Midway through my surgical training, the suffering I witnessed on a single night in the ER pitched my faith into turmoil.
I was a nominal Christian, with an understanding of God grounded in sentimentality rather than biblical truth. When paramedics rushed three dying young men through the sliding doors of my emergency department, my meager faith unraveled. One teenager had been bludgeoned with a baseball bat while his 4-year-old son watched; another had been stabbed in the chest; a third, shot in the head. In each case, I fought and failed to save their lives, and then watched helplessly as their families crumpled to the ground in grief.
I had dealt with tragedy in the ER before, but not to this extreme. After work the next morning, I felt hollowed, as if a vital part of me had been torn out from its roots. Although my body ached for rest, I drove two hours from home in desperation to connect with something good and true. I stopped at a bridge spanning the Connecticut River and tried to pray, but through closed lids I saw only the blood staining my gloves and three boys’ eyes fixed in their final gaze. I could still hear their mothers’ screams as they collapsed to the floor in anguish.
As I stood on that bridge, I wrestled with grief. I wrestled with guilt. And over and over again, the question troubled me: How could a good God allow this? How could he allow people to look at one another, to perceive no worth, and then to devastate life with a trigger pull or a swing of a bat?
After years of stumbling through life without Scripture, the only answer I could discern that day was silence. I decided that God must not exist, and as I trudged back to my car, I abandoned my faith on that bridge.
Yet God did not abandon me. Within a year, he would use my pain — the very calamity that had cracked my brittle faith in two — to draw me to himself.
While few people glimpse the tragedies and triumphs of the trauma bay, questions about suffering and faith have troubled humankind for ages. For centuries, academics and laypeople alike have wrestled with “the problem of pain,” as C. S. Lewis phrases it. The problem, in brief, is how a benevolent and all-powerful God could permit pain and suffering in the world he created.
Lewis himself penned an entire book to address the question. In The Problem of Pain, he argues that pain and suffering are in fact compatible with, rather than contradictory to, the God of the Bible. His commentary includes a famous quote that struck me like a thunderclap in the wake of my own faith struggles, and that continues to guide and refine me whenever hurts break into my days: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts to us in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (91).
Problem of Pain
Lewis himself was no stranger to suffering, having lost his parents at an early age and fought in World War I. And then later, he would grieve his wife’s untimely death. In The Problem of Pain, such personal experiences nuance his writing and combine with his deftness as an apologist to offer a thorough, careful exposition of suffering through a Christian lens.
In keeping with his tradition of intellectual rigor, Lewis offers a particularly strong argument for suffering as a necessary consequence of the fall. “Pain is unmasked, unmistakable evil,” he writes. “Every man knows that something is wrong when he is being hurt” (90). Pain and suffering are the penalties for our corruption of the created order (Genesis 3:16–19; Romans 6:23), and they signify our rebellion against a good and holy God.
And yet, Lewis does not oversimplify the place of suffering in the Christian life. Instead, he acknowledges that God can and does work through pain for the ultimate good of his people (Romans 8:28). Given our depravity, Lewis argues, God’s love for us must necessarily be corrective and remedial (Hebrews 12:6). With hearts like ours, to give us what we always desire would be to ignore the reproof necessary to shape us into the image of Christ.
Smashing Our Idols
Left to ourselves, Lewis notes, we are content to cleave to our sins and to make idols of what we fashion with our own hands (Romans 1:25). “The human spirit will not even begin to try to surrender self-will as long as all seems to be well with it,” he writes (90). Through the “megaphone” of pain, therefore, God prods us to acknowledge our need for him, for our good and for his glory:
Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. . . . What then can God do in our interests but make “our own life” less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible sources of false happiness? (94)
“Pain rouses us from spiritual deafness, convicts us of sin, and reminds us that his grace is sufficient.”
According to Lewis, when pain crashes into our lives, it prompts us to seek happiness in God rather than in our own self-sufficiency. It rouses us from spiritual deafness, convicts us of sin, and reminds us that his grace is sufficient and his power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Pain, then, is entirely compatible with a good, powerful, and loving God, and in fact speaks of his love for us — a love that is neither sentimental nor flimsy, but robust and self-sacrificial. A love so radical that he gave his only Son for us (John 3:16).
Rousing a Deaf World
Although Lewis builds his analysis with reason and logic, his assertions have biblical precedent. As Paul explains in Romans 1:18–23, evidence of God’s existence surrounds us in abundance, but we shield our eyes from his glory. We jealously cultivate the fallacy that we are entirely in command and self-sufficient, that we have no need for him, and that we owe him no debt. We do what is right in our own eyes rather than seek God’s will and righteousness (Proverbs 14:12; 21:2).
Meanwhile, God knows what we need (Matthew 6:8) and will work through our pain to steer us back to his guiding light and love. The Bible is replete with such examples. Jonah, the wayward prophet, ran from God and didn’t pray until he was locked within the darkness of the fish’s belly (Jonah 2:1–9). Jesus waited until Lazarus had died before journeying to his home, so he could reveal to the mourning throng that he was the Christ (John 11:15, 40–42). Samson repented of his transgressions and defeated the Philistines only after God had stripped away his strength and his pride (Judges 16:28–29). Throughout the Bible, God works through suffering to awaken his people to their need for him.
“Throughout the Bible, God works through suffering to awaken his people to their need for him.”
After I walked away from God, I had no claim to hope. I discerned no meaning, no glint of mercy lining the dark moments. I saw only the horror of life, the pervasive suffering.
And in that darkness, God roused me to look to him.
Rousing Me to Faith
For a year after that night in the ER, living felt a lot like dying. Without God infusing the world with purpose, despair tarnished everything. In this ghostly state, existing but not thriving, I ruminated daily about taking my own life.
Then, while I was working in the ICU, I witnessed a patient’s improbable recovery in response to prayer. Had darkness not enveloped me, I might have dismissed the event as an outlier, but my time in the wilderness had primed my soul for God. My journey through pain had ignited in me a thirst for him and for his word.
One evening, I trudged home bedraggled and exhausted after a trauma call, and for the first time I cracked open a Bible, its cover sheathed in a layer of dust. I read Romans 5:1–9, burst into tears, and reread verses 3–5 as sunset spilled over the horizon:
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Not only are pain and a loving God compatible, but on this side of the cross, we can rejoice in our sufferings. God works through our pain to refine us, to strengthen us, and to instill us with hope. He works through it to draw us to himself, to rouse us as with a megaphone, and to convict us of our desperate need for him. He works through our suffering because — like a father guiding his children toward the one right path — he loves us (Matthew 7:13–14).
God used my time in the darkness to rouse me to his grace. He used it to open my eyes to the truth that his own Son also suffered. Our Savior knows our agonies (Hebrews 4:15). He bore the Father’s wrath for us. And when we are downtrodden, weary, and crushed beneath the suffering of this world, he is gentle and lowly and offers a light burden for our souls (Matthew 11:28–30).