Pain, Suffering, & the Story of God


[Update: this post inspired a comment (below), that I ended up responding to. The commenter responded to that, then I gave my final response, and then he gave his. Lastly, a friend posted her thoughts on the discussion as well. Follow the links to get in on the discussion.]

You know that proverbial flu bug that is perpetually in existence all over the country all at once on snowy days?  Yeah, well I’ve got it.  Starting yesterday, the back of my head and the top of my neck were struck by a throbbing pain, pulsating with every heartbeat; my body temperature playing the role of ping-pong ball between the paddles of heat and cold; my body aching with every move.

I went to sleep last night, tossing and turning for a long while hoping for the pain to subside by the time I woke.  I woke and felt great.  That is, while I was laying in my bed.  The moment I stood up and the blood rushed throughout my body, the pain, dizziness, and energy-sapping delirium of flu raged against me.  And then I went to work.

I don’t get sick very often.  It’s even rarer that a sickness will knock me out of commission from everyday life (in the practical day-to-day workings, at least; my weird, delirious conversation with my girlfriend last night over the phone will attest to that).

But nevertheless, I always seem to find myself googling remedies and the “wisest” path to fight the sickness.  I have, on more than one occasion in my life, searched for things like: “best food to eat during flu”, “best tea to drink when sick”, “best body positions when sick”– as if these things have changed year to year.

As I was doing this googling yesterday, I was reminded of a piece of advice I often give to people in the midst of a painful time in their life (usually a breakup): the point of pain–what is meant to be first in our mind during it–is not how fast we can stop hurting. I realized I was doing what we all do in pain: trying to move past it as quickly as possible; trying to find those secret “tricks” or “bits of knowledge of wisdom” that can make it subside, let us move on.

Can I offer us some encouragement?  Life is supposed to hurt, and it is meant to foster a deeper trust and awareness in the Story of God that He has us in.  Every pain has its process.  If we focus on just getting to the end of it, we can often get to that end without having changed, grown, or matured at all.  Even Jesus did not try to rush to his suffering just to get it over with; but rather marked his days with that pronouncement that his “hour had not yet come”; that is, until it did.

And so, in a lot of ways, to move past pain is to move past God.  This God came down to taste pain, so that now pain, heartache, rejection, isolation, doubt, fear, and insecurity are now part of the divine experience.  To know those things is to know God! As God rejects God at the cross, he binds himself to the lowest valleys of our life and existence.

And so He is there; waiting in those deepest of valleys, longing to allure you even deeper into them where He is, that He might whisper tenderly to you and remove the names of the idols from your lips.  And to betroth you to Him and righteousness and faithfulness.  It’s in the pain we find our Home; it’s in the pain we find our Lover; it’s in the pain we find our God.

May we all learn in the darkness not to tread so quickly.

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18 thoughts on “Pain, Suffering, & the Story of God

  1. I agree… to a point.

    In fact, I think this is a very good blog. Paul wished to know, ‘the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings’ (though he was thinking more of persecution sufferings than sickness.

    However, the flip side is pain is not desirable (even Christ did not desire it… Father if it be possible…). Indeed we are told to pray, ‘lead us not into trials but deliver us from evil’. So yes there is a sense in which we humble ourselves under the disciplining hand of God and wait his time but we do so taking care to avoid any masochistic elements.

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  2. @phantomposter: if its any consolation, I think this idea is terrifying as well. But it’s one of the thousands of paradoxes in the Christian faith where, somehow, the normal “economy” of things has been flipped. And so, at the same time that this is repulsive to so many of my intuitions as a rational being, my deepest intuitions as a spiritual being actually experience a freedom, rest and (dare I say it?) joy at these realities.

    So, in short, I get where you’re coming from, but I would argue that what I’m saying is not an opposite worldview as yours, but rather a more fuller one which encompasses a great deal more of the depth, nuance, complexity, and dimensions of human existence. This post is meant to highlight the fact that because of Jesus and the cross, this very terror you experience at this reality is the same terror that Jesus Himself felt (and John Thomson in the comments highlighted). And so, to feel this terror is actually to participate in part of the experience of the divine; not, in fact to reject it. When you feel this offense, doubt, and disgust, I believe you’re a lot closer to Christ than you know.

    And, in the end, this post–if you take out the Jesus stuff–could still be good advice to non-theists: when you’re going through a tough time, don’t waste it. You’re going to hurt as long as you’re going to hurt; might as well grow, learn, and mature over it. What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. So, don’t let the dark times throw you into despair.

    What say ye?

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  3. @John Thomson: I agree with you. Thank you for bringing nuance to what I said. I would say, though, that when we err, we usually err not on the side of the “Christian masochist”, but on the side of the “Christian escapist” and “Christian distractionist”. So, just as when we talk about how death has now been conquered by Christ we don’t have to always say “well, this doesn’t mean you should go kill yourself”, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of a Christian “desiring” pain when they’ve heard of God’s provision and growth within it. Does that make sense? I think we as humans naturally want to move too quickly past pain, and I don’t know that ideas like the ones contained in this post will change that.

    I’m not writing this to simply give an excuse why I didn’t give the “fullest” picture. I’m trying to say something at least a little more meaningful than that. In short, I want to offer encouragement to people where they most need it; and I think that people need far more encouragement within suffering than encouragement not get into it in the first place.

    Any thoughts?

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  4. Paul

    ‘In short, I want to offer encouragement to people where they most need it; and I think that people need far more encouragement within suffering than encouragement not get into it in the first place’.

    I totally agree. I wanted to guard against any feeling guilty at wishing to be free of suffering or some from having an almost medieval catholic desire for suffering or some who may romanticise it. I have known deep clinical depression that lasted a very long time and found it all but unbearable. I only learned very slowly how to rejoice within it.

    However, I stress again, I appreciated the post and feel you are saying some iportant things. Moreover, no post can be expected to cover all the bases.

    We need thoughtful posts like this on suffering.

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  5. I agree utterly and completely with the secular message of your post as a peice of advice. Life hurts (I don’t know if I would assign purpose by saying its “supposed” to hurt) life is not fair, the world is cold and brutal. Accepting this fact and learning to cope with it in a healthy and mature way is certainly grade A prime advice.

    What I find terrifying is when you imply that all of the hurt and pain and unfairness in the world is not the product of purposless natural processes, indifferent to you, but rather the deliberate and calculated plan of a creator who seeks to know you, grow closer to you, and love you, by torturing you.

    What you have described it an abusive relationship, and unfortunatly we are not given a choice to divorce God if we don’t care for this treatment and go our own way peacfuly.

    I am truly unsettled by seeing God as essentialy a cosmic abusive father. He hits you to show you he loves you, and if you think he hits to hard, shut up, daddy knows best.

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  6. Some very good (even if terrifying!) thoughts here, Paul.

    The Story as we find ourselves in it presumes pain and suffering–and that ours is a God who can meet us there, walk with us in it, and ultimately deliver us from it. The point of the cross is that God knows our weakness and suffering, no matter how dark. We can have consolation in our pain because God has been there. The point of the resurrection is that God loves the people of this world too much to leave us in our sickness, pain and death. Jesus doesn’t bypass suffering and death, but he does meet restoration and life on the other side.

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  7. PhantomP

    It is possible to construe the God of the Bible as you do, however, I have to say, it is a caricature that does little justice to the evidence. It is a caricature possible only if we so oversimplify the gospel story that it becomes a demonic parody of the truth revealed.

    I can only invite you to read the story for yourself and see God as he is. Christians don’t love a monster, they love a God they have found to be worthy of worship and of trust. In pain and suffering (introduced by rebelling humans rebelling against all goodness) they have found him all sufficient.

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  8. “And so, in a lot of ways, to move past pain is to move past God. This God came down to taste pain, so that now pain, heartache, rejection, isolation, doubt, fear, and insecurity are now part of the divine experience. To know those things is to know God!”
    WOW! Seriously? You speak a lot of God, so would you mind backing up any of these statements with the Word of God? Sickness and disease are curses not blessings. A cold virus is kept alive by a spirit of infirmity – you know, the very thing Jesus liked to cast out of people.

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