This is an archived copy of a post written by Conflict Of Justice (conflictofjustice.com). Used with permission: Conflict Of Justice may not agree with any alterations made.
It is good to ask this question. Though it may seem trite, questioning the existence of pain is a major development on one’s spiritual journey. This is a point of no return, like Adam partaking of the fruit of knowledge and being cast out of the garden of paradise. We discard our childish naiveté and see the world differently, transitioning to a mature phase of life. Just when you think you can’t take it anymore, the gloomy clouds dissipate and you find yourself on the summit of a tall mountain.
You must confront the dark to understand the light. Joseph Smith said: “Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity.”
It takes courage to depart from paradise. Many who seem to question the existence of suffering are not actually trying to understand it–they are just complaining that they can’t remain children. They want pain to stop. How dare God not keep me securely fed and happy in a cage, like a pet animal? How dare God release me into the wild where I will encounter challenges? Just accept that you are no longer welcome in Eden. Grow up. It’s better. Acceptance of pain is a step many live their entire lives without achieving. And few there are who embrace a life of pain.
Religion Re-Frames Suffering As Positive
The advantage to religion is it provides meaning to suffering, even going so far as to re-frame suffering as productive. On a basic level, we understand that those who violate the universes’s immutable moral laws will be punished, and they will deserve punishment because of their choices. Without belief in God, what justification is there for suffering? Many are punished who do not deserve it and many are not punished who do deserve it. We believe that despite all of life’s injustices, there will be a future life in which God will mete out punishment in a perfectly just way.
Furthermore, suffering in this life can serve as sacrifice for a positive outcome: we believe the God and creator of this universe died and experienced ultimate pain as a means of redeeming the penitent among us. This idea of moral sacrifice turns pain into a constructive act of devotion–you endure it as a gesture of love to God and your fellow man. Therefore, pain is not only experienced by the wicked, but an opportunity for the righteous to benefit others. Atheists can certainly sacrifice for the greater good too, but it is always limited by the social contract. Christianity takes social sacrifice much further by making it ingrained in the very fabric and reason for existence. If I can give my daily bread to the hungry and starve for a day, it makes sense that the all-loving God can make an ultimate sacrifice on behalf of mankind. And if God has endured ultimate suffering, God can empathize with whatever pain I may be going through. We often talk about how comforting a thought this is, but its great significance is in how it enables us to change. Pain and destruction is useful because it provides opportunity for change, and the ultimate sacrifice of Christ’s atonement guides us in rebuilding ourselves out of any hole that we have dug.
|See also:||Stoicism For Latter-day Saints|
Religion Provides Meaning – This reason for suffering gives us reason for living. Otherwise, what is the point other than to survive? To avoid pain? To seek comfort? What template does one judge against to determine whether a person is excelling in life? By how rich they are, how much other people like them? Money buys happiness–I admit–but religion buys meaning. That is according to a psychology study by Shigehiro Oishi of the University of Virginia and Ed Diener of the University of Illinois: “Oishi and Diener found that people from religious countries were more likely to report that their lives had meaning. In fact, religious belief turned out to be the trait most strongly correlated with meaning.” Religious people report higher levels of meaning, even when they are less happy:
“On several occasions, research has shown that people living in poverty report lower life satisfaction, lower subjective well-being and lower levels of positive emotion… It found that poorer people reported higher levels of meaning in their lives. While only 66% of people in wealthier nations reported having meaningful lives, this number rose to above 95% in impoverished countries. Although it may appear that this is to do with the money these people had, it may actually have more to do with religious faith. Only 25% of Europeans identify as highly religious compared with 90% of Africans. Additionally, even high-income African’s reported higher happiness levels than similar income Europeans.” (Borgen Magazine, Beti Sharew)
Why are we obsessed with avoiding pain? Why are we a nation of pain-killers? If only we would pursue meaning and accomplishment with the same zeal we put into avoiding difficultly! If only we could realize how things that suck in life are good because they provide opportunity for something different. The pain associated with heavy lifting leads to large muscles. The humility it provides strips us of our first-world pride we inevitably adopt. At the very least, experiencing pain can allow you to provide empathetic charity to others who experience the same type of pain. Lean into it.
Reasons For Pain – Just as with America’s over-prescription of painkillers, we fail to look beyond the symptoms and confront the real reason for life’s anguish. There are basically four sources of suffering:
- Your own choices
- Actions of others
- Tests from God
- Things that just happen
I think it’s as simple as that. As for the fourth point, the question is do some bad things just happen randomly or is there a reason for every single influence in our lives? I think this is a matter of perspective. When I get up in the morning and stub my toe, chances are God did not make it happen. It wasn’t fate, despite what Calvinists say. If I had arranged my furniture more thoughtfully and improved my lifestyle so that I wasn’t so drowsy when I get up, maybe it could have been avoided. But I can find meaning in the simplest of events in my life and I can frame even something like stubbing my toe as positive. One of the marks of a truly successful person is how they can turn meaning of the random events of life into a righteousness ladder to excellence.
Evolutionary Reason – If you want a practical answer to why pain exists, ask science. It’s okay to involve science! People frame this issue with science separated from philosophy and religion, and I don’t get why. When your parent is laying in a hospital bed suffering from cancer treatments, does it really help to avoid the physical reality laying there before you? Why not confront the scientific reason for this as you ponder the philosophy? Perhaps it is because atheist activists have conditioned us against involving science in such things. Hard-core atheists are all about evolution–evolution this, evolution that–until it becomes a question of why pain exists, and then suddenly they are all about framing it as a religious issue. Suddenly they can’t stop thinking about religion.
I believe that which we observe as evolution is a tool of God’s design. There are therefore two questions: Why does evolution allow suffering? and, Why does God allow evolution?
The evolutionary reason for pain is quite simple as a tool of motivation: you do things that will help you survive because you experience pain if you don’t. People who associate pain with dangers are more likely to survive by avoiding those dangers, and so pain becomes a natural selection mechanism. Greater danger comes to be associated with greater pain, and pain that is harder to overcome rewards those who are facing greater danger: “It becomes harder and harder to ignore pain as the degree of potential damage to your body increases. The degree of pain isn’t always exactly proportional to the degree of damage being done to your body, but it is close enough to protect you.” (Israel Ramirez)
But is that really so? I question how reliable this is as a rule. As a teenager I climbed tall trees and free-climbed sheer cliffs that would have killed me if I fell. What evolutionary reason is there for me feeling a euphoric rush during those dangerous experiences yet I felt sharp pain from stepping on a Lego piece?
Scientists differentiate between shallow pain and deep pain. Shallow pain tells you “this is bad, don’t do it”, while deep pain is debilitating and crippling. What is the purpose of deep pain that does not make you likely to survive or reproduce, such as torture? Shouldn’t there be some kind of off-switch at some point? Well, scientists point out that deep pain tends to be associated with things that make you less likely to physically benefit the species. The damaging pain makes you less likely to remain as a liability to the group: “a mouth less to feed and one less able / fit individual to fight for / with.” This may not be the case today, and it may offend our modern morality, but in practical primitive terms a person who has been severely tortured is not likely to help the group thrive in the future.
The human body is still adapting to rapidly changing modern circumstances. Life in the modern city is very different than the circumstances of ancient times, and things that bring severe emotional and psychological distress would have been associated with very dangerous circumstances for the group in those times. Does this mean those who experience deep pain today are a liability for society? No. Many people experience depression and other bouts of severe pain; to some extent we all do. The most successful people I know suffer from bouts of depression but have learned to use it to motivate themselves. Rather than cave in to the temptation to incorrectly assume that this pain indicates inferiority, they accept that the pain must exist due to rapidly changing modern circumstances and their zeal to be productive in it. Rather than focus on comfort, they turn their attention to what they can produce for others. I think one of the best reactions we can have to deep pain is to pay attention to how we love and benefit those around us.
Adaptation Vs. Repentance – This is why the evolutionary response of adaptation alone is not enough to explain or deal with pain. Pain alone is not a sufficient mechanism for improvement, because a life all about avoiding pain would be sedentary and unproductive. I have noticed that many who leave the church do so simply as a means of adapting to a painful situation. Many ex-members adopt popular society’s ideologies and antagonize the church because they helps them fit in to the crowd and live a pleasurable existence. It establishes a more comfortable means of living, despite the family strife and need for therapy it may foment. How much of our self-improvement is just adaptation? I’d say almost all. When we memorize for a school test, when we get a job, and when we learn to attract the opposite sex, is that not adaptation?
True repentance goes beyond adaptation, as pain is not just a means for telling us something is wrong or propagating the species. It is a means of self-improvement, for remorse and experiencing of consequences changes us spiritually. It is a sacrifice that helps us grow closer to God and forgive those who have hurt us. What motive does an atheist have to forgive, beyond obvious exigencies? It humbles us so that we can strip away false assumptions and regrow our spiritual nature more purely. Pain is a flowing shower of water that either baptizes us to a more holy state or washes us with filth down the drain–it depends on how we react to it.
The classic quote in The Princess Bride is: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.” Life is not only a part of life, but necessary for life to be. Christ’s pain from the atonement was part of the Creation. As long as your heart is beating, “deep” pain is not useless suffering, but can be utilized to a constructive purpose.
Keep Your Childlike Nature – I always found the pervasive iconography in Europe of Jesus suffering on the cross and Mary weeping on his behalf jarring. So much blood and gore, like a slasher film! It is understandable why many say this is one reason we avoid using the cross as a church logo: it gets pretty excessive. At first, I figured this was just a way to shame the population into adherence to the church, by shaming them into thinking Jesus suffered because of their sinful nature. Kinda like the witch mother in Disney’s film Tangled. Kinda like today’s popular cultural shaming about race, sex, etc. And, well, I still think that. But after living there for a while I found that this pervasive iconography was somewhat comforting. It’s like listening to hard rock music when you are having a bad day: it expresses and validates the pain we feel.
Symbolism helps us make sense of painful experiences, and I believe one reason many church members apostatize is because they fail to utilize symbolism to this purpose. Allow the sacrament and the temple to heal you! Pain as a result of the fall of Adam and the pain of the Father allowing Christ to be crucified are not just Primary class lessons once we truly internalize that spiritual reality and allow it to humble us. To that end, we shouldn’t throw away our childlike nature as we confront the existence of pain and evil in the world. To grow up we should not throw away our childlike dreams. Jesus commanded us to be humble and easy to teach like children, for a childlike nature is necessary to see God’s symbolism in nature. Many non-members have developed profound mythology that teaches spiritual truths by retaining a childlike nature. But I think the direct profound gospel truths of the church are realized by having this attitude as well. The child’s willingness to be open to possibilities and creative imagination leads him to sincerely pray directly to God. It is easy for atheists to dismiss the “delusions” of Christians as the vain imaginations of children, seeing ducks in the clouds, but perhaps that is why so many people are afraid of scary movies about children seeing ghosts in the dark–they know there is something there only a childlike attitude can see.
|See also:||Is Existence Of Evil Proof For God?|
Pain motivates us to look to nature’s symbolism that answers questions of existence–let it speak to you. It is only a delusion if it prevents you from confronting the real problems. If it is helping you confront and sort through the problems, why not? What is the harm? Let go of your effort to be an adult about it, and allow your imagination which is begging with you to help you to guide you. Allow ordinances to speak of an unseen reality. You will find that nature’s symbolism speaks to a grand unseen reality of creation’s origin and purpose. You will start to realize there is a vast universe of what you don’t see and don’t know, yet is possible to explore. You start to see answers to life’s ultimate questions: Why am I here? Who am I? Where am I going?. The sun will rise for a reason, and every part of nature will shine with purpose.
Pain exists to humble you to realize what you don’t know and to seek answers. Pain provides opportunity for improvement. It helps you love others. It is a reminder that the Father of your spirit sacrificed his Only Begotten Son, and that Christ experienced ultimate suffering in order to know how to be your mediator for improvement, and pain is therefore the means of making up for any mistake which you have made.