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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

Diving into the Easter Story: Good Friday

Good Friday

Although it is called “good,” Good Friday is a solemn day for the Church. It commemorates the betrayal, unjust trial, and brutal crucifixion of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  As Christians in the 21st century, we know the rest of the story and understand that a huge celebration is coming; however, we encourage you to enter into this time of grief, uncertainty, and deep sadness so that you may experience what the earliest followers of Jesus went through.

John 18:28-37 NRSV

Christ in front of Pilate by Mihali Munkacsy

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 

 

 

Psalm 22:1-2, 12-19 NRSV

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
    and by night, but find no rest…

But I am a worm, and not human;
    scorned by others, and despised by the people.

All who see me mock at me;
    they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
“Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
    let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”…

14 I am poured out like water,
    and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
    it is melted within my breast;
15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
    and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
    you lay me in the dust of death.

16 For dogs are all around me;
    a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shriveled;
17 I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my clothes among themselves,
    and for my clothing they cast lots.

19 But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
    O my help, come quickly to my aid!   

Artwork by Josefa de Ayala

John 19:38-42 NRSV

38 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.  

  • Questions: 
    • Have you ever felt distant from God, especially in times of deep stress and anguish?  Do you know of others who have had this experience? How does Jesus’ experience, all the way from his agonizing prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane to his crucifixion at Calvary, comfort and sustain us during these moments?
    • Why do Joseph and Nicodemus, who are experiencing both fear and grief, spend so much energy, time, and precious resources to properly bury Christ’s body?  What does this burial teach us about faith and worship in times of grief and anxiety?
  • Challenge: 
    • If you are experiencing distance or isolation from God’s presence or know of someone who is, we encourage you to pray through these passages and reflect on the reality that even Jesus Himself, the only begotten Son of God, experienced deep pain and that he is with you in your suffering.
    • Even when we enter into seasons of grief, fear, and waiting, the example of Joseph and Nicodemus shows us that we are still called to tend to our relationship with Jesus and lavish him with our worship.

New City Writing Team

 

Diving into the Easter Story: Maundy Thursday

Each of the next four days we will be posting a short devotional to provide a resource to help New City Church dive into the story behind Holy Week. From Maundy Thursday to Resurrection Sunday,  we hope and pray that these selected scriptures, questions, and challenges help our community enter into, and be transformed by, the most important Story that has ever been told.  Through immersing yourself in a slow, patient way in the Holy Week narrative, we will be able to anticipate, grieve, wait, and celebrate in a way that Jesus’ followers experienced in their own time and place.

We encourage you to print these devotionals out, share with others, and use in community!

We, the New City writing team, pray that this resource brings life and glorifies the risen Christ!

 

Maundy Thursday 

“Maundy” comes from the Latin word “mandatum” which means “commandment.”  Therefore, Maundy Thursday commemorates the day during Holy Week where Jesus, during the Last Supper and right after he washed his disciples feet, gave a new commandment to his followers: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

John 13:12-17 NRSV

12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. 

John 13:31-25 NRSV

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

  • Questions:
    • Are you a foot washer? Is your heart postured in such a way that it will allow you to be, as Oswald Chambers says, a “doormat under people’s feet” for the glory of Christ?
    • What does it mean, exactly, to “love one another” just as Christ has loved us?  What does that look like in your life today? Do your neighbors, co-workers, or family members know that you are a disciple of Jesus?
  • Challenge: 
    • This next week, take some time each morning to read and pray through this passage and then ask God to reveal to you the ways in which you can be a footwasher and a disciple that day.

 

New City Writing Team

The Importance of “Why?”

Everyone experiences loss in their life–loss of a loved one, a job, an important possession, or even simply the way life was before a major event. Really, loss is any transition that disorients us, causing us to work towards reorientation and form a “new normal.” This is why grieving is often so difficult–we will never get back to the way things were before, no matter how hard we try.

Why do these painful losses have to happen?  Everyone can agree that our fallenness makes us feel alone and absent from God. When confronted with a loss, we often feel further from His goodness, experiencing anger and indifference because we simply cannot understand how God’s goodness can overcome the present grief. Unlike God, we are inside of time, so we cannot comprehend the vastness of His plan or how any loss could be used for overall good.

The good news is that we do not need to understand. In fact, it is good to admit that brokenness exists and that we can’t understand it. Even in the psalms, the writers going through disorientation express frustration and anger with God—they don’t understand the losses they are going through, and they are questioning. Psalm 22:1 exemplifies this kind of anguished questioning:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”

David understands that trying to make sense of or justify any loss on our own will simply not hold ground. In fact, we often cause more harm than good by trying to be optimistic in the face of loss and explaining it away as “God doing everything for a reason.”  Instead, David is honest about his experience and honest about God’s relation to that experience, even if he is limited in his understanding.

Indeed, this idea of questioning God seems wrong to many of us, even though it is a very natural thing during times of grief. “Why me?” “Why did God let this happen?” Even Jesus on the cross, praying David’s words from the psalms, cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). In his deepest moment of grief and darkness, Jesus questioned the presence of his Father in his suffering.

However, what we often fail to realize in asking the question “why?” is that the questioning itself is putting God foremost, knowing that He is the only One with the answers. Sorrow itself needs God to validate it. Both complete confidence in God and asking God “why?” are equally Christian ways of handling loss. Both responses admit that God is in control of our lives even though we can’t necessarily understand His reasoning.

We ask “why?” because we do not understand or agree with evil, but we still know that God is in control and is able to redeem the brokenness of this world for His good purposes. This is why David, right after he questions God’s presence in Psalm 22:1-2, affirms God’s character in verses 3-5:

“Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.  To you they cried, and were saved…”

Jesus provides us with the ultimate example of simultaneously wrestling with and trusting God in suffering.  Despite his anguish on the cross under the weight of the world’s guilt, Jesus trusted in His good Father and His plan for him and for the world (Matthew 26:39).  God’s overarching plan of redemption and restoration has and will continue to come to fruition, and we must take that into account when we experience loss.  

Optimism is claiming that we know what God has in store for us and we can explain away each instance of loss. Hope, however, is admitting that we hate and question loss—we are angered by it, but we don’t give up our faith in Christ, the One who redeems suffering and overcomes evil. Loss may lead us to a confusion of identity, but if we look to Christ during times of loss and suffering we are reminded of our identity in Him.  This fact will lead us and help us be with others through the dark times of disorientation into reorientation.

 

Autumn Terry, New City Stories Contributor