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Pain: Finding Hope in Suffering

“…but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…” – Romans 5:3-4 ESV

Pain.

I’ve always said, “The only reason it hurts so bad is because it’s yours and not somebody else’s,” but my hope for this blog is to provide a structure for thinking about the concept of pain, mainly if you believe in God, in order to provide some clarity to the pain in your life. What this blog will not do is provide specific answers to the unique, deeply personal pain you may be wrestling with; rather, it will provide some tools in order to help you process the pain you have experienced, are experiencing, and inevitably will experience.

First, the pain itself we experience isn’t the issue, it’s our interpretation of pain which induces our suffering.[1] Interpreting pain involves two things, which I call the Why Questions and the Character of God. Now, before I continue, there have no doubt been mountains of literature written on the problem of pain and the goodness of God by far more qualified thinkers than me, and I in no way pretend that I can reduce such a topic down to a few words in a blog. But vigorously philosophizing and theologizing about someone else’s pain has the tendency to be impersonal, and I wanted to eliminate that as much as possible, so I took the approach of not only sharing what I’ve learned about pain and suffering through my own journey, but also from the life of a friend. With that said— “Why?”

“Why did this happen?” Haven’t you asked yourself that question about suffering you’ve experienced? Or maybe you’ve asked that question about the suffering you’ve witnessed in the world. Does any of it makes sense, especially if you believe in God? Why does God allow such suffering, and if there are justifiable reasons to the unique deeply personal suffering we’ve experienced, then why, so often, does God not explain but instead leave us in a cloud of mystery?

We tend to believe that if we know the reasons behind the suffering we experience we’ll have peace. The problem is most of our painful experiences include things we cannot know; we are quite literally incapable of knowing certain things, and that, in turn, gives rise to another problem—  pride. If we’re honest, we believe that we have a right to know things that only God can know. This isn’t new—there’s actually an account of someone who was deceived into believing that if they knew what God knows they’d be better off.[2] And so the mystery of Why? ignites in us pride, and any time we become prideful we begin to believe God is someone who He isn’t.

Our Why Questions will eventually lead us to a question about God’s character. For some, the very existence of suffering thwarts their belief in God because they believe that if God did exist then there would be no suffering, so since people do suffer then God cannot exist. An even more dangerous route is believing that God does exist but concluding that He’s someone who He isn’t, which is really why some give up their belief in Him altogether. I’m convinced that at the heart of someone’s unbelief in God is an inexplicable pain they’ve experienced that has yet to be resolved.

During an immense time of mental and emotional suffering of my own, I searched out answers to Why Questions in the Bible and in the writings of some of history’s most colossal intellects, but none of it gave me answers to the specific suffering I was experiencing.  All of the answers were written in generalities, so I was never satisfied—even with the answers I found in the very Word of God. How could I trust someone’s word who allowed me to suffer and not explain why? Until one day while I was sitting quietly, thinking, a thought as if not my own entered my mind and removed all doubt in God’s goodness. This thought, exactly as I heard it, is the first tool I offer to you:

If God is not good, then nothing is good; there is no hope.

If God is not good, then there is no reason to live.

But there are good things, there are reasons to live; there is hope. And just like that the prideful rage of desiring answers to things only God can know was put out like a soft blow to a candle. Even though I didn’t receive specific answers to my suffering, I came to believe that God is good without them. Perhaps that’s only what I needed to hear in that moment, maybe it doesn’t help you, maybe it doesn’t make sense yet, but think about it long and hard then consider the second tool I offer which assists the first:

                        There are people who have experienced horrific suffering

                        and afterwards maintain the belief that God is good.

Can you imagine being 13 and suddenly being woken up at 3am from a deep sleep to the frightful screams of your younger brother and sister, then rushing to the kitchen to see your mother glistening in snow white skin only to realize that she had doused herself in kerosene and lit herself on fire in attempt to take her own life? In an instant she had realized her mistake and tried to put the fire out herself but it was only your little brother who awoke first in confusion to her screams and was somehow able to suffocate the fire with a blanket. Frantically, you rush your dying mother to the hospital on a motor bike; nearly 24 hours later, unable to say goodbye or to ask her why she did it, she would succumb to her wounds.

When a friend of mine first told me that story and how he and his siblings lied to the police and to their father—who had been away for business—saying that their mother caught fire by accident, I didn’t know how to respond. You see, Indian culture is a culture deeply rooted in shame and honor, and even though they were a Christian family, they didn’t want to bring shame upon their family name. So the three of them kept the secret about what really happened for 9 years. My friend described how after that horrific night his life was riddled with questions of Why? and anger; anger towards his mom, anger towards his father who had been harsh towards his mother, anger towards himself, and anger towards God. Eventually, his anger took the form of unbelief in God because he didn’t see the sense of someone else ruling his own life anymore.  In the midst of his loneliness he, too, tried to take his own life by an overdose of pills; he figured if he took them he’d just fall asleep peacefully and never wake up, but miraculously he survived. Then one night alone in his room something happened.

The Bible says that “God is love,”[3] and alone in his room that night, my friend experienced the presence of God so powerfully he said it was like “feeling love for the first time.” You know how he responded? “[God] I know you are good.” He also went on to describe how in that moment he knew that “Jesus’s pain [on the cross] absorb[s] my pain.” But the most shocking thing he shared with me was in that moment he said to God, “Thank you that my mother died.” My friend wasn’t thankful to God for the death of his mother but that through her death he was able to experience God’s love. How could a love be so powerful to cover something so painful?

Years later, through a series of family audio tapes he had discovered, my friend learned that his mother had been bitter towards his father because of how harshly he had treated her, but when his father became a Christian and tried to heal their marriage, his mother chose to reject God out of her bitterness. Now, I don’t know what was said between her and the Lord those 24 hours she was alive in excruciating pain, if anything at all, but I do know that discovering those audio tapes brought peace to my friend; the answers had been there the whole time—he just had to wait for them. If someone can come out the other side of extreme suffering still believing that God is good, even thanking Him for it, that’s no evidence to the contrary.

The third tool I offer before I conclude is this:

                        Be honest.

It’s a simple tool, but you’d be surprised at how many people aren’t honest with themselves about their suffering.  They’ll try and cover it up, ignore it, and put on a mask; even more surprising is how many people aren’t honest to God about how angry they are at Him for allowing their suffering.  In their anger, coupled with their pride, they ignore Him. It’s better to be angry at God and honestly tell Him how you feel than to not tell Him at all. That’s exactly what I did through my suffering. I told God exactly what I was feeling and what I was thinking I didn’t hold anything back, and to be honest it wasn’t always in the most reverent way. But you know what? Through my honesty with God He revealed His love, His mercy, His patience, His kindness— His goodness. But don’t just take my word for it…there was a King named David who screamed at God in fear, despair, loneliness, depression, betrayal, anxiety, loss, confusion, complaint, pain— in his suffering. And every time, God revealed His goodness to David.

In conclusion, the pain you are feeling isn’t the issue, it’s your interpretation of your pain that makes up your suffering. Why has God allowed you to suffer? Wading through that mystery, you have to answer a question about God’s character. God’s character and whether or not you truly believe that He is good is the crux of the matter. Do you believe He is good? If you choose to believe that God is not good, then ultimately nothing is good; you have no hope in your suffering, no real reason to live. But there is hope, and there are people who have gone through immense suffering and afterwards still believe that God is good and even thank Him for their suffering. It wasn’t until I believed God is good that I could trust His word and wait patiently through things I don’t understand. Patience is something that you do through and during a period of time, and being patient is contingent on trust, and trust is the continual assertion of a belief, and through suffering your hope is contingent on the belief in the true character of God— His goodness. God knows your suffering. He knows there is injustice. That’s why Jesus had to be crucified for the sins of the world, to be buried, that’s why he rose from the dead to set what has been wronged right; to ‘absorb our pain’ and give us hope in our suffering.

Chavo Frederico, New City Stories Guest Writer


[1] Dr. James Thobaben, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky

[2] Holy Bible, Genesis chapter 3

[3] The Holy Bible, 1 John chapter 4 verse 8

The Sabbath Keeps Us

“If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;

 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 58:13-14 ESV

The other morning while I was sitting on my front porch during the Sabbath, I noticed a finch perched in the tree a few feet away.  It was bright yellow with jet black accents along its wings, chirping a beautiful melody from its blazing orange beak.  This tiny bird drew me into its performance; I couldn’t help but to just sit and watch and listen.

In my listening, I began to notice that the finch wasn’t alone in its song, but was joined by an entire choir of hundreds of other birds from nearby trees, creating a kind of invisible symphony that touched every inch of the atmosphere around me.  The trees swayed to their song, rhythmically bending and bowing in an act of worship. The sun flickered off of the leaves, dancing to the psalms being sung.  I was witnessing the hymn of nature, a song of effortless gratitude.

I realized in that moment that the world around me was completely suspended in grace, myself included.

***

It is no coincidence that I remembered God’s grace during my practice of the Sabbath, which is a weekly time set aside to slow down and turn my heart and mind and body towards God in thanksgiving.  It is not an accident that as I participated in God’s rest—a rest that He has prescribed and promised to His people from the beginning (Genesis 2:3)—His perfect economy of grace was revealed to me.   Exodus 20:11 tells us that “the LORD has blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”  This means that Sabbath rest is charged with God’s presence in a special way and in that presence we find that blessing and sanctification are offered for us, His creation.

Mariano-Fortuny-St.-Paul-in-the-Areopagus

Many Greek thinkers in the time of the early church worshipped, along with other pagan gods, an “unknown god” (Acts 17:23).  Some believed this “unknown god” to be a far-off deity who created the cosmos but was distant and indifferent towards his creation.  In Acts 17, Paul addresses these very thinkers.  He tells the philosophers that God is not distant or “unknown;” in reality, it is in this God that “we live and move and have our being” (v. 28) and this God “gives to all mankind life and breath” (v.25).

 

I wonder how many of us today worship an “unknown god.”  Sure, we may not say that the God we worship is “unknown,” but that doesn’t mean that we don’t live like He is distant from our lives.  Many of us, including myself, have a habit of keeping God at a distance with our actions.  We function as if His grace is not the reality that sustains us and instead live each day by the power of our own individual pursuits and strivings and reputations and creations.  The cultural message that many of us have adopted is that we can be “self-made,” and it is only when we focus on working to fulfill our individual desires that we can experience rest and freedom.  This contemporary mindset has kept us from living, moving, and having our very being grounded in the sustaining love and grace of God.  We say we worship the God of abundance, but act as if we serve the gods of scarcity.  The result of this is that we, like the first century Greeks, make God “unknown” in our own hearts and minds.

Fortunately for us, God and His grace are made known to us during the Sabbath.

Sabbath is a powerful space where we are reminded that God’s grace, His very presence, is what sustains us continually.   In our individualized, consumerist, materialistic, and technological culture, our imaginations are inundated with the idea that we own our lives, that the sustaining of our existence is solely predicated on our own ceaseless work and productivity.  Even as Christians, whether we realize it or not, our hearts and minds have been trained to look primarily to ourselves for fulfillment.  We find ourselves swimming in the waters of our culture—waters that often flow contrary to what God’s word says about rest, freedom, peace, contentment, and joy.  Sabbath-keeping is a weekly resistance against this way of life.

When we cease from our to-do lists and anxieties and production, we are confronted with the reality that the world keeps on spinning. We creatures are not the ones that rotate the world on its axis or push it around the Sun, nor are we the ones that provide our next meal.  Everything is the Father’s and Sabbath teaches us that the Father is generous.  In other words, isn’t just that the practice of Sabbath provides us with rest from our labor throughout the week (though it does); it reminds us of our limits and insufficiency in light of God’s sovereignty and providence.  During the Sabbath we come to terms with our “creatureliness” and God’s sovereignty.  This is the starting point for true freedom.

The psalmist says, “My soul is consumed with longing for your rules at all times…and I shall walk in a wide place, for I have sought your precepts” (Psalm 119:20,45 ESV).  Talk about counter-cultural! The psalmist here is saying that freedom comes from recovering our God-given limitations.  In an age where we are told that it is our right to go beyond established and natural boundaries, that we need to keep pushing and climbing the social ladder at all costs, that we have little value outside of how much we produce, the Church would do well to heed the psalmists’ words.  It is through practicing the Sabbath that we come to know these limits – and consequently this freedom – in a deep way.  In the Sabbath, we are carried to the “wide space” where we can walk freely with Jesus Christ, who is the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark: 2:28 ESV).

Christ and the Pharisees by Earnst Zimmerman

Jesus was not against keeping the law, particularly the Sabbath.  What he was against, however, was using the law to create barriers between us and God.  He was against using the law to make God “unknown.”  This is why Jesus boldly reminded the Pharisees that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27 ESV).

 

Sabbath-keeping gives us a kind of “holy pause” in our lives.  This “pause” isn’t passive or empty, however.  Instead, this “pause” is filled with God’s presence, reminding us that our work, our toils, and our striving are totally derivative of a work that is already complete.  It is through the rhythm of Sabbath-keeping that we come to know the One who finished the work on our behalf, and from this we can move into a life where our work (and play!) is not independent of and distant from the grace of God, but participates fully in it.  In keeping the Sabbath, the Sabbath keeps us.

***

As I sat on my front porch that Sunday morning watching and listening to the finch and the surrounding symphony of gratitude, I was reminded of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26 ESV).  I couldn’t help but wonder where Jesus got this imagery of the birds and the grace they displayed.  I imagined Jesus himself, weary from a week of labor, retreating into nature one morning and sitting under a tree, watching and listening to this same hymn of nature.  I imagine that as he sat and observed the birds singing while they fluttered from branch to branch, he too was reminded of his Father’s grace that sustains him as he goes into the world to accomplish His will.

It is in these moments of Sabbath rest, of a retreat back into the finished work of God, that we remember who we are and who God is.  In this remembering we are given the freedom and grace to go out to do the Father’s will, which is to ultimately invite all of creation into the song of the golden finch, into the hymn of effortless gratitude and praise to the only One who can and will sustain us.

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

Giving is Not Loving: 1 Corinthians 13 and Generosity

The three most important things to have are faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of them is love. Follow the way of love.           1 Corinthians 13:13-14:1a

It is possible to be giving and not loving.  So, giving alone, cannot be love.

“Christ and the Rich Young Ruler” by Heinrich Hofmann

You know how long it takes to feed a baby who’s just learning to eat?  This is the gist of the Greek word used for “give” in 1 Corinthians 13:3.  It alludes to feeding bit by bit and carries a connotation of digestion.  It’s not the same as when Jesus told the Rich Young Ruler to sell everything and give it to the poor-that was an immediate giving over. In fact, 1 Cor. 13:3 refers to continual giving, so it would probably end up being more than the Ruler could have given all at once.

This is the actual taking care of someone, day by day, meal by meal — lifelong giving of everything to those in need.  It’s an even deeper kind of giving than the “shot in the arm” type: it’s a caregiving.  It is longsuffering commitment to provide for those in need during one’s entire life until absolutely all possessions are finally given over.  It’s adopting the needy and naming them in your will.

And this is not love.  According to 1 Corinthians 13:3:

Suppose I give everything I have to poor people. And suppose I give my body to be burned. If I don’t have love, I get nothing at all.

This verse presupposes that it’s possible to give in this lifelong, careful, unlimited way, without love.  In fact, it even yields nothing for the person doing the giving.  Nothing.

Do you find all this as completely dumbfounding as I do?

The surrounding verses tell why, giving two reasons: First of all, anything we do as Christians must be deeply connected to the Church and its edification (1 Cor. 12-13).  Giving, even if it is careful and longsuffering and boldly generous, must be centered within the Body of Christ in order to be loving.  So, it has to be done within a community that actually knows each other and is family that cares for one another (1 Cor. 12:26), not just called family for functionality.  It is family that suffers and rejoices with each other.

The second reason is that giving to people alone, cannot be lasting.  Love always remains because it is patient, kind, generous, humble, polite, unselfish, joyful, protecting, trusting, hoping, unfailing (1 Cor. 13:4-8).  Love always remains because God is love (2 Cor. 13:11 & 1 Jn. 4:8).

Love, not giving, is the greatest gift every Christian can strive for (1 Cor. 13:13).  It’s also the greatest thing we can give.

 

Jessica Fleck, New City Stories Contributor