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Intelligent Design and the Value of Suffering

Granville Sewell
Photo: Adams Memorial, Rock Creek Cemetery, by Historic American Buildings Survey, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In a series of posts, of which this is the fifth and final, I have been considering the problem of pain, but also indirectly, the “silence” of God. See my earlier posts hereherehere, and here.

We have thus far looked at suffering as a by-product of our blessings and not a blessing in itself. And certainly it is difficult to see anything good in suffering in its severest forms.

Nevertheless, we cannot help but notice that some suffering is necessary to enable us to experience life in its fullest, and to bring us to a closer relationship with God. Often it is through suffering that we experience the love of God, and discover the love of family and friends, in deepest measure. The man who has never experienced any setbacks or disappointments invariably is a shallow person, while one who has suffered is usually better able to empathize with others. Some of the closest and most beautiful relationships occur between people who have suffered similar sorrows.

The Harvest of Suffering

It has been argued that most of the great works of literature, art, and music were the products of suffering. One whose life has led him to expect continued comfort and ease is not likely to make the sacrifices necessary to produce anything of great and lasting value.

Of course, beyond a certain point pain and suffering lose their positive value. Even so, the human spirit is amazing for its resilience, and many people have found cause to thank God even in seemingly unbearable situations. While serving time in a Nazi concentration camp for giving sanctuary to Jews, Betsie ten Boom told her sister, “We must tell people what we have learned here. We must tell them that there is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still. They will listen to us, Corrie, because we have been here.” 

“Even More Human”

In a letter to our children composed after she realized she had lost her battle with cancer, my wife Melissa wrote: 

While I no longer feel physically normal…in an odd sort of way, I feel even more human. I have seen and felt more suffering by myself and others around me in the last few years than I probably ever would have. I have seen children still in strollers hooked up to IV chemotherapy and young children, my own children’s ages, with monstrous tumors bulging from their necks. In the face of this unjust tragedy, they still had a sweet innocent smile on their faces. I have talked with young women and men my own age who are struggling with the reality of leaving their young children and spouses long before their responsibilities of parenthood are completed. 

I have also discovered a deepness in relationships with others that I probably never would have otherwise cultivated…. I have seen the compassion and love of others towards me. I have witnessed how good and true and caring the human spirit can be. I have learned much about love from others during these times.

We might add that not only the person who suffers, but also those who minister to his needs, are provided with opportunities for growth and development.

C. S. Lewis concludes his essay on The Problem of Pain by saying “Pain provides an opportunity for heroism; the opportunity is seized with surprising frequency.” As Batsell Barrett Baxter put it in his article in UpReach, which I’ve already referenced, “Is God Really Good?”: “The problems, imperfections and challenges which our world contains give us opportunities for growth and development which would otherwise be impossible.”

Savage and Controller

In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley paints a picture of a futuristic Utopian society which has succeeded, through totalitarian controls on human behavior and drugs designed to stimulate pleasant emotions and to repress undesirable ones, in banishing all traces of pain and unpleasantness. There remains one “savage” who has not adapted to the new civilization, however, and his refusal to take his pills results in the following interchange between “Savage” and his “civilized” interrogators:

“We prefer to do things comfortably,” said the Controller.

“But I don’t want comfort, I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustophe Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“Alright then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

If God designed this world as a tourist resort where man could rest in comfort and ease, it is certainly a dismal failure. But I believe, with the Savage, that man was created for greater things. That is why, I believe, this world presents us with such an inexhaustible array of puzzles in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology, and philosophy to challenge and entertain us, and provides us with so many opportunities for creativity and achievement in music, literature, art, athletics, business, technology, and other pursuits; and why there are always new worlds to discover, from the mountains and jungles of South America and the flora and fauna of Africa, to the era of dinosaurs and the surface of Mars, and the astonishing world of microbiology.

Now, Perhaps, an Answer

Why does God remain backstage, hidden from view, working behind the scenes while we act out our parts in the human drama? Now perhaps we finally have an answer. If He were to walk out onto the stage, and take on a more direct and visible role, I suppose He could clean up our act, and rid the world of pain and evil — and doubt. But our human drama would be turned into a divine puppet show, and it would cost us some of our greatest blessings: the regularity of natural law which makes our achievements meaningful; the free will which makes us more interesting than robots; the love which we can receive from and give to others; and even the opportunity to grow and develop through suffering. I must confess that I still often wonder if the blessings are worth the terrible price, but God has chosen to create a world where both good and evil can flourish, rather than one where neither can exist. He has chosen to create a world of greatness and infamy, of love and hatred, and of joy and pain, rather than one of mindless robots or unfeeling puppets.

Batsell Barrett Baxter, who was dying of cancer as he wrote these words, concludes: “When one sees all of life and understands the reasons behind life’s suffering, I believe he will agree with the judgment which God Himself declared in the Genesis story of creation: ‘And God saw everything that He had made, and behold it was very good.’“

This series was adapted from Dr. Sewell’s book In the Beginning and Other Essays on Intelligent Design.