule, His control would be absolute – even to the point of which foot you lead off with when you start to walk. If ANYTHING is left to chance, then He is not in complete control, and is therefore not sovereign – as the above definition of sovereignty requires.

However, it is not required to have absolute control of every aspect of everything that happens to be sovereign, sovereignty just means that the sovereign has the governing, or ultimate, authority over everything that goes on, he is the one in charge of everything, and everything that happens must fit within his plans and cannot go beyond the boundaries he has set, but he has no desire to control the minutia of the lives he rules. And in the case of God, His subject can even rebel against him, but even in their rebellion, they cannot exceed the limits he has placed on them. God is a sovereign not a dictator, and because we are free to go our own way, that means things can and do happen that are not what God wants to happen, but even then we cannot go beyond the limits He has set.

Now to get back to our discussion of pain, how do we deal with the verses in the Bible that say, or at least look like they say that God causes bad things to happen in our lives? As an example, in a another discussion I was having the other day this verse came up. “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7 ESV) This verse seems to be the “go to” verse when it comes to saying that God causes pain in our lives. I have heard it used to say that God causes evil (from the KJV translation) in people’s lives, and I have heard other people build a real house of cards trying to claim the verse says something other than what it looks like it says. So I decided to see if I could find out what God might have meant that we are missing and if that could shed any light on our problem.

The first thing I learned is that the commentators don’t agree on what the verse actually says let alone what it really means. I found one who believes that the “well-being” is only on a national level – not personal – and the calamity (or woe as some translate it) is physical. So he has God claiming here to only bring national well-being and only cause physical calamities or trials, or problems, or . . . whatever. But you don’t need to worry about it as it doesn’t really apply to you as an individual anyway although you might get caught up in a “natural” disaster of some kind, or an economic recession, or the like, but it won’t be personal. Not much comfort if you ask me.

I also found others who believe that God actually brings evil into our lives (after all that is what the KJV says). And I’m not talking about evil such as losing your job or having a flat tire or things like that, I’m talking about real evil – birth defects, deadly diseases, abuse, rape, incest, murder and the like.

So I got to wondering, With all this difference of opinion what does the verse really say? Can we find anything out from looking at the meanings of the Hebrew words themselves?  So I looked them up and I learned some very interesting things.

What I learned about the verbs in this verse is that their action is active and continuous. In other words God is saying, “I am doing all these things right now, and my action is and has been continuous.” So this isn’t something God did once a long time ago, or is going to do some time in the future, it is something He is actively involved in right now – and He is doing it all the time.

The Hebrew word that is translated “create”, in the ESV, (before darkness and calamity) is an interesting word. I think it is a woodworking term, or a term used by sculptors. It refers to the act of forming something by cutting it out or carving it out of something, or paring it down, or to plane and polish it. That is a process I am very familiar with as a woodworker. I do it all the time when I do the shaping of something I am building in the shop. It doesn’t matter if I am using a knife, a saw, a hand plane, a spoke shave, sandpaper, or a file or rasp, the goal is always the same – I am shaping and refining the surface of the object I am creating, and it is that process that this word is describing. I would call it giving the object is final shape, or refining its shape, or you could say that in a way I am defining its boundaries.

Next we come to the Hebrew word “shalom”, which is translated as well-being in the ESV. It is a hard word to translate as its meaning is so complex. According to the lexicon it means (in part): peace, safety, completeness, health, concord (or unity), friendship, welfare, security, tranquility, soundness, and wholeness. All that rolled up into one word. So what one English word can be used to convey all that meaning? I have not been able to come up with one, can you?

And then there is the Hebrew word translated as calamity in the ESV. Its meaning is just as complex as shalom but where shalom is positive this one is negative. You could almost say it is “anti-shalom”. All of those good things that shalom means, this word means just the opposite as far as I can determine from the lexicon.

So, based on the definitions of the Hebrew words, I will try and give a rough translation using enough English words to convey the Hebrew word meanings as close as I can get. I should also point out that I will not be “following in the tradition of the KJV” or any other translation in my word choices. I will be doing my best to convey the complete meaning of the words themselves using however many words that takes. So here goes:

“I am forming light like a potter forms clay, and shaping (or cutting off, or carving out, or paring down) darkness. I am laboring at producing peace, completeness, wholeness, safety, health, wellness, etc. [this is the Hebrew word Shalom], and shaping (or cutting off or carving out, etc.) discord, unrest, malignancy, despair, brokenness, etc., [this word appears to be the opposite of Shalom as best as I can determine], I am Yahweh, I am laboring at producing all this (or all these things).”

I was thinking some more about this verse the next morning, after I did some more reading in the lexicon, and thought of something else. It is one of the problems a translator runs into – which word or words do you choose to translate the meaning of a word or phrase to best convey the meaning of what is being said. The word I was thinking about is the word “forming”. According to the lexicon, the actual meaning of the word is better described by the word squeezing, as in; “I am squeezing out the light like a potter squeezes out clay.” It says sort of the same thing, but actually gives a more accurate translation than the word I chose to use. As I was thinking on this, I wondered what did God mean when He said He is squeezing out the light? Then it hit me, in today’s terminology, you “squeeze” light with a lens, in other words, you focus it. OK, so God is saying He focuses light, what does that mean? Well, it just so happened, that particular morning was cloudy here in Maine and I was sitting in the living room with windows all around me. That means the light was very defused. The shadows were vague and hard to see. Well, If you were to focus the light, then all those shadows would be sharply defined, their boundaries would become very pronounced. And instead of random areas of sort of dark places, you would have limited areas of defined darkness – in other words, the darkness becomes shaped rather than amorphous. So by squeezing , or focusing the light, God is in fact simultaneously shaping the darkness. God’s actions with the light are what gives the darkness its limits! It is sad that commentators have been so focused on the darkness and calamity and arguing over what those words “really” mean that they have ignored the light and shalom (peace) that God brings and worst of all, what God is actually saying He does (or doesn’t) do to the darkness and calamity.

In science, it is interesting to note that darkness, as a quantifiable substance does not exist. There is no such thing as measurable darkness – it doesn’t exist. Darkness – in science – is merely the absence of light, so how dark a place is, is always quantified by the amount of light present. Or to put it another way, light defines darkness, it also establishes its boundaries – light establishes where the darkness is and is not present just by its existence. So by the very act of creating light, God defined darkness, and He also set its boundaries.

So now we come to the big one, Does God create evil? It is interesting to note, that the Hebrew word used here, does not refer to the actual making or creating of what is being worked on, only the shaping of it. It literally says God shapes darkness and He shapes calamity, but it does not say He creates them or actually brings them into existence.

So given all this, let’s revisit the verse. I think we can now best translate it this way:

“I am focusing light, and shaping [or setting the limits or boundaries of] darkness, I am laboring at producing peace, safety, and wholeness [Shalom], and shaping [or setting the limits or boundaries of] discord, strife, and disease [the opposite of Shalom], I am Yahweh, I am laboring at producing all this.”

I don’t make the wood I work with, however, I do decide what the final shape of the that wood will be. So too God is saying He is working with something already there, but He is in control of it, He sets its limits, He controls its shape, He defines what it looks like, no matter who or what caused it, God will only allow it to go so far and no farther, to take this shape and no other, to be this way and no other, to be this intense and no more. God doesn’t create evil, nor does He cause evil things to happen in our lives, but He does control them, and in that we can find comfort.

To be continued . . .


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