The More Knowledge, The More Pain

In much wisdom is much aggravation;
    the more knowledge, the more pain. – Ecclesiastes 1.18

The words of the Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes, pierced through me this morning. I sat and stared at them for a few minutes, unsure of what to do next and without any desire to read on.

I’ve run over this verse a dozen times before, I’m sure, but this was the first time that I actually heard it. I heard it because it’s my voice: a routine taunt and a routine temptation to rationalize my heart and my head into some sort of synergistic acceptance of each other. Having spent the better part of my adult life in theological education, I feel a bit like a doctor who understands the cancer that slowly eats away at him. I spent years learning and talking about the very “problems” that I now face and, yet, there’s a monstrous part of me that wants to go back to my old self and chastise me for not having a clue what it was that I was talking about.

Still, there is the temptation to try and understand it. We place nice, neat categories that help us logically comprehend evil and God’s relation to it, as if systematizing pain can give us any sort of healing from it. No–I’ve tried that to my own demise. The only thing you’re left with is “theories” that taunt you into trying to substitute the real feelings of emptiness for some sort of numb philosophical drug. The only thing I’m left with is the knowledge of how some people want to “explain away” evil or try and turn your personal problem into an abstract theological or philosophical inquiry. This only creates more pain. It creates an illusion where evil really isn’t evil and suffering isn’t really suffering. Maybe some “theories” are closer than others and, as many readers here are aware, I stand boldly against the notion that God predestines evil in any way, shape, or form (not because of my dislike for a deterministic God, per se, but because it paints for me a monstrous portrait of God), but at the same time I’ve recognized that I’d rather try and survive the storm than comprehend how in the world it could have happened.

Oh, there are many moments where I wish that I could exorcise from my head all the “theories”, all the theologians and philosophers. Even more so, I wish that I could remove the desire to “understand.” That is what taunts me more, the utter and eternal inability to grasp what has happened. Despite our myths and dreams of human progress and achievement, thousands of years of trying to tame this very question leaves us no closer to the solution than we would be if we were climbing an endless staircase…and yet, we continue to climb because we convince ourselves that there must be a top. Perhaps that is what the Eden myth really wishes to teach us about evil: our pursuit towards understanding it will be what continues to keep the wounds of this world and of our lives open and festering. We keep scraping away at the wound, thinking that we can peel it off, not knowing that we’re only making it worse.

I guess I imagine a bit how C.S. Lewis felt in loosing his wife, Joy. Not that I am anywhere close to the brilliance of that man but our wounds are the result of the same sort of affliction. Indeed, in the almost year and a half since losing her I have found immense help in his A Grief Observed and nothing of help whatsoever in his The Problem of Pain. The former is his experience with pain; the latter was his earlier reflection on it as an intellectual “problem.”I wonder if he ever felt the same desire to go back and chastise his old self for not having a clue what he was talking about in that first book. God, to imagine that the problems are one and the same is the most ludicrous notion imaginable. Knowing about pain and knowing pain are as different as the sky is from the water: just because they touch at some point doesn’t mean that we can pretend that being wet is the same as being dry.

There is a reason why, I think, so many of the philosophers, theologians, poets, and novelists who have attempted to treat the topic of evil through the centuries have found themselves in logical, existential, and emotional nihilism. It’s because this is where evil leads. There is no comprehension of The Shoah; there is no sufficient rationalization for genocide of any group of individuals (including those spoken about in the Bible); God’s glory is a terrible reason for tsunamis that take out entire nations or planes that fly into buildings. There is no logical theory as to why a child loses a parent or why a three year old develops incurable cancer. Whatever we might say about God’s glory in pain and suffering, it is not in how the suffering came about but in what He chooses to do in us and with us in the aftermath of it. I don’t expect, at the end of it all, that we will be able to ask God the “reason” and find any sufficient answer. I suspect, instead, that God’s answer to evil exists not in any sort of transcendent Aristotelian plot but in his action: his suffering, his pain, his death.

And that means, I think, not in our desire to try to understand it but in our desire to let it be the real un-manning that it is and let it rip through us. Our bones must be broken and our skin must be torn from itself. It is only when we allow the chaos of life to destroy us, instead of pretending that it’s not really there, that Jesus can begin the rebuilding process. He wants us weak and already broken. He calls us not to life first but to death, and that is not just a rhetorical game (more on that later). I think that’s why I feel so much more honest and transparent with my face on the ground than with my hands clasped together. I admit my weakness; I lie in utter helplessness; I don’t want to look up or hold my head high. I want the chaos to wash over me so that I feel ever ounce, every sting of it; I don’t want to rationalize the pain, I want to encounter it so that it can purge the outer layers so that Jesus can take a corpse, dead and lifeless as it is, and breathe into it.

  • Anna Youngs

    Beautiful and very moving. I think you are on to something big here, Randy.