On Pain and Reckless Love

I still remember the first time I heard Cory Asbury’s “Reckless Love,” a song that was the smash hit single on Christian radio a few years back. At the time, I wasn’t a Christian – quite the opposite in fact. It wouldn’t be fair to classify my views as atheistic, but they were certainly irreligious. The question of God or the forces at work in the universe had no importance to me, as I felt like I had quite enough to deal with in just my day-to-day life.

A coworker and I were driving out of the city into the suburbs to film a video interview for a client’s social media campaign. The two of us were crammed into her Mini Cooper, and as the social contract dictates, it was her car and she was driving so she got to choose the music. Much to my chagrin, her radio was tuned to the Christian station KLOVE, and we spent the next hour or so listening to all the latest Christian contemporary tunes. Among them was “Reckless Love,” and the reason I remember it so clearly is because of how ridiculous the lyrics seemed to me at the time.

Over soaring guitars, Asbury launches into a hook dripping with melodrama: “Oh the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God / Oh it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the 99.” The rest of the song focuses squarely on this theme, of God’s love and the fact that it is so pure and raw that to our human hearts it can seem almost reckless. While my coworker hummed along, I couldn’t help but scoff.

The “reckless love” of God? How could anyone sing along to this song without thinking of the Holocaust, or the genocide in Darfur, or the multitude of atrocities happening each and every day all over the world? Not only was it clear to me that God doesn’t love us, it was also clear that He either didn’t exist or was completely asleep at the wheel. No loving, powerful God would allow His world to be so mired in ugliness, suffering, and pain.

Ironically, “Reckless Love,” is now one of my favorite Christian contemporary songs, although Cory Asbury is affiliated with the charismatic Bethel Church whose theology and general practices are suspect to say the least. Regardless, the problem of pain has been perhaps the most significant point of opposition to Christianity, and religion in general, for as long as any kind of theism has existed. While Christians may have different views than you do, they are also people living in the same world as you – they get sick, they lose loved ones, they suffer and endure great pain. So why do Christians believe in this “reckless love,” and where does that belief come from?

Going Back to Genesis

As Christians, we recognize Jesus Christ as having ultimate authority, so to answer this question it makes the most sense to start in the Gospels. While we may think of our religious objections as fairly modern, they were actually already old hat by the time of Jesus’ ministry in the first century AD. Around 300 BC, Epicurus had written the following in a popular treatise:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

Interestingly, modern atheists dismiss the Bible as an outdated relic of the ancient world, and yet frequently quote this passage from a treatise written hundreds of years before the New Testament. Epicurus poses some tough questions here, but Christianity offers compelling answers.

Before we dive into what Jesus said on this topic, let’s briefly turn all the way back to Genesis, the very first book of the Bible. Jesus frequently quotes from the Torah (what we now call the first five books of the Old Testament), and it is clear that Genesis is a favorite book of his as he references it time and time again. In just the first two pages of Genesis, we can get a clear picture of God’s love for us as humans and His vision for the world He has created.

God first creates mankind, “in our image, so that they may rule…over all the creatures.” (Genesis 1:26). He then blesses His creation, and says, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole Earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the Earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground – everything that has the breath of life in it – I give every green plant for food.” (Genesis 1:29-30).

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo.

We all know the next part of the story. God creates Adam and Eve, and tells them that they are “free to eat from any tree in the garden of Eden,” with the exception of one tree that He says it would be best for them to avoid. Let’s take a step back here. God has created a beautiful world, replete with natural resources and specially designed for humans to have dominion. We can still see this vision in the world around us – we are the only species that is literally out of the food chain.

God has so much respect and love for us that He gives us the dignity of free will in addition to this dominion over the Earth. That entire sense of relational love is present in a single sentence, where He tells Adam and Eve that they are able, they have the free will, to choose any tree they want as a source of fruit. He gives the suggestion that it would be best for them not to eat from the one tree, but in the end, the decision is left up to them.

Any agricultural scientist would agree that there is more than enough food on our planet to feed all seven billion of us. This is the gift we have been given. Despite this, half the planet eats themselves to death while the other half starves. Greed, shortsightedness, and the overserving of our self-preservation instinct drives these decisions that go against the vision of the world God has created.

Within our human nature is a spirit of independence and foundational trust in our own intuition. Adam and Eve eat the apple, and the rest is history. If God were to have thrown His hands up and walked away from the whole thing at this point, I don’t think anybody could have blamed Him. He created these two, breathed life into them, told them exactly what to do so they could continue living in harmony with Him, and still they thumbed their noses and made their own choice. However, God didn’t throw His hands up and walk away. Instead, he made a new deal with mankind. This was a covenant with the Israelites, that through a relationship with them as a chosen people a Messiah would arise that could beat back the evil of this world and usher in the kingdom of God.

Jesus and Relationships

In the last section, I used the word “relationship” several times. When we think of that word, we rightly imagine a sort of mutual bond and trust between two parties. Sure, they may disagree on some things, they may argue, but in the end it is a connection built on love. Love, however, cannot be forced; the only way that a relationship can truly grow and flourish is if both parties engage with it out of their own free will and consent. The relationship between God and man as described in the Bible isn’t the relationship between a slave and a master, but something more akin to the relationship between a father and a son. The father loves the son and tries his best to teach and guide him in the ways of the world, but also ultimately knows that the greatest act of love is to let the son make his own decisions.

Jesus teaching his disciples.

For Christians, Jesus is the ultimate embodiment of this relationship. In Jesus, God tells mankind that pain and suffering and death do not get the final word, that there is a greater vision for His creation beyond the hell we have created for ourselves on Earth. The cornerstone of Jesus’ message is compassion; the compassion God has for man, and the compassion that we must have accordingly for each other. However, his message does not rest on some naive and wishful view of the world. As he sends the twelve apostles out into Judea to spread the Gospel, he tells them:

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul…Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:28-31).

Here, we see Jesus calling back to those first two pages of Genesis, where mankind is given dominion over the Earth and all its creatures. In first century Judea, sparrows were commonly sold in marketplaces as a cheap source of meat. Jesus uses them as an example of God’s care for the Earth and His creation, telling his disciples that even the lowly sparrow has a sense of purpose and direction from God when it flies. If God even cares for the sparrow, how much more does he care for the beings he crafted carefully in His image to populate and rule over His creation?

Again, Jesus’ message is not one of naivety. He is certainly not saying that to follow him is to escape the cycle of pain and punishment we have created for ourselves here on Earth. In fact, he is rather bluntly telling the apostles that they are going to get hurt on their journey, and they might even die. The bigger idea that he is introducing here is that our time on Earth isn’t the end of the story. He is showing the apostles that even in suffering and death they are favored by God, who has a more significant purpose for them than they could ever understand within the boundaries of human cognition. From the outset of his ministry, Jesus was preaching that he himself would have to go through the same worldly pain in the service of a message that toil and sacrifice on Earth comes with reward beyond.

Let’s return to that example of starvation I mentioned earlier, where half the planet overeats and the other half eats nothing despite there being enough food for all. Jesus tells us to suppress our natural instinct to serve ourselves or create barriers between us based on race, religion, or creed. When asked what he thinks is the most important commandment of God, Jesus replies, “Love God and love your neighbor.” The man questioning him proceeds with the natural follow-up, “Who counts as my neighbor?” Jesus’ answer is perhaps his most famous teaching of the Good Samaritan, and perfectly encapsulates not only God’s love for us and our imperfections but also the love we must always have for each other despite ethnic or religious differences:

“Jesus answered, ‘A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he travelled, came where he was.

“When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the host, and said to him, ‘Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.’ Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?’

[The man who asked the question] said, ‘He who showed mercy on him.’

Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.'” (Luke 10:30-37)

If we can believe that Jesus is speaking to us with divine authority, then it is difficult to square messages such as these with the idea of a God who has walked away from His creation. This is a God who still cares deeply for us, and to show it, He walked amongst us and performed miracles while preaching a message of reckless love and self-sacrifice. He called us not to follow our own instincts or the established and self-glorifying rules of how to get ahead in the world, but instead to uplift each other and show the kind of understanding compassion He shows to us, even when we refuse to follow Him. We are called to “turn the other cheek,” just as he does.

What About Disease?

Before I get back to the theology side of things, I want to address a significant issue with the “free will” explanation for suffering. Logically, it makes sense that God loves and respects us enough as His creation to give us the free will to make our own decisions. While these decisions can certainly result in the good, beautiful things of our world, they can also result in immense suffering – murder, rape, infanticide, genocide, torture, and oppression. Both in the Old and New Testaments, we get stern guidance from God that while technically we can do these things, it would be in the best interest of everyone if we didn’t.

That being said, what about suffering that doesn’t come as the direct result of human action? For example, what kind of good and loving God would allow a child to contract bone cancer? Christians can sometimes handle questions like these in a heavy-handed and ineffectual matter. Something I’ve seen is a simple waving away of the matter by quoting Romans 8:28, where Paul tells us:

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

Surely, good can come from suffering. The sickness of a loved one can bring a family together. A time of loss or strife in one’s life often proves that experience is the best teacher. The only way you can learn and grow is by going through the fire. While we can admit that this is sometimes true, it still doesn’t necessarily help us think of God as anything other than a homicidal maniac. Why would he allow disease, especially among the young and innocent?

It can be very frustrating, but the important thing to remember about grappling with the question of God is that, if we can admit that there is a force greater than us working in the universe, we also have to admit that this force is likely not something we will ever be able to fully understand within the boundaries of our existing consciousness. By nature, this force is greater than us, and while we may have been created by it, we have to concede that this universal force has a different perspective on our lives and our world than we do. As God tells Isaiah:

“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9).

I previously mentioned relationships, and in the strongest relationships there is a fundamental element of trust. We live in a beautiful, astonishing world. The evidence of God’s love is everywhere around us. There are the chills you feel when you hear a poignant piece of music that touches your soul in a way no instrument could ever measure, the indescribable feeling of natural wonder when you look out over a gorgeous landscape.

We also live in a world that is rife with horror and suffering. Just as this suffering causes our hearts to break, if we believe we are made in God’s image then we can conclude that our suffering causes His heart to break as well. We can see this reflected in the life of Christ, and I’ll talk about that a bit more in the next section. While we may not understand fully His purposes, we can trust and we can have hope in the life, death, and resurrection of the Son He sent for us. As Paul writes in that same chapter of Romans:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height or depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39).

We know from personal experience that love is complex, but true love and a strong relationship built on trust will always weather the storm and bring us out on the other side.

Christ with Us

Let’s circle back to the argument posed by Epicurus. Christians believe that God is both fundamentally good and omnipotent. Epicurus, using the evil in our world as evidence, proposes that God is not fundamentally good because he doesn’t stop evil or is not omnipotent because he cannot stop evil.

There is an oft-mentioned idea in Christian apologetics that Christianity is really not a religion, at least in the traditional sense of the word. Throughout human history, religion has been an attempt made by man to understand and get closer to God. In Christianity, we have God coming to us to offer us understanding and a closer relationship with Him. Just like Jesus’ message of the upside-down kingdom of God where the meek are blessed and the powerful are made humble, the overarching message of Christianity flips the whole idea of religion on its head.

Engraved art of Jesus carrying his cross to Calvary.

In Christ, we see a God who cares so deeply for humanity that He was not content to simply create us, or to work with one group of people in one part of the world many thousands of years ago. In Christ, we have a God who understands us, who walked among us and experienced the very pain we think He ignores. He went hungry, he felt the cold, he slept in the desert, he was mobbed by crowds, he was spit on and dehumanized by the very people he was trying to save. In the garden of Gethsemane, he allowed himself to be taken by the soldiers, knowing that brutal torture and an excruciating death lay before him.

All of this was in the pursuit of a closer relationship with us, so that we could see God reflected in ourselves and be taught the path to a closer relationship with Him. In perhaps the most famous passage from the Bible, we are given the entire scope of this idea from Jesus himself:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16).

In the life, death, and resurrection of Christ we are shown the raw and aching heart of the Creator. He has given us the dignity of free will, and the choices we have made have turned the world into a place of pain and suffering. In all the greatest tragedies of human history, we can see the clear imprint of humanity obeying its worst and basest impulses of hatred, rage and violence. The horrors of even the last century reveal blood on the hands of men like Joseph Stalin or Mao Tse-tung who rejected the dignity of human life and produced suffering on a mass scale in pursuit of their own vision. However, God has not flung up His hands and walked away.

Instead, he has sent His Son to show us that pain and suffering and death do not have the final word. Instead, we are invited to God’s table, and given the opportunity to come close to Him and join Him in an eternal life that is beautiful and pure beyond anything we can imagine here. In essence, God loves us enough to show us conclusively that what we are going through now is a small blip on the radar compared to what we will have through Him.

It is easy for us to dismiss this concept. Naturally, we want evidence; you can’t just make me an empty promise that everything will eventually be okay. The notion of eternal life is surely poetic and nice, but it really doesn’t solve the issue of what I’m going through now. To prove his point, God didn’t drop gold plates from heaven or write some message in the sky. Instead, he appeared evidentially in history as a real living and breathing entity who we could touch with our own hands. While Jesus does not offer a magical cure-all for pain, he does offer a spiritual respite from the physical ills of this world:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30).

Eternal life and the kingdom of God may be hard to wrap our heads around in our daily lives, but Jesus is calling us to be the vanguards of that new kingdom. He is calling us to behave right now as if the kingdom that he heralded is truly here. By answering Jesus’ call, we can start to introduce some heaven here on Earth, showing the same reckless love for each other that God showed on the cross.

On that day two thousand years ago, God suffered and died to not only cleanse us of our sins but to show that he suffers and dies with each and every one of us. Three days later, he was resurrected to show that we can do the same. As the risen Christ told the disciples: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20). In his time, Jesus was also called Emmanuel, which is Hebrew for “God with us.” His promise is that he is with us now, he feels our pain as he felt the pain of the cross, and through his reckless love we have free entry to the true and fulfilled vision of God’s creation.

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