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