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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

Weekly Devotional: James 1

Whether in your own personal devotional time or with your small group, we encourage you to reflect on these questions throughout the week based on the sermon on James 1 this past Sunday.  If you missed Bryan’s sermon, you can listen to it here!

1. What is a trial or hardship you are facing right now that you need to name?

2. What part of Jeremiah 9: 23-24 sticks out to you? How does what God declares in Jeremiah 9 relate to what you are facing today?

3. What does it mean for the “word” to be implanted in you? What are the effects of an “implanted word” on our daily life?

4. What is a “doer of the word”? How do we balance being a “doer of the word” with not striving? 

5. What steps might the Lord be asking you to take this week to be active participants in perseverance?

 

New City Teaching Team

The Long Game

“So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.” Hebrews 12:1-2 CEB

How difficult would it be to spend time in Gethsemane, praying fervently, sensing the reality of the cross ahead, knowing the pain waiting just hours away, all the while aware of the power at your fingertips to call upon angels and deliver you from suffering?

How could Jesus endure?

Jesus understood the long game: The truth that, woven into the fabric of life, into the call of God which rested upon his life, was the reality that joy was waiting on the other side of endurance, of following the will of God, of suffering and death. Jesus endured the cross, ignoring its shame, because of the joy set before him — a joy he would not experience until he sat “at the right side of God’s throne.”

How often do you reach out in life for joy now, find it isn’t there, and leave with a sense of longing, a sense of depressed frustration, a sense of confusion?

How often do you reach for your phone in a moment of social anxiety, searching for a quick fix to an uncomfortable situation, knowing this temporary solution isn’t permanent but satisfies the need to avoid pushing through to the other side, wherein a contentedness with not knowing exactly what to say next awaits?

How often, in a world that has changed drastically, perhaps too fast for us to understand, do we expect instant gratification, and how often do we struggle to feel content when what previously provided such gratification no longer does?

Jesus understood the long game. The path to joy required that he endure suffering, pain, the cross, and death. He found joy on the other end of following the will of God, wherever that led. For some of us at New City, this means enduring the long road toward finishing an M.Div. It means daily waking up and going to class, listening attentively, reading for hours, writing for days, and choosing to continue doing so for three to four years. For some of us, this means enduring the long road toward finishing college or medical school, toward getting a business up and running, toward waiting to see whether or not in fact we can conceive children.

Having a vision for the long game includes “fix[ing] our eyes of Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.” Jesus had faith that his road to sacrifice would result in joy. Because of Jesus, we can have this same faith that when we follow the will of God, the product is joy. This joy may not come for a time — in fact, this joy may not come until, like Jesus, we’ve endured our cross to the point of death — but that joy will undoubtedly be sweeter than we could imagine.

Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane

Joy is a funny thing. It may come in a moment — it may come in stages. I spent about 18 months overseas with the Army in Kuwait, and it was void, in many ways, of joy. It was hard. When I returned to the US, interestingly and unexpectedly, joy didn’t flood my heart as I expected. It came in stages, and is still coming to this day, over two years later, as I reflect on the experience and realize the benefits deployment had upon my life and the lives of others.

Based on past experience, we tend to expect joy to come at certain moments. Perhaps it does and will, but more often than not, I’ve learned that as my life with God changes, joy takes on a different flavor, one that tastes more like the will of God over time and through challenges than like instant satisfaction with the present. The long game.

 

Tyler Tavares, New City Stories Contributor