Podcast: God and the Problem of Pain with David F. Holland

David F. Holland is a respected scholar and Professor of New England Church History at Harvard Divinity School. On October 29, 2016, he spoke on the topic “Latter-day Saints and the Problem of Pain” at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU in Provo, Utah.

Recently LDS Perspectives host Nick Galieti interviewed David Holland about his presentation at BYU, his further explorations on the seemingly paradoxical problem of pain, as well as the role pain and suffering play in the journey of the Christian disciple.

David reflects on counsel given to his father from Elder Neal A. Maxwell, prior to an address Holland’s father gave at BYU. The counsel was to be sensitive to the unseen problems that inform the varied histories of audience members, “There are scars that go unnoticed, but you must see them. You must tread with caution on the hallowed ground of another’s suffering.”

Holland shared that two members of his New England area stake committed suicide within a week of each other. It is in this backdrop that David spoke in simultaneous roles as an admittedly amateur-philosopher and historian-scholar.

He reviewed a history of the role of pain and suffering in early American religious settings, as well as proposed answers to the questions many still carry about the relationship of pain to our mortal experiences. Answers for which the restored gospel of Latter-day Saint theology meets in rich and profound ways.

Holland elaborates on how historically religions saw pain and suffering as the voice of God declaring his displeasure with their actions. Others felt discord with the concept of a deity that only spoke when displeased.

The people of early America, when faced with this paradox of “a choice in which God could either be cruel or mute, they increasingly chose the silence.” Thus a mute God, and a rigidly closed cannon became part of how many religious Americans viewed life and religious practice.

Many today view God, or their concept of God, as the answer to pain and suffering. If there is no reprieve from pain, then there must be no God. With so many today feeling the pains of depression and other mental health issues, Holland postulates that “[Mental illness] is the next great frontier of our ministry [as Latter-day Saints].”


3 thoughts on “Podcast: God and the Problem of Pain with David F. Holland

  1. Bro. Holland’s remarks were good and provided me insights and changed my perspective some. I still am in a quandary about the problem of pain when it relates to the masses who know not God and likely have no lens to look at it through–no real way to know God is there with them in their trials. What efficacious value is it serving them? I have faith there is one, I just don’t see it. Allowing the agency of others to be unfettered and providing a venue for others to act benevolently. I get that–kind of. What about all the events that are not (apparently) based on someone or someone else’s agency (e.g., natural disasters where life is snuffed out of entire groups of people in remote places with little chance for others to offer help, etc.)? Any thoughts or resources to point me to. Thanks.

  2. I get that “Come suffer with us” might not be the best marketing pitch, but there is something to be said for a community where suffering occurs in the presence of others who suffer but do so in a manner that sacralizes the experience.

    Since we’re all God’s children and this life is a mere blip on the vast expanse of eternity, it would rather suck if only the righteous “got” to experience pain. So I reject the idea that pain suffered by those without faith in God is somehow unjust.

    The main thing you find with Mormons is that they all seem relatively happy in their sacralized suffering, sometimes leading outsiders to perceive that there is no suffering.

    I’ll repeat the story I’ve mentioned before, of having a dream of being at breakfast with my three daughters. But I had the dream when I was pregnant with my son, who would die. And my daughter born after my son’s death is autistic. So that dream has been interpreted by me as God’s grace, letting me know months before my son’s death and years before the struggle with my daughter’s autism diagnosis that I was in His heart and His arms were about me. The pain wasn’t necessarily less, but it was pain in the presence of a loving God.

  3. Meg,
    Thanks for the response. I’m not espousing the idea that pain suffered by those without faith in God is unjust. I believe it is just, somehow, because I believe in God’s indiscriminate love, mercy and justice. I’m just seeking more insights about it, recognizing I’ll likely not get an enormous rational reason for it, but looking for whatever I can.

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