The Problem of Pleasure

By Robin Johnston


Teachers appreciate questions. Perhaps I should rephrase that to say good teachers appreciate good questions. Questions demonstrate that students are engaged in the learning process and often questions create that longed-for teachable moment. But every so often a student asks a hard question�even an uncomfortable question�that catches the teacher off-guard and perhaps even ill-prepared. In that awkward moment nothing is more welcome to a teacher than the sound of a bell ringing to signal the end of class. The class-ending bell affords the teacher an opportunity to reflect on the question and prepare an adequate response. Life is not as kind as the classroom. Outside the classroom, questions move from theory to real life. And there are no face-saving bells.

For a number of years I taught a college-level apologetics class. The course work covered a range of issues such as the existence of God, the reliability of the Bible, and the reality of miracles. The class had a philosophical bent to it as the students and I wrestled with theories and hypotheticals.

But when all the theories were explored and all the hypothetical questions were answered, the real question remained. It is the question in apologetics. It is the question that interrupts our sleep and haunts our quiet time. It is the question of suffering. Why do bad things happen to good people? In apologetics class it is known as the problem of suffering or the problem of pain.

Some people resist the idea of God because they don’t want to be accountable to anyone. Pride and rebellion, the twin evils of the soul, distort their desire to know God. Others are more reluctant in their unbelief. They reject the idea of God because their lives have been touched by what they consider to he senseless suffering. That suffering can be physical or psychological. The questioning of God quickly moves from the ivy towers of academia to the nitty-gritty world of everyday life. Every student knew someone who had suffered unjustly. And beyond the reaches of the classroom, we know of a world filled with suffering.

Earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes are just a sampling of the natural disasters we collectively know as “acts of God.” Add to this the suffering caused by war, greed, neglect, and countless other sins wrought by the hand of man. I have known, just as you have known, people who became embittered by relentless pain. Their haunting question lingers, “If God is good, why is this happening?”

The question is as difficult as it first seems. I know of no three-point answer that immediately lessens the bite of the question and the reality behind the question. It remains as a challenge to faith. In fact, this year University of North Carolina religion professor Bart Ehram released his God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question; Why We Suffer In this book, Professor Ehram recounts his loss of faith as he wrestled with this problem. A detailed response to Ehram’s concerns is beyond the scope of this article. Instead I want to flip the issue over and approach it from a different direction. This approach is not new to me; C. K. Chesterson and Phillip Yancy introduced me to this path.

It is true that the world is filled with suffering. It is also true that the world is filled with pleasure. By pleasure I do not mean the soul-deadening excesses of hedonism. Rather I mean the delights, often simple, that are always within the reach of every person. Perhaps the best way to get at these is by a series of questions.

Why does food taste so good? The world is filled with life forms that acquire their necessary nourishment without a hint of pleasure. Humans arc intelligent enough to understand that without nourishment they would die and I am sure they would eat to acquire that nourishment even if everything tasted like cardboard. But that is not how the world works. Humans have highly developed taste buds that can distinguish the subtle flavors of hundreds of foods. Why?

Why is color so vibrant? We could survive in a black and white world. I remember when computer manufacturers boasted of graphic cards that produced a sixty-four-color palette. Now they routinely produce graphic cards that display millions of colors. And yet they have only begun to match the palette on display in nature. A slow walk through a botanical garden exposes a person to millions of shades and hues. And often those colors arc breathtakingly beautiful. Why?

Perhaps the real question is why do we experience pleasure in any form? If the world is composed of random acts of molecules why is there such a thing as pleasure? Why are words like delight, joy, and goodness in our vocabulary?

The Christian’s answer to the question of why there is pleasure in the world is that God is good.”Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). The atheist and the agnostic have no answer. If Christians struggle with the problem of suffering�and they do�it seems to me that unbelievers must equally struggle with the problem of pleasure. One is as real as the other, and if the atheist declare that the only rational answer to the problem of suffering is to conclude that there is no God, then what is the rational answer to the problem of pleasure?

The only rational answer is God. The psalmist reminds us, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (Psalms 19:1). The next time you begin to feel a smile creep across your face at an unexpected pleasure, remember God is at work.

From, “Pentecostal Herald”/February 2009/Page 37-38, by Robin Johnston

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