God’s Megaphone?

from his book, The Problem Of Pain

Does the Christian God use pain to draw people to himself? Assuming for a moment that such a God exists, does he use human suffering to make followers for himself?

There is no evidence in the Bible to suggest he does. To be sure, the Bible has a fair amount to say about pain. It claims that suffering is a means by which God either chastens Christians (Hebrews 12.7) or strengthens them (Romans 5.3-5), but this is exclusively for people who already believe. The Bible does not say non-believers are afflicted as a means of drawing them closer to God; the idea is unbiblical.

Let’s assume then that while this notion finds no support in the bible, Christians have learnt over the centuries, perhaps though extra-biblical revelation, that God does use pain in this way. What does this tell us about God? That he’s a being whose principal way of making human beings pay attention to him is by causing (or allowing) them to suffer frequently unbearable pain and anguish.

What sort of God is this? Not one who loves the world and cares for humans far more than he does mere sparrows (Matthew 6.26). He’s more an unpleasant, sadistic bully: the jock who backs you up against the wall, grips your balls and squeezes hard.

Maybe that’s how it is. The God who created the universe is just such a being; a moral monster, as commenter koseighty puts it. It’s easy to see how he might be: human beings suffer, yet there’s (supposedly) a God who loves them; therefore pain and suffering must at the very least be sanctioned by God, or, more likely, delivered by him. This, after all, is the story of the Old Testament. The God so arrived at though is a thoroughly human creation, a means of minimising cognitive dissonance by reconciling human suffering and a God who supposedly cares.

One more assumption is needed. Let’s assume this time that despite the odds, this character really exists. Does his strategy work? Does inflicting pain and anguish on people make them, as Lewis suggests, cry out to the One doing (or allowing) the inflicting and compel them to love him? It seems unlikely; I can’t find any evidence online of anyone claiming that pain or anguish brought them to God. From a personal perspective, I can honestly say that in times of distress or suffering I have never, post-deconversion, called out to God or any supernatural entity for help. I’ve never interpreted my suffering as his calling me closer and have never, since escaping Christianity, succumbed to his malicious charms. (What I did do occasionally, following my deconversion, was to convince myself that my suffering was a punishment from God – for leaving him behind, being gay or something I’d done. These feelings disappeared when I embraced fully the fact that the Christian God isn’t real.)

Where does this leave the Christian with, as Lewis puts it, ‘the problem of pain’? How do they reconcile a loving God who allows or even causes human beings to suffer? They can’t. Instead they spout empty platitudes that they think let their indifferent, imaginary God off the hook. Just look at the meaningless theo-babble religious leaders came up with in 2004 after a tsunami hit Indonesia, killing 227,898 people.

Leave God out of the equation, however, and there are far better explanations for why humans suffer. ‘Shit happens’ is far more convincing than anything the religious have to offer. Physical pain is the body’s reaction to damage. It is an imperfect system that frequently overreacts or fires up even after damage is repaired (I know this having fibromyalgia). That’s what it is to have, to be, a physical body. Anguish comes from random acts of nature, the violence and cruelty we inflict on each other and the death of loved ones, much of which is beyond human control. ‘Thoughts and prayers’ are useless in ameliorating this kind of suffering. Measures to restrict people’s access to weapons undoubtedly helps, as it has in countries with politicians with sufficient strength and intelligence to enact gun-control legislation. Without it, as in Ulvalde last week, more children will die, more parents will experience terrible anguish and another massacre is inevitable. God won’t stop it.

Suffering is not symbolic of something else; it is not ‘God’s megaphone’ or an opportunity for others to point those afflicted to Christ’s light (or any other bullshit that involves the supernatural.) Pain simply is. It is our lot as physical bodies to endure or alleviate as best we can.

Scourge

He came from out of nowhere. Myalgic was his name, but he was more commonly known as The Scourge . He was dressed in an impenetrable armour, shining shades of metallic blue and purple, like a beetle’s carapace. He towered over me and despite my own superhuman powers, overpowered me with one blow from the back of his axe. The first wave of unbearable pain swept over me as, in that same instant, my arms, from shoulder to finger ends, became as iron, rendered immoveable, while the muscles of my back twisted into knots of corroded steel. My legs likewise were seared, down to my toes of shattered bone, inside my own inadequate armour. I was being broken from the inside out; every part of my body succumbing to an agony unlike any I have never known.

And then he moved on, leaving me there, smashed into innumerable agonised pieces, defeated.

That was years ago. The pain has not left me. Yes, I have days when it abates, but always it returns with vengeful severity. I cannot, will not, allow it to prevent me from living as fully as I might – of course not – but my days of using my abilities to serve others are gone, ending the day Myalgic The Scourge descended and conquered the world; my world.

Heaven’s Above

Blog356

I was struggling for inspiration this week with the homework assignment from my writing group. The title was ‘Heaven’s Above’ (or maybe ‘Heavens Above’, without the apostrophe) and possibly I was having difficulty with it because I don’t believe in a Heaven above, on account of there not being one.

The other night, in a local bar, this young guy came over to talk to my friends and me. He was a doctor from a nearby practice, and he started by asking how, when the time comes, we’d like to die. While perhaps not be the best way to start a consultation, his question provoked some interesting responses.

Then, having somehow detected that my friends and I had reached a certain level of maturity (we’re in our 60s), the young doctor asked what we felt was the point of life. He had, he said, a real need to know this, because having achieved all he wanted at 28, he was left wondering if there was any purpose beyond 30. I like to think we all gave him good answers. There’s life in these old dogs yet! For me, it was falling in love (yes, it happens to old people too) together with friends, lovers and other relationships, particularly those with my grown-up children and beautiful grandchildren. There’s also – though I didn’t bore him with the details – achieving authenticity, accepting yourself and living true to that self. Then there’s all the other things that make life worthwhile; being open to change, having new experiences, learning, helping others, reading, writing, conversation, music, walking… You will, I’m sure, have your own list.

I know that Sartre claimed that ‘Hell is other people’ and Lee Marvin thought much the same thing when he rumbled in Wand’rin’ Star that ‘Hell is in hello’, but Heaven is in these same things; in friendship and our other relationships. There may be some who think it’s easy for me to say all this. ‘After all,’ they say, without knowing me, ‘you have a good life. It’s pretty easy to feel positive about something that’s already going well,’ which is true. Except my life has had its share of traumas, problems and pains, and still does. But life is good and worthwhile in spite of these, and it’s purposeful too without recourse to God or Jesus. Who needs these two old frauds? We make our own Heaven here, now, in our own lives.

Am I saying count your blessings? Yes, I suppose I am, but not, I hope, in a glib way. There are so many good things in most of our lives; all we have to do is make them our own. ‘Lay hold on life,’ as the old hymn says, ‘and it shall be, thy joy and crown eternally.’ Maybe not eternally, but certainly beyond the age of 30.