The Problem of Pleasure (pt. 5)
Why Do the “Righteous” Suffer?
Again, a protest arises: “What about the suffering of the righteous? Is the Bible not full of the complaints of godly people who are afflicted while the wicked flourish as a green bay tree? Is the Bible not against you in saying that some righteous do suffer and some sinners do not suffer?”
Take, first, the charge that the wicked prosper rather than suffer. That is the lament of the godly at times. The Bible grants that many wicked persons continue to live and flourish in this world, much to the dismay of the righteous. But the Bible does not teach that the wicked do not suffer. It does teach that they suffer, but not as much as they deserve to suffer. In many instances, they do not endure as much physical suffering as the saints, who are often martyred. But the Bible does not present the wicked as not being punished. It simply says they do not receive their full punishment in this world. God has a better way of administering justice than that.
Likewise, the godly do suffer and complain about it at times. But the Bible teaches plainly that their suffering, even after their conversion and reconciliation to God, is not punishment any longer, but chastening. It is not the punishment of a God who is angry with them, but the chastening of a God who is reconciled to them. Whom God loves, the Scripture says, He chastens. He makes all things, including pain, “work together for good for them that love God, and are called according to His purpose.” This should be the consolation and strength of saints. They are far from perfect, so they lapse into complaining at times. They forget the divine purpose, momentarily, under the smarting of their grief. But the Bible does not say that the righteous suffer, any more than it says that the unrighteous do not suffer. The unrighteous suffer, but not as much as they deserve to or ultimately will suffer; and the righteous painfully suffer, but they do not suffer pain. That affliction is actually a blessing in disguise. At times, they can see through the disguise. At other times, the pain hurts so much that they cannot, through their tears, see the disguise. Momentarily they lament the heavy hand of God upon them, but when they are thinking in their most saintly character, they praise God. His rod and staff comfort them.
Job, for example, was permitted some awesome catastrophes for the good of his soul. It did indeed do his soul, and ultimately his body, great good, as we know from that famous book of the Old Testament. Job was like a modern saint who suffered so dreadfully, but said that he did not “have a pain to spare.” When pain is present it is difficult to bear; but when a Christian, even in anguish, realizes that this is the heavy hand of a loving God upon him, he blesses God in his suffering and for his suffering, which he knows is for his own good and for his everlasting blessedness.
So, in spite of all the intellectual agonizing about the problem of pain, the only problem is explaining why pain is a problem. In a sinful world pain is axiomatic. No one should ever have been surprised about its presence. It would have been a problem only if it did not exist. If this is the imperial problem of philosophers and theologians, this emperor has no clothes.
Only as an emotional and physical “problem” is pain real, and, as such, the only real problem is that pain hurts. That is easy to understand, but insuperably difficult to endure. So mankind should expend its intellectual energies not on a non-problem of pain, but on how to escape it. ‘‘What must I do to be saved?’’
Absence of Pain Would Be a Real Problem
If there were no pain in this world, there would be a real problem. But, since there is pain, there is no dilemma because we know that this sinful world deserves precisely that.
The present pain is not sufficient to our crimes, so that we can ask, Why so little pain? Why so much pleasure? Why any pleasure?
This is the real difficulty. Why is there any pleasure in this world? There is no problem of pain, but there is an omnipresent problem of pleasure. If God was in His heaven, and all were well with the world, then we would know that this world is indeed a paradise. Since, though God is in heaven, all is not well in the world, the question is, Why so little punishment? God is a being of infinite glory. Sin against Him is sin of infinite enormity. We say that sin is sin. But there is another sense in which sin is not sin. One sin is vastly different from another sin. It has the same nature, to be sure, but the different degree of it eclipses what it has in common.
For example, two boys get into a scrap, and one of them gets beaten up more than the other. Suppose he deserved it, had done something which required a bit of thrashing. Nobody’s eyebrows are raised much as long as there has been no permanent damage. Just two kids fighting it out over some grievance.
Suppose the same kid, however, beat up his mother as much as he beat up his friend. Would anyone ever say that is the same sin? The beating is the same, but the offense is vastly greater. Why? Because the boys are peers; they are more or less equal to one another. But in their filial relationships, the mother is nearer than the boy’s peers. She is also much more significant than her son as the source and preservation of his being. He has a divine command to honor and obey her. He owes everything to her, including life itself. For him to be disobedient to her would be a very great offense, but actually to beat her would be an unspeakable one because she is his mother. We would say that if he only spoke back disrespectfully to his mother, without even touching her, that offense would be greater than giving his neighbor a severe thrashing.
We see this principle generally in human affairs. Even our soft culture (where capital punishment is considered the crime) recognizes a difference between killing a policeman and killing a civilian. It is the same murder, to be sure, but to murder a person risking his life to prevent murder is considered more iniquitous than to murder the person, for example, who may have provoked it. Both are just as dead, but we recognize the difference between the two murders.
Again, a man kills a peer; that is terrible. But if he attacks and kills a defenseless old lady who has befriended him all his life, does anyone say that is the same crime? It is the same murder. Both persons are equally dead. But more is owed to one than to the other. Consequently, a violation of that obligation makes one crime more heinous than the other.
There is no comparison at all between God and any of His creatures. In fact, all our sins against our fellowman are ultimately sins only because God has forbidden these deeds. ‘‘Against Thee and Thee only have I sinned,’’ cried David, after committing adultery and murder. In sexually contaminating Bathsheba, and politically executing her innocent husband, David was guilty of two capital crimes. Each one of these, however, was a crime in any degree only because it was a violation of the divine commandment. “Against Thee and Thee only have I sinned.” In adultery and murder, lying and theft, and any other particular sin, we have sinned ‘‘against Thee and Thee only.’’ Instead of reducing the severity of these crimes because they are directed against one person only, it aggravates them, because that one person is infinitely more valuable than all the creatures combined. And if we recognize degrees of heinousness between a crime against one human being and another, we can see that the difference between a crime against a human and against the divine Being is infinite, and requires an infinitely more severe punishment.
The Problem: Why So Little Pain?
This is a sinful world, and sin is ultimately against its Creator, God. That sin is infinitely heinous and deserving of infinite punishment. All that mankind has suffered, in all of the ages at the hands of an angry God whose holiness has been obscured and whose justice has been violated, does not add up to one offense against the deity.
In this light, we see the problem of pleasure. Manifestly, as sinners against an infinitely glorious God, we deserve an immediate and infinite, condign, irremediable punishment from His holy, powerful hands. Nothing that we have ever received, that anyone has ever received, in all this world, has even approximated an adequate punishment for the crimes we commit in any one moment. How, therefore, do we continue to live? Why are we not plunged into eternal torment now, immediately?
What irony that sinners consider the greatest problem they face in this world to be the problem of pain. The ultimate insult against God is that man thinks he has a problem of pain. Man, who deserves to be plunged into hell at this moment, and is indescribably fortunate that he is breathing normally, complains about unhappiness. Instead of falling on his knees in the profoundest possible gratitude that God holds back His wrath and infinite fury, the sinner shakes his fist in heaven’s face and complains against what he calls “pain.” When he receives his due, he will look back on his present condition as paradisaical. What he now calls misery, he will then consider exquisite pleasure. The most severe torment anyone has ever known in this life will seem like heaven in comparison with one moment of the full fury of the divine Being.
The most foolish thing a human being ever says is that “the only hell there is is in this world.” The truth of the matter is that, for that person, the only heaven there is is in this world. When he goes to hell for his unbelief, he will realize that the only heaven he ever knew was in this world, which he called “hell.” How he will then cry out for a moment of what he now calls “hell!”
Anyone who is aware of the existence of God and of sin cannot help but wonder about the problem of pleasure.
“How long, O Lord, how long?” the saints cry out. They are especially aware of the predicament when they see the wicked flourish as the green bay tree. But the thoughtful saint, when he sees the wicked existing in the most miserable circumstances (as far as possible from flourishing as the green bay tree), wonders how long the Lord will put up with such iniquity and so little punishment. Time and again the psalmist cries to God as if he thinks God were sleeping. God punishes so little the evil which deserves so much that the psalmist, in his moments of despair, concludes that God must be sleeping. He would shake Him and wake Him up so that God would show how angry He is against the wicked. The Scripture says that God is “angry with the wicked every day.” The saint knows that, but wonders why, if God is angry, infinitely angry with the wicked every day, He shows so little of His wrath.
The wicked, in turn, draw a false consolation from their relative comfort. When they flourish, they suppose that “the Man upstairs’’ is pleased with them, that He is blind to their faults, that they are able to pull the wool over His eyes as they do over their business associates and others who are their victims. Some of them get away, literally with murder. Nothing happens to them. The “Lucky Lucianos,’’ as they are called, come and go. They kill, they rape, they steal, they lie, they threaten. So far from being punished for it, they seem to be blessed by it. Honesty pays, but it is not obvious in their cases. Crime is not supposed to pay, but it certainly seems as if it is very lucrative, especially in an age such as ours when more of the sympathy is for the victimizer than for his victims.
The Bible indicates that God hates the wicked. He is not only angry with them, He actually hates them. ‘‘Thou dost hate all who do iniquity” (Psalm 5:5). ‘‘The one who loves violence His soul hates” (Psalm 11:5). He hates liars and covenant breakers. He hates persons such as Esau, who prefer their mess of pottage to their spiritual birthright.
Yet, as the Lord says, He makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the unjust and the wicked as well as on the godly. And His followers are required to act accordingly. Christ commands us to love our enemies, and uses as His model the fact that God from heaven showers His blessings on the wicked. We see that God actually hates and is infinitely angry with persons upon whom He pours great blessings. We are not allowed to hate persons, but are commanded to love them. We cannot, of course, be pleased with persons who hate God and hate us, but we can behave lovingly toward them and pray for them. In so doing, we follow the model of God.
All of this only accentuates our problem—the problem of pleasure. We observe in life that mankind generally prospers. There is much sickness, suffering, loneliness, emptiness, and sorrow, to be sure; but it is not in any proportion to the blessing most people receive. One would hardly believe that God really hates the wicked and is infinitely angry with them, judging from the way He behaves toward them. It perplexes the godly and is misinterpreted by the wicked themselves, as if it were a token of divine permission at least, and favor at most. So the Bible, instead of relieving the problem at this point, seems to aggravate it. It reveals God as knowingly participating in this crime; that is, He is visiting untold blessings upon people whom He actually hates. Coupled with His anger, which is unceasing toward the wicked, He gives them many tokens of forbearance and love.
To be continued…
Excerpted from Primitive Theology by John H. Gerstner.