“This will not hurt, you will feel no pain.”  The dentist said it with confidence.

“But,” the patient challenged, “isn’t pain a little like beauty; isn’t it really in the eye of the bolder?”  A bead of sweat appeared on his forehead, betraying a lifetime of fear of dentists.

No, this is not an excerpt from a new novel, it was me this morning.  I’ve been going through a serious process of trying to save a painful molar.  It has been neglected for a long time, mostly because I had no dental insurance when I pastored.

When I said that about pain being in the eye of the beholder to the dentist, he pulled back and gave me a brief lesson on the science of pain.  He told me about nerve receptors and the messages they send to the brain when we experience pain.  He said there are two different aspects of pain.  One is the reaction to pain.  Some people react in over-the-top ways to any kind of pain sensation at all, while other people show almost no reaction.  My dentist tells me the pain is the same, it is the reaction that is different.  He also described the difference in pain perception.  Different people will perceive the normalcy of pain in differing ways; thus what may seem to be a great trauma to one person is deemed only a minor inconvenience to someone else.coll1

It was about that time he stuck the high pitched whining drill into my mouth to fix the tooth that broke Sunday after church.

As he worked, I thought about pain from the perspective of life change.  There is an old axiom that pastors know.  It goes like this:

People will not change until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing.

Think about that for a moment.  Until it hurts more to remain in the situation (a bad relationship, destructive habits, relocation, a bad tooth) most of us will never make the appropriate change (break up, withdrawals, meeting new people, visit and pay the dentist) needed to make our lives better.  I wondered if this is a perception or a reaction issue?  As the dentist drilled and chiseled in my mouth, I decided that it was a perception problem, particularly a perception problem based on fear.  We fear the unknown, even if there is a reasonable chance the unknown will feel better than the known.  People’s reaction to the pain they live in is not a solution.  They may complain about the relationship, feel shame about their addiction, look at the housing market in Montana, or avoid eating on that side of the mouth but until they perceive it is a pain that can be removed they will not do anything significant to fix it.

Pain is the bodies way of letting us know something is wrong.  This is true of physical pain, emotional pain, and spiritual pain.

Now, you want to know, did the dentist hurt me?  Was there pain?  No, there was no pain because Dr. Aulick is a wonderful dentist who has done fantastic work on my mouth, making it much better.  The only thing I felt was relief.


What do you do with suffering?  More pointedly, what do you do to help other people who are suffering?

Suffering has been on my mind of late, and it is a major part of my new novel (which I’m trying to get published) not to mention a major part of my vocational ministry.  In addition to that, right now my daily Bible reading has me in squarely in the middle of Job.  Job, who was so tortured by The Satan that he lost his wealth, his livelihood, his children, and eventually his health.  He is the pinnacle of suffering.

But alas, three friends show up:  Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.  These three friends, along with a fourth one who comes later, named Elihu, speak to Job in his pain.  The things they say are very theologically sound and it is things we would agree with.  For example, here are some of Zophar’s words:

Can you find out the deep things of God?  Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?  It is higher than heaven–what can you do?  Deeper than Sheol–what can you know?  Its measure is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea . . . If you direct your heart rightly, you will stretch out your hands toward him.  If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away, and do not let wickedness reside in your tents.”  Job 8:7-9, 13-14 (NRSV)

See, they say good things, so why are they so wrong?  Why does God judge them at the end when he vindicates Job?

Here is why.  They have good theology but absolutely no compassion.  Theology is helpful for people to know before suffering comes and it is helpful long after the suffering has passed, but in the midst; in the midst of pain theology is lousy.  What we human beings need is empathy and care, love and concern.  When helping those who are suffering:

1.  Keep your mouth closed–People who are in pain do not need to hear your words.  There is nothing you can say to make it better, so don’t even try.

2.  Do not defend God or his ways–NEVER NEVER NEVER say something stupid like “God must have a reason for this” and then quote Romans 8:28.  You are not being helpful.  When people say things like that in the midst of pain what they are actually doing is relieving their own tension.

3.  Resist the temptation to rebut the sufferer’s feelings–This was the big sin of Job’s friends.  Whenever Job would complain about his emotional grief, they would give cold, calloused theological and philosophical reflection to try and “help” Job see how he was wrong.  Don’t do that.

4.  Don’t stay away–For all the things they did wrong, you’ve got to hand it to Job’s friends, at least they showed up!  Many of us think “I don’t know what to say or do,” so we just ignore others in their pain.  We don’t call, text or message.  We just wait.  That is the worst thing.  True friendship and love pulls up a chair and sits.

One of the greatest miracles of the Bible is that Job is in it, because it flies in the face of so many of our preconceived notions about the Lord.  In many ways it serves as a textbook to us on how to minister–the do’s and don’ts– to those who are suffering.