“But now thus says the Lord, He who created you, O Jacob, He who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God— your Savior— you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you.”
A college student once said to me, “Christianity is a crutch!”
I said, “Yes, and we’re all limping, aren’t we?”
Man and creation are so badly broken that we all limp along in life. Pain is an experience common to us all. And the question is, “What do you do with the pain?” Already we have seen that the right perspective on suffering is vitally important. So is understanding that suffering is a time to learn, to be creative, and to discipline oneself as well.
But suffering is also a time for hope.
Back in my seminary days I walked with a group of fellow chaplains through the burn center of a hospital. The patients there had been in accidents that had left them burned over most of their bodies. Many of them writhed in pain and cried out in agony. Their bodies were cinders of ugly pink flesh. It all but tore my insides out to see people suffering so. After we left, one of the minsters literally cursed God.
Without thinking, I said, “No! No! Don’t be profane! Thank God!”
Eyes turned in my direction, and in anger, someone said, “Why? What does He have to say about all this?”
I said, “Thank God because the Bible gives us hope. It says, ‘We shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall all be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable’” (I Cor. 15:51-53).
As Christians we believe that suffering is abnormal. God is not any happier with it than we are. And not forever will suffering hold the world in its cruel clutches. God is working to bring order to this disorder. He is working to make this broken world whole once again. We have a future!
O God! The agony of it all! The pain within: loneliness, alienation, rejection, grief, self-loathing, despair. The pain without: rape, cancer, poverty, war, starvation, injustice. Where will it all end? Some say it will end with a nuclear explosion and a few radiation-sickened refugees whimpering together in a storm cellar. But Revelation 21:1-4 says it will end in the lap of God. There God will take His children in His arms and wipe away every tear. Crying and pain will be no more, and a new heaven and a new earth will be created for His people to inhabit for all eternity.
As Christians we do not grieve as others do. The world sees only a hopeless end, despair. But Christians see an endless hope! We believe in the triumphant reign of Christ. We believe in resurrection. We believe that we shall receive new bodies. We believe in a new heaven and earth. And it is exactly this kind of hope that enables us to cope with the pain. St. Paul, a man who knew pain quite well, also affirmed this hope. It was his anchor. He said, “I consider that the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). Let hope be your anchor, too. Let it hold you fast in the storms of this pain-wracked life.
Passing on, another answer to the question, “What do you do with the pain?” Is patience. Romans 8:25 says, “But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
Consider the life of Moses. He was a senior citizen by the time the Exodus began. The Promised Land must have seemed a long way from Egypt, from the desert, from the camp of grumbling Jews. Yet one does not get the sense that Moses was in a hurry. Instead he simply seemed to plod along day by day going from one task to another. It is as if he knew that no plan of God’s would be forever thwarted.
You may also study the patience of Paul with the Corinthian church. His own members were getting drunk at communion, refusing to share, suing one another, and ever leading lives of incest and homosexuality. Long after many pastors would have given up, St. Paul was still on the job, still writing letters of encouragement and instruction. It is as if he knew that maturity would eventually come to the Greeks.
You may study Christ’s patience with suffering as well. For the sake of his ministry, Christ endured scorn, unbelief, sore feet, thirst, criticism, betrayal, denial by His close friend, mockery, crucifixion, and the grave. And he never seemed to be in a hurry!
Patience is the ability to bear pain, endure hardships with self-control, calmness, unhurried dedication, knowing that God in time will accomplish His ends if we but wait. The psalmist talked about patience, saying, “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:14). And Job affirmed in the midst of his trials, “He will complete what He appoints for me” (Job 23:14).
A nine-year old boy took his puppy to the veterinarian. The doctor could offer not explanation or remedy for the dog’s mysterious illness. So the lad took his puppy home and with warm milk, prayers, tears, and lots of love began to nurse the animal. After supper, his father sat down beside him. Taking his head in his hands he met the boy’s eyes and gently said, “Tommy, you are learning about trouble. It’s not an easy thing to learn. But remember this: it is written that trouble came to pass, but nowhere is it written that trouble came to stay.” It’s true, isn’t it? Trouble passes. It was born a gypsy. And if we but live steadfastly and wait on the Lord, trouble, ever born a rover, will move on.
Give a Little
If you were in great pain, you would probably rush to the physician’s office and say, “Doctor, doctor! Give me something for the pain!” The Bible also prescribes for sufferers. You want something for the pain, do you? Then try this. When you hurt, try helping others who hurt.
When Paul was in prison, when he had been beaten and left in chains, he still reached out to help others. He shared the gospel with the guards, with the jailer, with his fellow inmates. He even wrote letters to encourage those on the outside.
When Jesus was dying upon the cross, He looked down and saw His own mother sorrowing. Touched by her plight, He said, “John, you take care of her.” In His own pain, He was reaching out to lessen the pain of another.
I’m thinking of a little girl who was an hour late coming home from elementary school. Her mother, worried sick, met her in the front yard.
“I told you to come straight home from school,” she chided. “Where have you been?”
The wee girl explained, “Susie fell and broke her dolly. That’s why I’m late.”
The mother said, “But you don’t know how to fix a dolly. Are you lying to me?”
“No, no!” The wee girl replied. “I wasn’t trying to help her fix it. I just had to sit and help her cry.”
Our ministry is like that, too. Most of the time we do not have the ability to fix things. All we can do is sit and cry with those in pain.
When you suffer, your own hurt is made more bearable when you take your eyes off yourself and start ministering to others. I don’t care how bad off you are, if you look around, you will most always find someone worse off than you are. Perhaps you cannot heal them, fix up something that is broken for them, but you can help them cry. You can put your arms around them, you can listen to them, you can show them you care. You can tell them about God’s care.
The Bible says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). There is something therapeutic for your own heartache when you minister to the needs of another. Mrs. Charles H. Spurgeon, wife of the great nineteenth century evangelist, was an invalid. Yet in her own pain, she reached out to others. During her lifetime, she mailed her husband’s books to over two hundred thousand people!
What is the pain that you are carrying? A severe illness? Some disappointment? Bankruptcy? Rejection by a child? The death of a loved one? What are you doing with such hurts? Are you focusing on the pain or on the Christ? Are you intensifying your efforts to meet your own personal needs or are you reaching out to met the needs of others? Isn’t it possible to reach out and minister to your visitors from the sick bed? Can you in a time of grief go and comfort a shut-in, a widow, a prisoner? With Christ you can. And when you do, your own pain will be more manageable. This is at least part of what the Bible means by the statement, “It is in giving that you receive.” A comfort shared is a comfort kept and multiplied.
Yet another Christian response to pain is faith. Faith is a sense of utter dependence upon God. It is utter trust, not in the doctor or the pharmacist or the nurse, but ultimately in the Lord. And His ability to minister to your needs through whatever channels He chooses, whether hospital, medicine, kidney machine, or unaided divine healing. It is a sense of complete trust in the fact that the Lord will either bring relief or He will most certainly give the grace to bear it. I Peter 4:9 says, “Let those who suffer according to God’s will do right and entrust their souls to a faithful creator.” Trust a doctor, sure! But trust God first. A physician might fail. But God won’t. A new medicine, money, a family, or a friend might let you down. But the Lord never will! He can do anything but fail.
In the poem “Invictus,” William Henley talks about his own self-confidence during life’s difficulties. He says that his soul is unconquerable; under adverse circumstances he has not winced or cried aloud. Then he triumphantly proclaims, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” In the end, William Henley committed suicide. Self-trust was not enough. Neither is doctor-trust or money-trust. But God-trust is enough. From the cross, Jesus, with His dying breath, said, “father, into Thy hands I commit my spirt” (:Luke 23:46). Not to Himself, nor to some man or men, not even unto some thing, but wholly unto God Almighty Himself did Christ commit His life. And come Easter Sunday morning the resurrection proved God was well able to keep safe what had been entrusted to Him!
A man on the inactive roll of a church was dying a slow and painful death from cancer. The minister, an Anglican priest, began to visit. The patient was usually in a cheerful mood, given only occasionally to moments of despair.
The minister said, “John, I admire your attitude in this.”
John rested silently for a moment, then said, “Attitude? Yes. But don’t look any deeper. Quite frankly, pastor, I am afraid. I have nothing to hold on to and no one to hold on to me.”
The priest took a cross from around his neck and gave it to the man. “When the pain and the fear come, take hold of the cross by faith; hold it tightly and trust Jesus. It is a sign that God’s love will not let you go. It is a sign that God will hold on to you.”
In the difficult days ahead the dying man held the cross so tightly that he bent it. Thus the pastor came to possess a crumpled cross, a cross that had, in part, assumed the shape of a man’s hand. Faith is not really faith until it becomes something we hold onto like that. Faith is not really faith until we grip the cross like one grips a rope while climbing out of a pit, until one gropes the gospel so tightly that he leaves his own sweat and blood and fingerprints there.
God Is with Us!
Remember the nursery rhyme “Solomon Grundy”?
Born on Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday,
This is the end of Solomon Grundy.
Mr. Grundy’s story is every man’s story. We all hurt. We are all bruised by rejection, loneliness, and alienation. We all get sick, suffer, and eventually die. But like the Apostles’ Creed says, “Jesus Christ was born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pilate, crucified, dead and buried.” God, too, is with us in our suffering. He, too, was born. He, too, suffered. And He, too, died.
Job, amidst the agony of life, asked a question of God that we all well might ask. “Hast thou eyes of flesh? Dost thou see as man sees?” (Job 10:4). And we have our answer in Christmas. Jesus Christ, the incarnation of the living God, was born into this very world. And His name was called “Emmanuel” which means “God with us.”
Growing up, I worked in my father’s furniture store. And one of the things I remember most about my dad was that he never asked me to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself. When we were unloading a truck, he was right there. When we were pulling inventory from a hot, dusty warehouse, he was shoulder to shoulder with us. He put in the same hours and pulled the same load we did. The incarnation, Christmas, is a reminder that God is with us like this, too. He has not asked us to do or to endure anything that He Himself has not lived through. Born, suffered, died is not only every man’s story. It is God’s story, too.
There is a delightfully imagined story of a Negro who died and went to heaven. He got with several of his race and they started comparing life histories. Realizing they had so much woe in common they decided to talk to God about it.
The spokesman said, “Lord, you just don’t realize how tough it was down there! I was born black. I was of a despised race!”
And God said, “I was once a Jew.”
The Negro went on, “Yes, but I was persecuted. My daddy was innocent, but still the Klan hanged him.”
And Jesus showed them His own nail-scarred hands.
“You don’t understand, Lord!” The black man went on. “I never had a cent, no education, no home. People laughed and scoffed at me. Why, when I was a baby, we had to flee our home and move to another city for the safety of our lives.”
And God smiled tenderly. He placed His big arm around the black man’s shoulder and He said, “I know how it is, my son. I have been there myself.”
And so He has. God did not send us a book, an idea, or a song. He did not send us a sermon, an autographed picture of Himself, or even a friend. Instead, God came Himself. He gave us His presence more than He gave us an explanation. He gave us himself wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. He gave us Himself living, growing, teaching, modeling. He gave us Himself pressed against a wooden cross, a figure of suffering silhouetted against a Friday sky. He gave us His own life, death and resurrection.
Shall We Dance?
“What do you do with the pain?” It’s a crucial question, one that each of us must answer in one way or another. As men, we can allow pain to handle us, to embitter us, to drive us to hard-boiled despair. Or we can handle our pain with God, as a Christian, and become His child. I’m not saying that the pain will lessen to any degree in Christ. But through Him our suffering will be elevated, ennobled, sanctified, given meaning, given direction, given purpose, given the grace of His life.
The apostle Paul says his own sufferings are as military medals. They were spiritual decorations, literally badges. Speaking of his scars, his pain, the happy warrior said, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17). Can you learn to see your sufferings as badges you have earned in your fight for the kingdom’s victory?
In Kazatzakis’ book, Zorba the Greek, there is a part of the plot in which Zorba suffers. He has lost his friends, his money. His beautiful daughter has died. He has lost the meaning of life. So, Zorba walks out on the beach thinking of suicide. He is thinking of walking out into the ocean to drown. Zorba’s friend, the Englishman, is watching him from a distance. He knows Zorba’s heartache. He feels his agony. But he knows not what to say. Suddenly Zorba stands up, turns his back on the ocean and slowly begins to dance to a tune no one else can hear. The Englishman watches, amazed. Zorba kicks and spins and laughs and jumps until at last he falls to the sand exhausted from the dance. The Englishman runs to his side and imploringly says, “Zorba! Zorba! Teach me to dance like that! Teach me to dance!” Is that your own prayer as you watch the triumph of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Paul and Christ? Is that your own response as you watch the agony and the ecstasy of Calvin, Luther, Wesley, Schaeffer, Watchman Nee, and a host of other Christians who in the face of suffering danced? If it is, then on your feet! The music is faint and far away, but it is growing louder all the time! SHHHH! Listen for it by faith! It’s the beautiful music of the coming kingdom of God. On your feet, my son! Let us dance!
Sweet Jesus, I place my life in you. Go with me. Amen.
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