We all struggle. We all suffer. We all know pain. At the same time, we’re acutely aware that we don’t have access to each other’s struggles except as they are related to us. There is nothing more humanising than suffering—this is the human condition—and there is nothing more isolating.
When Christians suffer, when we experience pain, it often gives rise to doubt. We begin to wonder if it’s meant to be like this. One of the most quoted reasons to disbelieve in God is what’s usually called ‘the problem of evil.’ For most of us though it’s not the existence of conspicuous evil that’s the problem, it’s the pain in our lives and the lives of those we love. There’s a reason that C. S. Lewis formulated the challenge as The Problem of Pain.
Why does it make us doubt? I’m sure there are as many variations as there are sufferers, but broadly because if we truly believe that we are the beloved children of the most high God it raises some questions when, as best we can tell, he could improve our lot but hasn’t done so.
These questions are then painfully pressed on in many churches Sunday by Sunday as we preach a Christian life that sounds remarkably pain-free—this is certainly true in my charismatic tradition, but I’ve seen it much more broadly across evangelicalism in the UK. We preach what amounts to a prosperity gospel, where Christians are promised nice middle-classed lives.
Some readers might want to object that they haven’t heard this sort of preaching in their church, and thank the Lord if that’s the case, but for clarity I don’t mean that this is explicitly taught in the sermon, though that can happen. It’s often preached through the stories we share, through those we platform and those we don’t, through the questions our preaching does and doesn’t address, through the words of the songs we pick to sing, through so-called vulnerability that sufferers see right through, and through the reactions to those who are in acute pain.
We speak like the grand plan is that we’re all free from pain right now. Which, dear friends, it is not. You can quote Psalm 27 all you like but that isn’t what it means. There will be no more pain after the resurrection of the dead (Revelation 21), and that is a promise worth gripping to until your hands bleed. One day every ounce of existential dread, every lash of life’s cruel calumny, and every private howl you flung into the uncaring heavens, will melt in the face of the Lord Jesus as he smiles and embraces you, his little brother or sister.
And when I say it will melt, I don’t mean that as a nice verb to describe ‘going away.’ When the eyes of Jesus the consuming fire (Hebrews 12) look upon you tenderly, they will look on the root of Hell that has afflicted you with the force of a thousand suns and it will die.
One day our pain will go. But not yet. We aren’t promised that. In fact, the Bible tells us that our pain still has work to do—for suffering produces character (Romans 5). But even that can be a weight to bear, we are not responsible for ensuring we have achieved anyone’s definition of ‘adequate growth’ through our trials than the Lord’s.
Pain is required for growth. Ask any athlete. We immediately might have questions about how that death or that vile sting will cause us to grow, and it’s important to face them. They do not have clear and simple answers. Our struggles teach us.
I think I could be misread here. We often hear stories of challenge in our churches, and invariably they are told once those challenges are over, the people involved aren’t feeling the rawest edge of the pain, and it all sounds a bit neat and tidy. We understand why, few people in the midst of struggle want to share their stories and we would want to protect them from exposing their wounds unnecessarily.
However, I reckon we also wonder what exactly would be the point of them telling us before the story is ‘over’ and they’ve climbed out of the pit, hard-won wisdom clutched in their hands. We learn when those who go before us tell us of their deep challenges and share the wisdom they have won at personal cost—because all wisdom comes at someone’s cost. But we also learn by hearing the struggles of people who are still in the pit, describe the nightmares they’re living through, and tell us how on earth they’re continuing to worship God despite it making no sense at all. I learn as much, if not more, from these gnarled saints. Their struggles teach, and you don’t have to be out of the other side of your struggles to have learned wisdom.
You see, treasure lives at the bottom of the pit, and like the inverse of Plato’s cave, those who have suffered much and still love the Lord can teach the rest of us how to live. Which shouldn’t surprise us, the Christian life is one of death and resurrection, after all.
Which means that our churches should be full of stories of difficulty and pain, as well as triumph and the provision of God, because these teach us. There’s a danger here, because in my experience it’s pretty common to ask people whose lives are falling apart or who have been visited by Death’s spectre something along the lines of, “what is God doing in your suffering?” I get the temptation, it sounds like a good question, but most of the time the people who are hurting are, you know, hurting and so haven’t got the foggiest idea how to answer that kind of question. Time and grieving would be required to let them answer that in their own way.
There’s a strange pressure too, to ‘grow’ through your pain, to gain the sort of wisdom I’ve talked about, to have revelations of God’s character that others don’t. It is through suffering that we gain wisdom and revelations, but there should be no pressure to do so, especially from those who speak like they don’t know pain.
And, by the by, the question “what is God doing in your suffering?” has a correct answer that is true for everyone. He’s revealing himself, but that’s a story for another day.
Here’s a surprising sounding truth: pain is a privilege.
Don’t get me wrong, if I got to hit the reset button on some of the worst things that have happened to me, I’d do so. But because they happened to me, I learned some things that not everyone has learned. A friend once described this paradigm to me using a Harry Potter analogy.
In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix there are some creatures called Thestrals, which are a sort of horse thing that can only be seen by a couple of characters. Most of the characters think that those who describe them are making it up, or entirely mad. Later it turns out that they’re real but can only be seen by those who’ve known death up close. Their pain gave them a new vision on the world, they could see another layer of reality.
In much the same way, my particular pains and struggles have given me a window on particular parts of the world that not everyone has. Your particular pains and struggles—different to mine—will give you a window on the world that not everyone has. Eventually we all go through significant trials, this is part of maturing into our full humanity.
There is a privilege with this, as we can then share the vision of the truth we have with those who cannot see it, as a traveller who has returned form a far country.
For the majority the lesson here is this, if you are told surprising things that you aren’t sure are true about church or faith by someone whose story you know and you are aware they have suffered in whatever area we are talking about, do not dismiss them out of hand. Of course they can be wrong, but start with the assumption that they can see something you can’t, even if you’re not sure they’re expressing it very well.
For the struggler, the sufferer, the pilgrim-on-the-way, the lesson is this: you are loved, dear friend, by the God who did not have to struggle to chose to enter our warfare and win it on our behalf. There will be insight and wisdom in this, but if today it is all you can do to just about believe that God is good then do not see this as another weight to be laid on your weary shoulders, as though you now must be a storied sage. Instead, see this as hope: you will learn from this, though it may not be what you think. You will find God in this dank nightmare, right at the bottom of the pit. There is treasure to be found, keep going. But even if it’s never found and it never makes sense and all the platitudes hang around you like chocolate teapots, know that you can rest easy because resurrection day is coming.
Come quickly Lord Jesus.
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