The Problem of Pain as Gain

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Published:
July 7, 2022

Departing from a recent series of single biblical book explorations, now the Adult Bible Study Guide turns topical, focusing on the meaning of suffering. In the language of “old-time religion,” these bad experiences can be understood as the trials and tribulations that build character and sanctify a person. The lesson states, “This week’s lesson highlights several types of crucibles: crucibles generated by Satan, crucibles generated by our sin, crucibles used by God to purify us and form our character, and crucibles of maturity.”

That’s an awful lot of crucibles. The quarterly, which will run through July, August, and September, is itself titled “In the Crucible with Christ.” This single metaphorical approach to the problem of pain ultimately treats evil as a tool for spiritual understanding and human betterment. 

This is what Richard Rice, retired professor of religion at Loma Linda University, calls the “no pain, no gain” theory. It’s one of seven options Rice explores in his 2014 InterVarsity Press book, Suffering and the Search for Meaning: Contemporary Responses to the Problem of Pain. In his third chapter, “Soul-making Theodicy,” Rice details the uses and the crucial drawbacks of this crucible approach. For anyone looking for a companion to this lesson, I highly recommend Rice’s book. Earlier this year, I interviewed him about the book.

As Rice notes, theodicy—the attempt to defend the definition of God as benevolent in a malevolent world—runs into many logical and practical challenges. This quarter’s focus on the Christian walk as being “in the crucible with Christ” can offer some hope for those searching for spiritual meaning when confronted by the challenges of the human condition. Beware! The metaphor itself contains an alloy of meanings, some stronger than others. 

The primary contributor to this quarter’s Adult Bible Study Guide is Gavin Anthony, president of the Iceland Conference. Originally from the United Kingdom, he has written four Sabbath school commentaries for Spectrum spanning from 2018–2020. In an It is Written video on this lesson, Anthony reveals the dictionary definitions of crucible that inform his thinking.

• A severe test

• A place or situation in which concentrated forces interact to cause or influence change or development

But the severity and the change associated with the metaphor should not be understated. According to The Crucible, an Oakland, California-based metalworking art school (which I have visited): 

A crucible is a vessel in which metallic elements are melted to be cast into new objects or to create a new alloy. Crucibles are traditionally made from ceramic materials, which can withstand very high temperatures. The material of your crucible should always have a much higher melting point than that of the materials you are heating.

As someone puts in toward the end of this brief video from The Crucible, “it’s basically a vessel for change.” 

It is important to recognize that this metaphor of flux is extreme. A crucible is no kitchen mixing bowl. It can withstand the temperatures needed to melt very hard metals. It can be violent. It can hurt. Ellen G. White gets it. As the lesson shows by its selection from her writings, she often drew on this metaphor to explain how God purifies human character.

He who reads the hearts of men knows their characters better than they themselves know them. He sees that some have powers and susceptibilities which, rightly directed, might be used in the advancement of His work. In His providence He brings these persons into different positions and varied circumstances that they may discover in their character the defects which have been concealed from their own knowledge. He gives them opportunity to correct these defects, and to fit themselves for His service. Often He permits the fires of affliction to assail them that they may be purified. (The Ministry of Healing, 471)

Fires of affliction. Purification. These concepts require care. They can help, but they can also damage. There is a spiritually dangerous side to this concept in that pain, loss, sadness become instrumentalized. While lessons can be learned from many unfortunate circumstances, moralizing can become immoral. This appears clear when any suffering by oneself or another is reduced to a means to an end: one’s own betterment. When ego appears in the crucible of pain, whatever is finally formed will be fragile. Faker than fool’s gold. It requires more than a crucible to produce mettle.  

Exploring loss using the biblical metaphor of the beatific vision, Catherine Ricketts writes about looking for meaning in the deaths of her father and brother. She writes in The Christian Century

It began with a diagnosis. My 68-year-old father, a Presbyterian minister, had a brain tumor. He lived with the cancer for almost two years, while my mother and brothers and I lived with the anticipation of his death. Each of us dropped what we were doing to participate in giving care, and our world became small, confined to my parents’ house in Philadelphia, the blocks between the house and the park where Dad pushed his walker, and the cancer center.

. . .

While my dad was sick, my brother Joe, who had for years lived with substance use disorder, began using opioids. Two years later, we took a family vacation to Italy, all of us together without Dad. Joe was clean on the trip. He picked up a used copy of Plato’s Republic and read it between tours of cathedrals and art museums in Venice and Rome. An atheist, he was peculiarly drawn to the transcendent that week. Then he came home, used heroin laced with fentanyl, and died.

This death did not take on the same aesthetic quality as my father’s. This was a dark death. I remember vomit and sirens and the sallow skin of the friend who’d sold him the drug. The way I had seen the world while my father died now seemed fanciful—there was no use for sensory beauty in the center of harrowing loss.

. . .

Rather than trying to get over my brother’s death, I got close to it—I held the cold hands of the questions that came with surprising loss. From birth I’d been enculturated in the hope of life everlasting, but the notion of the visio Dei gave me something new to hope in—not a sudden salvation that depended on a decision made in a person’s lifetime but a gradual salvation that might begin imperceptibly but increases eternally. 

Ricketts reminds us that a too-refined focus on ourselves can lead to spiritual blindness. Instead, she beautifully draws our meaning-seeking gaze outward and upward to the visio Dei. By beholding, we become changed. 

 


Alexander Carpenter is executive editor of Spectrum

Title image: The Beatific Vision' (from The Divine Comedy, Paradise) by John Flaxman, 1807

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