Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Problem of Pain -- a new book for your consideration

Pain cannot be avoided -- it is an unescapable fact of life in a fallen world. We spend much of our cultural capital on futile attempts to avoid, delay, sidestep, or medicate pain. Even so, pain comes.

Thus it seems wise and prudent to wrestle with the problem of pain while we are in a relatively pain-free season of life. And we ought not think ourselves as having "arrived", but rather, from time to time, take the pains of others to re-evaluate our own foundations. These past five years of pastoring, I've seen in naked detail the pain of life, which brings me again and again to the task of re-evaluating my understanding of pain and how we as Christias approach it. Just this month, I finished a terriffic book that has helped me once again consider the topic: If I were God, I'd end all the pain by John Dickson.

This book delivers, with concise thought and deceptively simple language, a straight to the heart analysis of the problem of pain. Dickson does not explore the contours of subtle differences in theological systems -- this is not a book for the technician or the theologian staking out turf in the intellectual playgrounds of the academy. Rather this is a book for the pastor in the trenches grasping for words to tell the angry teenager in his office. It is for the bemused office worker struggling to answer the smug skeptic. It is for the seeker asking if there is anything more to the faith than "God has a wonderful plan for your life".

Dickson begins humbly by saying he doesn't have all the answers -- but that he thinks that when confronting the problem of pain, Christianity offers the best option out there. He sketches in broad detail the approach taken by Hinduism (suffering restores karmic balance), Atheism (suffering is a natural part of things), Islam (suffering is God's predetermined direct will), and Buddhism (suffering is illusory).

Then he begins explaining the Biblical view "One of the distinguishing things about the Good Book's approach is that it stops short of providing a single, all-governing, answer.....Like a great rock song, as opposed to a formulaic pop song, the Bible offers a rhyme, rhythm, ambience, and climactic anthem that surprises you each time you listen to it." (33). Dickson backs this statement up with scripture -- pointing to our right to question God (Psalm 22 as but one example of a whole genre of psalms of lament). What a liberating concept! We can bring our confusion and frustration to the Maker -- but a dangerous concept, for when we bring it to Him, He will not leave us alone in it.

Then Dickson deals with the issue of the corruption of the human will. He sidesteps the issue of working through human free agency and God's sovereign will -- and many hard core Calvinists will fault him for that -- but remember, this is not a work of subtle theology. Dickson refers us to great resources (including DA Carson's How Long, O Lord for wrestling with such deeper issues. Here, Dickson simply makes the point that human nature is broken, and a lot of pain arises out of that brokenness.

From there, he moves to suffering caused by nature -- and he demonstrates that that creation itself is broken. As with the corrupted human will, Dickson brings before us, using scriptural support, God's design for restoration. Finally he brings it all together in Christ -- the capacity of Christ to experience suffering is God's great identification with us in our sufferings. We can know that the triune God whom we worship is not some iceburg in the sky, rather our God understands suffering. But Dickson makes clear "Christ's death is more than an identification with us. The Bible makes it clear it is a substitution for us. On the cross God not only stands alongside us, he stands in our place." (68).

Dickson peppers the whole treatment with his own wrestling with the loss of his father and other stories that resonate well. It's an easy read, done in one night. While it lacks the precision demanded by a scholarly work, it is not lightweight. The book is full of heart, and I recommend it for your library.

Read Kieran Robertson's Review

See customer reviews at Amazon

I especailly recommend the article from the good folks at Hippocampus Extensions

Order the book from Matthias Media

Soli Deo Gloria