Previously we gathered from Augustine the idea that pain generally intrudes where conditions are prime. In his next words he delves deeper into the nature of pain:
But when a being is compelled to something better, the pain is useful, when to something worse, it is useless. Therefore in the case of the mind, the will resisting a greater power causes pain; in the case of the body, sensation resisting a more powerful body causes pain.
Augustine’s acumen here is to distance pain from being classed as something entirely evil. Instead, he implies that it takes on the character of its source. But before I deal with that, some perspective is in order.
Do All Things Bear Purpose?
We’ve already had it explained that nature and being is good because its Creator is good. But what is evil and sin? The biblical definition is plethora involving several words and concepts. Augustine offers the idea of a diminution or privation of goodness and the corruption of what is good (Ch. 4).
Since all things were created good—and evil is not a created thing—then less goodness, a lack of it, or its corruption are verily evil. Evil is always a potential with the existence of good the way darkness depends on the actuality of light.
A takeaway is the question of purpose. Years ago I watched a talk show and the question came up concerning autism—“Is there a purpose for everything, including disease?” Everyone nodded in agreement that there must be some purpose for it.
I couldn’t believe that based on what I knew of the scriptures. Disease (a natural evil as opposed to a moral one) holds no goodness, nor does it bear essential value. Regarding this in a post entitled “Help My Unbelief”, I wrote:
“I am not sure all things have purpose and moral value, and some things, like disease, may exist in a state of failed purpose…to assert that all things do indeed have purpose, from my Christian standpoint, may be leading to the justification of evil and sin’s existence in the world…although some things are mysterious and without apparent purpose, and perhaps consequently evil and used (by Satan) with evil intent, they can be used purposefully, but only if one possesses the power to cause it.”
Good Pain and Bad Pain
That last line lands us here, squarely in Augustine’s logic. If God doesn’t create evil, he certainly doesn’t create pain. That is not to equate the two, nor is it to say good things may not result from pain, like courage or charitableness.
“But when a being is compelled to something better, the pain is useful, when to something worse, it is useless.” Rather than calling pain evil, Augustine suggests a “symptomatic” approach whereby pain is the result of an opposition between good and less good entities. Pain can be good pain or bad pain.
A body festering with disease and racked with pain is bad pain. Killer germs seek to take control of a healthy body. The agony of running a marathon or weightlifting is good pain. Although the vigorous exercise causes the lungs and muscles to burn, it enhances the body’s overall health. The examples continue and nicely apply to spiritual things.
God, the Great Weaver
Now if we ended here, we’d have evil on the loose, a loophole with purpose, and many tough questions. But preceding all created good and ensuing evil is God, who is the Guarantor of all experiences, good and bad, for those who believe.
“Only God has the power to use all things in purpose,” I conclude—all sorrow, disappointment, disease, and loss, in a plan well beyond our comprehension. Augustine agrees (Ch. 37):
“If anyone should wish to misuse these good things, not even thus does he vanquish the will of God, who knows how to order righteously even the unrighteous…he through the righteousness of his power may use their evil deeds rightly.”