Beautiful And Terrible Things
Pain And Suffering In The Life Of A Disciple
Pain and suffering, and disappointment are not often explored even lightly in the American church. In a previous article I began to explore practical care and understanding, but, like a diamond, this topic is worth a second or third look. When others are suffering, we feel awkward and insufficient, so we uncomfortably acknowledge it when we must, then hastily move on. With our own pain and suffering we often try to move on before the pain can be truly felt and before real healing can begin.
When I lost my father, I was a crisis counselor at our local Salvation Army. I so desperately needed to move on somehow from the initial grief that I felt that I only took the three days allotted for the funeral and quickly went back to work. The next week I’m in my office hearing people’s problems and thinking “You think you’ve got problems, you don’t know what problems are…” I was not in a place to help others because I was trying to move on instead of beginning the healing process. I was overwhelmed.
The subject is anything but simple. Look no further than your own emotional intensity from experience. When it comes to pain and suffering, whether our own or walking through it with someone else, most of us grapple with the question “WHY?” Theology-book wise, here are some of the standard answers:
- We suffer because we live in a fallen world.
- We suffer because we live in a fallen world where sin reigns in the hearts of men.
- We suffer because of our own foolishness. (We reap what we sow)
- We sometimes suffer because it is God’s discipline.
We may agree, we may bristle; if you’re like me it’s a bit of both. We can easily blame the problem on Adam and Eve, and certainly that is true enough. This is how we found the world, how we were born into it. But I would say that I personally am responsible for much of my own suffering via my self-inflicted free-will. I reap what I sow. If I overeat, then I suffer from being overweight. If I have an addiction, then I will suffer the consequence. Sometimes we suffer because of the choices of others, others’ “sin” against us; they have free-will to do so, and sometimes I sin against others because I have free will to do so. Much of my suffering is self inflicted, but not all.
If we ascribe people’s suffering as all their fault and a judgement from God, then we may well be wrong, let alone cold and judgemental. Even if it was “self-inflicted” it is still a wound needing medicine and care. However, in John chapter nine the disciples saw a blind man and asked Jesus “Rabbi, who did sin, this man or his parents?” Jesus said “Neither…” Often people suffer through no fault of their own.
The book of Job may be one of the first places your mind goes to in the Bible when it comes to an example of someone suffering. Job’s wife and friends were not very helpful with their theological assessment of his situation. Here’s a brief recap of Job’s story:
In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job… This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil… He was the greatest man among all the people of the East…
One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it.”
Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? …” There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.
“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job …
His wife said to him, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!”
But Job replied, “You talk like a foolish woman. Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never bad?” So in all this, Job said nothing wrong.
– From the Book of Job, chapters 1 and 2
What does Job say to us regarding suffering? We could exposit volumes from his story, but Job’s bottom line is that “If I have received good in this life, then I shouldn’t be surprised when bad comes from time to time as well.”
Mother Teresa said:
“I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish that He didn’t trust me so much.”
Maybe you’ve felt that way before. Bad days are just a part of it all. Sometimes we get sick, or we inherit a wonderful genetic trait (I’m diabetic), or we’re dealt some hard circumstances in life. We know God will not give us anything we can’t handle, but some days we just wish He didn’t trust us so much. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense, but we just have to keep breathing, and let it go, and give it to God. I have to remind myself often “Shall I accept only good things from His hand and never anything bad?”
Frederick Buechner, Presbyterian pastor and author, wrote:
“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
Note that he says “beautiful and terrible” not separated but joined; sometimes the most terrible things are still accompanied by a little beauty. Out of the ashes grows beauty. Thorns produce roses.
“Because grace makes beauty out of ugly things” – U2
Sometimes we don’t have the words; no words will do. But genuine concern sometimes needs no words. Just be there, sometimes that’s all you can do anyway. Often people just need some encouragement to hang on today, and to get through till tomorrow. Sometimes we need a friend who is like a shelter in the storm.
Frederick Buechner, in Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC states:
“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
God calls us to a place where our gladness (or at least hard earned experience, empathy, and compassion) intersect with the world’s deep hunger and need. We don’t have to be particularly gifted to care for others, just be there. Seek to love more like Jesus. Compassion is always an appropriate response.
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