PAIN

“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.

JOB’S FRIENDS AND SUFFERING

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.

A CURRENT PROJECT: ROMANS

In the wee hours of the morning I worked on a forthcoming book my friend David Caddell and I have been working on for a couple of years.  We hope to have it published this year.  This morning’s post is the section I wrote today on the issue of sufffering from Romans 8:31-36. 

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      . . . Paul’s point is that nothing can separate the redeemed from Christ’s love and allegiance to them.  This, as Achtemeier asserts, should be the end of any belief that hardship and persecution is indicative of God’s rejection.  In fact, it is the love of Christ which makes enduring these hardships possible.

      More is going on here than theology.  Suffering is the one aspect of the human condition that everyone faces.  Sometimes the suffering is in a hospital room or in a bedroom.  Other times suffering is at the hands of oppressors with ideology or religions with theology.  Suffering comes in many different forms:  Physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, and existential.

      In the “happiness is godliness” tradition of the Western Evangelical church we have glossed over this part of our heritage far too much.  As a result, often pastoral ministry has no real answer for those who suffer, because ministers do not think through the issue.  We affirm that God does not create the suffering, but instead he uses suffering that occurs for his purposes.  There are three such  purposes which illuminate our understanding of suffering. 

    The first purpose of suffering is to draw us closer to Christ.  In our suffering we share in the fellowship of his suffering.  This is what Paul describes in Philippians 3, especially in verse 10.  The second purpose of suffering is punishment.  Again, we don’t like to think about this because all suffering is not punishment, but certainly some suffering is punishment.  We must note, especially given the above reference form Achtemeier that punishment is not the same as rejection.  God punishes those he loves.  This is the point the writer of Hebrews makes to his audience as he references Proverbs 3:11-12.

It is for discipline that you have to endure.  God is treating you as sons.  For what son is there whom his father does not discipline.  If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. (Hebrews 12:7-8)

 

It seems to us there is at least one other function of suffering which Christ uses in our lives.  This could be called the ‘weeding out’ function.  In the midst of great suffering people either turn toward the Lord or they turn farther away from him.  Few people in the midst of pain and turmoil remain the same in their attitude toward the Almighty.  We have observed that two Christians who go through similar pain and suffering will come out of the suffering going in different directions.  One will be drawn in deeper fellowship, the other will often walk away, bitter and angry that God allowed such pain to come.  This might be what Peter was getting at when he wrote:

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed . . . Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.  For it is time for judgment to begin at the house of God. (1 Peter 4:12-14, 16-17a.)

 

      In verse 36, Paul quotes Psalm 44:22 as an example of the historic suffering of God’s people.  This Psalm is used in reference to an incident described in 2 Maccabees 7, in which an entire family is tortured and executed for their . . .

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I’ll keep you posted on the book in the future.  We are just now in editing phase and should finish before the winter is over.