The Problem of Pain
Updated: Apr 19
Last week, my brother-in-law died of lung cancer.
Jim Gilbert never smoked. He was only 35 and had two young children. His funeral was Monday and though this has been coming for almost a year, since he was first diagnosed and the word "incurable" was used, it was hard to process. Sitting at the funeral listening to family recount memories of his life, looking at the pictures he, an accomplished photographer, had taken, I had such a torrent of emotions. Maybe most prominent among them was the inescapable desperation of inequity: "This. Shouldn't. Happen. It's not fair." Isn't that what we say? It's not fair? And we ask, as I'm sure many have of Jim's passing, "Why?"
Jim was an awesome dad. Just go watch his Youtube videos. He was always involving his kids in the stuff he did, something I wish I could do better. I received a bracelet from Snyder's funeral home that says "Memories Matter" for being one of Jim's pall-bearers. I've been wearing it to remind myself to make memories with my kids the way Jim did with his. Jim was also an awesome husband. His wife Laura was temporarily paralyzed when their son Jack was born, and she is still overcoming that today, almost 6 years later. Jim built a ramp for her so she could get in and out of the house after she returned from the hospital, as well as a bed on the first floor that she could use because she couldn't get up the stairs. He never, as far I know, expressed any frustration at the situation, never blamed God, but gave all he had to his spouse. For better or for worse.
By all human accounts, it isn't fair. He was a good person. Why does God allow bad things happen to good people?
We've been praying for Jim with our kids since he was diagnosed last November. It's cute to hear their little voices express such deep things: "Pray for uncle Jimmy, heal his body." And while we genuinely believed a miracle was possible, we were also prepared to accept the worst. And I knew if it came to that, that it would fall to me, the man and head of the house, to explain this great mystery - why do bad things happen to good people? - to my children, who had been praying in faithful innocence for their uncle Jimmy for so long. How do I explain to a 5- and 3-year-old why God doesn't answer some prayers?
But the truth is that this problem of pain is not an inheritance left to us by God but one that we chose ourselves. It is intrinsic to our human-ness, to our sinful nature. Do you think God's original design in the Garden of Eden included cancer? Genesis 3:17 and 19 tell us clearly that we brought death into the world by our sin: "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you saying, 'You shall not eat from it' . . . By the sweat of your face you will eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
The right question to be asking is not "Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?" but "Why does God allow any good things to happen to bad people?" Because Scripture is clear that we are all bad people. Psalm 14:2-3 says, "They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; there is no one who does good. The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one." Paul writes in Romans 3:23 that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" and in Romans 6:23 that "the wages of sin is death." Every good thing in your life is an act of mercy from God. Every one.
We look at a situation like Jim's and, in our smallness, say, "He didn't deserve that." And by our standard, he didn't. But the truth is that none of us can stand innocent before the King of the universe. We are all hurtling toward hell, an open grave before us, and God chooses - and who can say why or how - to reach down and pull some of us back. The story of Jim Gilbert is a story of grace, not only because God shortened his suffering at the end, but also because Jim, a sinner like all of us, is in heaven with Jesus today, in a perfection that makes the calamity of his mortal trials and the frailty of his human body dim and small and insignificant. And I know that someday, I'll see him again, and I know he will say it was all worth it.
Don't misunderstand what I'm saying. I am not saying that Jim died because of some sin in his life. On the contrary, Jesus Christ died because of all the sin in his, and my, and everyone else's life, just as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:21: "[God] made [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." And while we yearn to see the purpose behind such a tragedy and look for how God is using this in the furtherance of His plan - and He is, already He is - it is enough for us to the see the scandalous story of God's love for a sinner named Jim Gilbert and His rescue mission to bring him home to heaven. And oh! that living hope that we too, someday, shall see Jesus as Jim is now. Jim is in the presence of his Savior, eternally apart from the pain and suffering he shed in his last breath, alive in the newness of his heavenly body, delighting in the mercy of the Father. Indeed, he is far better off today than he could ever have been on Earth.
And you, if you are reading this and have suffered loss, if you sense inequity in the tribulations of your tired trudging, if you question either God's sovereignty or his justness - believing either that he can't change your circumstances or that he won't - if you feel the problem of pain burning in your own life like a sickness, remember that this is the human condition, that in sin we are an offense to God, that by what is right and what is just, we ought to have suffered the cross that Jesus bore, endured the grave in which He was buried, and inherited the hell he overcame, and that every ounce of good in your life is due to the mercy of the Father because "Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights" (James 1:17). And you too can have the hope of salvation, the confidence of a life to come, just as Jim had, and armed thus with the expectation of eternity, the trials of life, though still real and raw and unaccountable, will diminish, placed in proper perspective before the God who makes all things new until at last you can say, as we have said of Jim, "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21b).
We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. ~ Hebrews 6:19-20a