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-Caning, Dentists, & the Problem of Pain & Love

If God really loved me, He wouldn’t allow me to go through this painful experience. Greg examines this false view of God from the perspective of the dentist’s chair.

If God really loved me, He wouldn’t allow me to go through this painful experience. Greg examines this false view of God from the perspective of the dentist’s chair.

If God really loved me, He wouldn’t allow me to go through this painful experience. Greg examines this false view of God from the perspective of the dentist’s chair.

Caning, Dentists, & the Problem of Pain & Love

Gregory Koukl

If God really loved me, He wouldn’t allow me to go through this painful experience. Greg examines this false view of God from the perspective of the dentist’s chair. divider

I want to talk a little bit about the caning in Singapore, partly because of the thoughts that I had about it relative to my visit to the dentist last week and because there has been a lot said about this particular caning as we’ve anticipated it and surprisingly I think to a lot of people the response was somewhat mixed. The letters poured into Singapore from the U.S. that were actually very supportive of the caning. Much can be said about the issue, but that is another issue and I don’t want to take that up today. Nor will I comment here on my feelings about the caning itself and the appropriateness and whether it’s a good punishment or bad, or how it relates to our legal system. That’s really not my concern today. I do have some opinions that I’m in the process of developing, but today I’m interested in something else. Clearly Americans have had an ambivalence about this. On the one hand we believe in law and order, but there is something else in current American social values that has really animated the outcry against what some have called cruel and unusual punishment. Some have even referred to it as torture.

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I’m convinced that part of our confusion about the problem of evil in general is due to our American view of the incompatibility of love and pain.

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It wasn’t just because of the pictures that were painted of permanent disfigurement, and chunks of flesh flying through the air and the like (which I suspect was an exaggeration). People were repulsed by the mere idea of inflicting physical pain as a method of punishment. In other words, as I’ve listened to the talk shows and people respond it was the idea that inflicting pain was barbaric, per se. . It was barbaric in itself. There was no circumstance in which such a thing could even be considered civilized.Part of the distress and objection about this–or any corporeal punishment–is a reflection of a cultural value that pain and discomfort is bad. Sometimes one is tempted to come to the conclusion that the most evil thing in American society is pain and discomfort, and this is why we have no stomach for either. This is a culture where pleasure is idolized; and in a culture where pleasure becomes a god then pain–physical, emotional or otherwise- -becomes the consummate evil. The greatest good, therefore, is to avoid this evil at all costs.

I had my teeth cleaned recently. Some of you are trying to wonder how that relates to the caning in Singapore and some of you know immediately how it relates. Teeth cleaning is not that much fun. The result is nice, but you know the dentist tells you not to go poking around in your mouth with sharp instruments and then what happens when you go to the dentist? They start scraping on your teeth with sharp instruments. Of course there is always a little bit of mild discomfort. As I winced under the treatment, my dental hygienist said, “Would you like me to give you a local anesthetic?” And to be honest with you I thought it was kind of silly. I thought what do you mean? I don’t need a shot just because I’m getting a little bit of pain in my teeth. Frankly, the worst part of the teeth cleaning, let’s face it, is not this scraping business. It’s when they put all that sand in your mouth and start grinding. I hate that. It gets all stuck in your teeth and it gets down in your throat and it’s like the sandblast treatment. But she wanted to ease my minor discomfort by giving me a local anesthetic. Now, why is it that it’s kind of a standard procedure at a dentist now to even cover the minor discomfort of a teeth cleaning with a local anesthetic? I mean, do you think we are getting a little bit too sensitive about this kind of thing? Even in that practice I think we have a cultural value being expressed. In contrast to the “No pain; no gain” motto of the masochist super-fit crowd, most of us hold to an amended form: “No pain…Good!”

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When the pain we don’t like and the discouragement and discomfort we don’t expect comes our way, we may be tempted to think that somehow it is inconsistent with a loving God. And then we wonder where do we turn when that hits our life?

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I’m convinced that part of our confusion about the problem of evil in general is due to our American view of the incompatibility of love and pain. It has deeply influenced our thinking about God: If God really loved me He wouldn’t allow me to go through this painful experience. It’s as simple as that. And how many times have we asked ourselves that question? A God of love only allows pleasure. So the anguished query “Why does God allow all this misery?” is predicated on a belief in the inconsistency between goodness and pain. If God is good there would be no pain. Why? Because the greatest good that we can experience is the lack of pain, personal fulfillment, freedom, happiness, satisfaction.I think the view is false, and it creates no end of problems for you and I as Christians. Christians have adopted this antipathy to pain in life too. I don’t think it’s a Christian world view, I think it is something that we’ve adopted from our culture.

I had an interesting interview after the show last week on the show “Back to Basics.” Steve Chastain was interviewing me and asked me the question “What is faith?” At the time I just told them I think there are two different types of faith. There is the faith which you exercise, experiential faith, and there is the content of your faith, what you believe. I realized there was a Latin term for that, fides qua creditur (“faith by which we believe”)–the act of trust. And fides quae creditur (“faith which we believe”)–content, doctrine, body of true propositions. In other words, one is the act of trust and the other one is the content of the things that we believe.

There is a kind of schizophrenia among Christians between those two kinds of faith. It’s like we either have content or experience. We believe a lot of theological truths and have no spiritual or emotional connection, or our connection is all emotional and we don’t know our doctrine. Of course, I’ve always argued for integration here. Trust must be in something. It must be in some established truth.

Unfortunately, many people have one and not the other. The question that was put last week to a class that I’m in by a friend of mine who is going through a particular crisis in his life was, what is it that we turn to when crisis hits in our life? When the pain we don’t like and the discouragement and discomfort we don’t expect comes our way, we may be tempted to think that somehow it is inconsistent with a loving God. And then we wonder where do we turn when that hits our life? Do we turn to our piety, our emotional relationship with God if we have one, or do we turn to our knowledge if we have that?

By the way, it is possible for a Christian to have this strong relationship with God and not have any knowledge of doctrine, and it’s possible for someone to have a lot of doctrine and no experiential relationship and still be a Christian. It’s not possible to not have either one. If you don’t have doctrine and you don’t have a relationship with Christ then you are not a Christian. But for those who are operating in one or the other they have to turn somewhere when crisis hits. Many of these people are fooling themselves. If you have neither piety (personal relationship) nor truth (doctrinal foundation), you’re in real trouble. In fact, you’re not a Christian.

Now, the question is, in our schizophrenia of piety vs. knowledge, where do we turn when a crisis hits? Where we turn is going to be influenced by what we actually believe about the character of God, and about the role pain and difficulty and tragedy play in our relationship with God. I suspect that most of you would answer, “My piety, my personal awareness that God is close to me and intimate with me. When I go through difficult times I just rely on the feeling or the sense of God’s closeness.” I think that is wonderful and many times we have that, but I have to say this: If that is the case, then you are in trouble. And I’ll tell you why.

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What will prepare you for doubt, crisis, tragedy, philosophical assault, attacks on your faith from every direction? Knowledge, not emotion because it’s precisely at these times when emotion becomes our enemy and not our ally.

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This friend that I mentioned recently lost his mother who died an agonizing death due to cancer. He made what I think was a rather remarkable comment and it got me thinking about this. He said, “I’d be much more likely to turn to Hodge, Berkhoff or Shedd before I turn to Minirth Meier in a time like this.” The reason is that the only thing that ultimately can substantiate the feeling that we have that God is in fact with us and on our side is a body of truth that stands outside of our feeling that we can count on. I will tell you frankly, the times that I have had difficult times in my Christian life, times of doubt –I’ve had them just like anybody else–I did not go back to my feeling and ask myself am I really feeling God’s presence now, because there are many times in my life when I haven’t felt God’s presence. Instead I ask myself the question do I have good reason to believe that the substance and the content of my faith in Christ is actually true? Because the truthfulness of the content of the faith of Christianity never changes with my feelings. Therefore I can have the freedom to not feel God during the difficult times because I am confident that the truthfulness of my faith is intact. It is not something that depends upon my feelings, it depends on truth. This is why it’s so critical that we know what that truth is and we know why the truth is defensible. This is why my friend who is a theologian can say when he faces the most difficult crisis in his life, he doesn’t turn to Minirth Meier, as beneficial as what they offer may be. Instead he turns to the great theologians to explain the truth and to strengthen his confidence in the substantive content of his faith that it is true and reliable.What ultimately sustains us? I believe it is a knowledge of the truth. This is what Romans 8:28 is all about. The answer to evil and pain is truth and knowledge about the character of God. If you are not grounded in truth then anguish will overcome you because emotion is all you have. Listen to this. When anguish overcomes you and emotion is all you have with God, then emotion becomes your enemy and you will become its victim. Knowledge, not emotion, is what sustains us because it is precisely at these times when we are feeling these overwhelming emotions, this pain, this anguish, that the existential experiential side of things is not going to carry us.

What ultimately sustains us? Knowledge of the truth. What will prepare you for doubt, crisis, tragedy, philosophical assault, attacks on your faith from every direction? Knowledge, not emotion because it’s precisely at these times when emotion becomes our enemy and not our ally. If all you have are emotional ties to God, you’re setting yourself up to be victimized by the vicissitudes of life.

When I was a kid my dad used to tell me something that I frequently reflect on. When I was chafing against his commands and his discipline he would say, “Greg the world does not revolve around you.” And he threw in something to the effect of, “My responsibility as your father is not to make you happy, but to train you to be a particular kind of human being.” Then he would often add, “This family is not a democracy.” Over the years I’ve come to realize how profound that point of view is–not just for children but for adults as well and even where God is concerned. In fact, especially where God is concerned the world does not revolve around us.

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If our confidence is in a God who won’t allow us to feel pain then our confidence is misplaced.

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God’s goal in life is not to make us happy. It’s not to protect us from every pain, every discomfort, or every inconvenience. And God is not interested in our vote on the matter. It’s not a democracy. His commitment to us is very straightforward and very simple: to draw us to Himself and make us like Jesus. If our happiness or comfort or personal freedom and affluence get in the way, then they have got to go. That leads to an unavoidable conclusion. When times of pain strike, often times the very pain and hardship that we are feeling can’t be prayed away specifically because it is the hand of God that has placed them in our lives, to get our attention to show us that we are not right with Him.If our confidence is in a God who won’t allow us to feel pain then our confidence is misplaced. Somehow we’ve gotten it into our minds that love and pain are polar opposites in life, and if God really loves us He won’t inflict pain. We won’t inflict pain through corporeal punishment (in the case of human courts) or we won’t allow pain through disappointment, hardship and tragedy (in the case of the divine court).

What I’ve told you is the truth on this issue and there is nothing like knowing the truth, both knowing “what” and knowing “why.” If you know it cognitively, then and only then are you in a position to let pain drive you towards God instead of away from Him.

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