On Goodness and Pain

CC BY-NC-ND, Robbie Veldwijk, Flickr
CC BY-NC-ND, Robbie Veldwijk, Flickr

Today marks the first of three days unfolding Augustine’s Chapter 20 of “Concerning the Nature of Good” in his Against the Manichaeans. It is but a single, large paragraph; but as classic literature tends to be, it is replete with thought. So I will explore it in parts and here is the first:

But pain which some suppose to be in a special manner an evil, whether it be in mind or in body, cannot exist except in good natures. For the very fact of resistance in any being leading to pain, involves a refusal not to be what it was, because it was something good.

Recently, I wrote a post entitled “Counting the Cost” about the possibility of dying for faith in Christ. My life having never been in jeopardy for the gospel, I explained that only the day could reveal whether I would stand for Christ or save myself: “Making bold promises from the quiet of my home and a decision about God while staring down an assault rifle is a world of difference psychologically.”

I use that to highlight the idea running through the quote above, especially the second line. (Take a second and reread it.) Every living thing fights to live because living, reproducing, and thriving is what it is designed to do. We say ‘death is a natural part of life’, but really by design it’s not.

CC BY-NC, William Burkhardt, Flickr
CC BY-NC, William Burkhardt, Flickr

Again, we defend ourselves and defend the defenseless according to the same rationale. We possess an internal, God-given instinct for our own physical-mental-social well-being and understand that to be every person’s right. And we’ve long contended for wholesome, traditional values the same way. (So don’t trust the relativists—or go punch one in the face and then tell him it was the right thing for you to do. See just how relativist he is.)

Therefore, it would be awfully tough, in a situation where my life is on the line, to override what is the natural and instinctive thing to do, which is to save myself. Foundational to that notion is the inherent worth and goodness of what is being threatened. Thus, pain has resulted for “a refusal not to be what it was, because it was something good.”

Reassessing the Value of Pain

I encourage you to read “Concerning the Nature of Good” and to learn more about Manichaeism. If you’ve read Confessions, then you are familiar with the religion and know that Augustine was once a Manichaean. In this work he strongly refutes its doctrine.

A main premise Augustine uses is this: Everything proceeds from God who is essentially good and he only creates what is good. Ergo, all nature, he says, is “naturally good” because it is God’s handiwork.

Augustine asserts, “But pain…cannot exist except in good natures.” It’s a striking thought. If you didn’t get it, pain only intrudes where conditions have been prime. This will be developed more in the next post; however, the concept forces us to reevaluate how we view pain.

As he notes, some people see pain as evil. Yet doctors would certainly disagree, and doesn’t God permit pain in our lives? So if pain isn’t necessarily an evil, we are forced to consider its facility in other ways: perhaps as a tool to fashion; as an indicator of desire, strength, or resolve; or as consequence in a cause/effect scenario.

More in the series: The God of All Purpose and The Usefulness of Pain

10 thoughts on “On Goodness and Pain

  1. There are some things I don’t agree with Augustine (his view of theodicy and mixing Greek thought with how we think about God) and the effect his views have had on Western Christianity, but this is not one of them! His thoughts here are brilliant. C. Baxter Kruger also follows the same line, using James 1:17, that we instinctively know that God is the source of all good, and that every good thing comes from Him. We know this in our loss and pain and sense of injustice. And even a hardened atheist knows it instinctively. What it’s expressing to us is that there’s something wrong (physically, spiritually, emotionally). We know this because it’s hard-wired into our DNA that it should be good. And this is where pain points us to God and is useful.

    On the view of death, God expressed His view by defeating it on the Cross! Death is our enemy, not our friend. And one day he will be cast into the Lake of Fire forever. And we will sing, Death where is your sting!

    Thanks for sharing these important insights and making us wrestle with them. 🙂

    • Romans 1 was ringing loud and clear while writing this–that part where Paul explains that we instinctively know God. It’s tough to be a non-believer or moral relativist! There’s just too much evidence for God and objective moral values.

      • Amen. It’s amazing how God uses pain, sadness, and sorrow to prove to the most hard-headed that He is real and the Author of all good! We instinctively know what’s good because of how we feel about the contrast, and this is because we were made in His image. C.S. Lewis also had a lot to say about this in his classic work, “Mere Christianity.” It’s just ostrich-headed foolishness to refuse to acknowledge it.

  2. Real life application of your theory, Mike. The pain in my daughter’s leg took us to the hospital where we found the tumor in her lung. So the pain, as a symptom, was profitable and potentially life-saving.

  3. Great post. You’re right in that pain is not inherently evil, and it can actually be utilized by God as a way to shape us, or even to discipline us as we discipline our own children.

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