Memorial Days and the Problem of Pain

Posted: May 22, 2001 12:00 AM
Next Monday's Memorial Day is a time to remember those who suffered and died to give the rest of us liberty and security. The deaths of our soldiers accomplished something, and that's unusual in human history: Most often, in most places, every day has been Memorial Day, with people mourning the victims of repeated famine and plague, with no end in sight -- and it's still that way in many parts of the world. That raises a question: The continuing presence of persecution, suffering and disease these days seems to embarrass some who profess belief in the Bible. Couldn't an all-powerful God prevent the need for Memorial Days? Wouldn't an all-loving God do that? It's elementary, they say: Either God is weak, or He is a mean-spirited spectator who hope's a driver will crash and die in the upcoming Indianapolis 500. C.S. Lewis, however, noted (in "The Problem of Pain") that, "The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves is insoluble only so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the world 'love.'" God, Lewis observed, loves us enough to want to change our focus from the immediate to the long-range, even to eternity. What appears meaningless looks different from a theocentric view: The accident that paralyzed Joni Eareckson Tada, for example, led her to God and to write books that have inspired millions of people. The idea of a Memorial Day that recognizes and honors suffering for a noble cause is biblical. After all, in Hinduism suffering is illusory and therefore meaningless. Within a materialistic worldview, suffering arises out of bad luck or because of a person's fault, and neither of those reasons brings honor in its train. But in Christianity, suffering is the result of neither chance nor karma. Nor should we assume that it is punishment for our own actions; it is part of God's plan, generally for reasons we don't know. Dorothy Sayers wrote (in "The Whimsical Christian") that understanding the honor of being chosen to suffer for a great cause -- Memorial Day is dedicated to those so chosen -- gives Christianity "its enormous advantage over every other religion in the world. It is the only religion that gives value to evil and suffering." It does that by affirming the reality of evil and the need to confront it and strive to wrench good out of it, as Christ did when he suffered and died for all who believe in Him. That makes sense to many people, but then comes the sledgehammer: Memorial Day is also a time to remember that the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., commemorates the death of 6 million Jews. President Bush gave a moving speech there last month that emphasized the importance of remembering. We should also remember the 1.5 million Armenians who died 85 or so years ago, and the 2 million Cambodians who died 25 years ago and the Sudanese who are dying right now, and then ask: Why does this happen? Theologian J.I. Packer observed (in "Knowing God") that none of us, as human beings, will ever gain the wisdom we need to answer that question. We sometimes think that if we only study enough, and maybe pray enough, that God will present us with the big picture of how the details of suffering add up. But the way of biblical wisdom is to believe "that the inscrutable God of providence is the wise and gracious God of creation and redemption." That's where faith comes in. Those without it may believe that a schizophrenic God creates beauty but also purposeless suffering. Those with it agree with David's Psalm 19, that "the heavens display the glory of God, the skies portray his handiwork." That's where joy comes in: We should work hard at whatever God calls us to do, enjoy it as we do it, help others as we can and leave to Him the question of why there is so much suffering. On Memorial Day, at military cemeteries, the connection between suffering and accomplishment is clear: some suffered so that others would have joy. On the other 364 days of the year, the connection is not so clear, and we should pray as Psalm 51 suggests: "Let the bones you have crushed rejoice."