Thoughts on Thorns: The Problem of Pain

by Jason Overman

C. S. Lewis is one of the greatest Christian authors who ever lived. Many know his name connected to works like The Chronicles of Narnia. But maybe fewer people know that Lewis also wrote about pain, based on some of his personal losses in early childhood.

Lewis begins his book The Problem of Pain with a quote from one of his literary inspirations, George MacDonald:

The Son of God suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His.1

This quote captures the essence of the Bible’s teaching on pain. If pain and suffering are theological problems in search of a solution, as many atheist critics and defenders of Christianity say, then MacDonald zeroes in on the heart of our Christian faith and its unexpected answer to “the problem of pain”: the cross that Jesus died on!

Lewis was an atheist for a number of years before he converted to Christianity. During that time, his chief objection to God was that pain is all-defining. In other words, we cause pain coming into life and are in pain as we leave it. And we have a knack for devising and inflicting it on others. What evidence is there here for an all-loving, powerful God?

It occurred to Lewis later that his skeptical conclusion based on pain raised a critical question: “If the universe is so bad, or even half so bad, how on earth did human beings ever come to attribute it to the activity of a wise and good Creator?”2

Put differently, how is it that in an obviously pain-wracked world, humans not only came to believe in a Creator but also put their trust in Him — despite the pain?

MacDonald’s quote about humans, suffering, and the Son of God goes a long way in answering that question and invites deeper reflection on the two Bible stories at its core and one image they share. The stories of Adam and Eve’s eviction from the Garden of Eden and the suffering of Christ before His death frame not only the beginning and ending of the Bible but also the narrative of human pain and God’s answer to it. And both stories involve thorns.

On this side of Eden, the result of sin is separation from God, and what follows from that is a life where sorrow, pain, and thorns multiply (Genesis 3:16-18). This cursed reality, as Lewis in his pre-Christian life knew well, becomes all-defining of human reality — not as a problem for God but as part of the story that reveals Him.

Here in the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas where I write this, thorns abound in all shapes and sizes: tiny ones close to the ground that scratch and burn and nag, right on up to nail-like spikes on locust tree limbs that stab and gouge and injure. Life is like this: small hurts and huge, annoying and severe.

The story the Bible tells does not actually treat the bare and brutal reality of human, thorn-filled suffering as a question of the existence of an all-loving, all-powerful Creator. Rather, the Bible says suffering is inherent in a free, if fallen, world like ours that is nevertheless powerfully loved by its God, demonstrated by God sending His Son to earth to die on the cross. In the cross of Christ, with cruel nails and twisted crown of thorns (Mark 15:17), God joined fallen humanity, took up their suffering and pain into His own person, body, and mind, and redeemed it.

In this way, in Christ, pain and suffering have significance on this side of death and resurrection. Pain — the thorns of life — is not the final word but only temporary. As we mature, we trust Him who suffered with us and for us. Our suffering now is oriented in His — toward eternity.

This spanning narrative, from the painful thorns of fallen Adam to the pierced Christ, grounds us in the story of sin and redemption that defines the life of God’s people. We are neither naïve nor cynical about the problem of pain because we know Him who has freely, lovingly taken our thorns upon His own head.

We do have doubts and questions, of course. Job, the book in the Bible that talks of pain and suffering more than any other, has plenty of both. And yet, like David, who wrote many of the psalms, the final verdict regarding grief and hurt is not to shrink from God in disbelief but to draw closer to Him. Here is a mystery of faith that we see again and again in history, in Job’s words:

Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him (Job 13:15, NKJV).

And in David’s:

Look on my affliction and my pain, and forgive all my sins (Psalm 25:18, NKJV).

Paul, an early convert to Christianity who wrote a good portion of the New Testament, may best illustrate trusting dependence on God with something he described as a “thorn in the flesh.” This could have been a physical problem. Though we don’t know for sure, Paul pleaded with God to deliver him — just like we do. In the pain of a thorn we pray for healing and seek healing for others. But God didn’t heal Paul. His answer to Paul was simply “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul’s thorn cultivated humility; he couldn’t depend on himself to survive. But most important, through the thorn Paul understood the central paradox of Scripture: that the cross of Christ shows “When I am weak, then I am strong.” For this reason, Paul could say, “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10, NIV). The cross effects this dramatic inversion of the dynamic of pain in persons.

Christians are like everyone else: We avoid pain and seek relief from life’s thorns. But because our Maker has suffered with us and for us to redeem us through, and from, pain, we also know that pain leads to patience and then hope (Romans 5:1-5). But we don’t keep this patience and hope to ourselves; we share them with others in God’s family, the church. There we find comfort and joy being with each other, sharing in our suffering and pain together (2 Corinthians 1:3-12).

As the Bible promises, pain will end one day. Here’s how the author of Revelation describes it:

And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away (Revelation 21:4, NKJV).

For now, we toil among the thorns of pain and suffering. But by the grace of God, those thorns are producing lasting qualities in us and will one day end.

  1. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Harper Collins, 1996), cover page.
  2. Ibid., 3.