When Pain is a Problem

The American opioid epidemic started because pharmaceutical companies wanted to eliminate pain. Whatever their motives, though we can be sure they were not altruistic, they manufactured situations where if someone told a hospital they were in pain they would be given an opioid painkiller. Pain was a problem to be eliminated.

We can all roll our eyes in exasperation because we know the outcome, but I still think we think getting rid of pain is a good aim. Dear friends, it isn’t possible this side of Jesus’ return, any claim to remove our pain is utopian thinking and inevitably preaching a false gospel.

How do I know it is? Because the real gospel doesn’t promise to remove our pain.

Hopefully we can all scoff, slack-jawed at the audacity of a pharmaceutical company peddling something not that far away from heroin and claiming to eliminate pain. Much like most pushers do.

Except we shouldn’t scoff. In the church we so often do the same thing and turn our preaching into pious pushing. My recommendation is that we stop that. Otherwise, we’ll either end up hooked and doing anything for a fix, or we’ll go cold turkey on the whole thing.

Here’s another way to look at it: trying to eliminate pain makes us Buddhists, not Christians. Larry Crabb makes this accusation in his book Shattered Dreams, saying, “we kill desire in an effort to escape pain, then wonder why we don’t enjoy God.”

Buddhism offers a path of cessation. The grand goal is the end of all pain and suffering, the path to get there is killing desire. Christianity is a path of joy, of roasted lamb, freshly baked bread, and fine wine. God is a God of things. And, because that’s true, it’s always true that escaping from pain is not the aim of the faith. We’re called to die, and then rise again.

So, how about we stop trying to wipe out all the pain?

Like a physical trainer who won’t let his clients actually lift any weights, we’re robbed of the benefit of the terrible trials that life throws at us if we aren’t allowed to feel the sting of them.

If we aren’t careful, Crabb warns, we’ll find the contentment of Buddha and miss the joy of Christ. Jesus did not teach us to deaden our pain and call it trust. He teaches us to allow our pain to deepen our desire for God (Romans 5, 1 Peter 1). There is treasure at the bottom of the pit, in the belly of the whale, in the cold and weary grave. And we worship a God who resurrects the dead.

As Tish Harrison Warren writes in her beautiful book Prayer in the Night, which by-the-by you should buy and read, we cannot trust God (sharp intake of breath before the sentence finishes) that bad things won’t happen to us.

Which may sound like a shocking statement but shouldn’t if you’ve been reading your Bible. Awful things happen to faithful people. That doesn’t mean they aren’t faithful people. Look at Abraham, look at Sarah, look at Jacob, look at Joseph, look at Moses, look at Hannah, look at David, look at Daniel. Look at all of them, many make mistakes but not all of them do. Their lives are difficult before they make mistakes. Many are blessed because of their faithfulness, but their lives still bear the fissures wrought by painful circumstances out of their control. We cannot trust God that bad things won’t happen to us. We cannot trust God to always minimise our suffering in this land of the dying.

We can trust God, of course, but why should we trust him to do things he hasn’t ever promised he will do?

Bad things will happen to you. That is not in doubt. To believe otherwise is to follow a prosperity gospel. The real question is what you do next.

It is vitally important that the church prepares us. Preachers, speak like people that know pain. If you’ve been appointed as an elder, or your denomination’s equivalent, then either you’ve known deep pain (it’s in the job description) or you’re about to. Use that. You don’t have to share it, but take the ash you’ve been gifted, mix it with your tears and wipe it on your face as warpaint before you open the scriptures.

Prepare us to face the same. Don’t teach us the “just trust God” Buddhism that really means “pretend it doesn’t hurt until it doesn’t.” Teach us the Bible, in all its sweat-stained, bloody glory. Teach us that suffering is the way of Christ. Teach us that maturity requires that we be broken like bread, and since God wants a mature bride that he can pour out as wine there will be a breaking in our future.

Make sure we aren’t surprised. Old saints know these truths from experience even if they wouldn’t express it quite the way I would. Young saints need pastoring, and young here is those who haven’t either been ushered into the second half of life by awful circumstance or the gradual erosion of the decades.

As they say, the worst time to prepare for a marathon is when you’re already running one. As best as possible, prepare us to suffer, prepare us to hurt, teach us how to use our pain to find God in the pit. Week by week, prepare us to die.

It isn’t always a blessing to be ‘blessed’ with nice, tidy, middle-classed lives. Honestly if we want to know God, we may well need the opportunities presented by the things we would never wish happened to us.

God does not guarantee us nice lives. We are not too blessed to be stressed—or if we really are, that honestly sounds more like Romans 1 than the blessing of God. We are promised covenantal love. We are promised his unfailing character. We are promised his presence. We are promised that after death comes life, every single time. It’s in the thick and abiding darkness that we grow to realise that these are truly enough.

Tozer said that, “it is doubtful that God could ever bless a man greatly until He has hurt him deeply.” Those are hard words, but how you feel about them probably depends on where you’re standing. They’re a sharp stone to the comfortable, but a cooling balm to the afflicted. Much like the gospel is. Let us embrace that suffering is used by God to grow our character without falling into the trap of thinking that has to mean that we think it was worth it. I may be that you never think it was worth it. Somehow in the mystery of God we can still come to thank him for the way we grew despite the dark tunnels we had to walk through.

To summarise: pain is not evidence that we have weak faith, it’s evidence that we’re normal.

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

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