"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

The Suffering Unto Death – First Draft (this will be shortened for time)

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Lent 1, 5 March 2017, SJE ©2017 Job 1:8-22, Ps 32, John 9:1-7 (preaching series pain and the abundant life)

Pray.  Our second sermon in the series on pain and suffering and abundant life.  We are working firmly in an area of holy mystery and ambiguity, an area that is directly counter-cultural.  As we walk through the Word today it should become abundantly clear that what we are about as the Body of Christ is sheer folly to the world.  This is a journey all about theodicy, the question of the justice of God, and why there is suffering in the world. Our specific question today is the ‘why’ of pain. There is also a question of the blessing of pain that I’ll speak to in a few weeks’ time in the series.

I’ve mentioned several times in this community that pain is a particularly ever-present aspect of my existence.  My departure from the military 14 years ago was the result of a motor vehicle accident that left me with chronic nerve damage in my lower back, resulting in chronic pain.  The most common question I’m asked about that is, “Are you really in pain all the time?”  Yes // always.  Sometimes it’s a 3/10 like today; and 2 weeks back it was more like a 7/10 – I literally cannot remember the last time in my life when I was not in some sort of pain.  How that pain translates into suffering, our response to experienced pain, is an important question.  I’ve spent much time reflecting on the experience of pain, and the experience of suffering as a result of that pain.  I will not hold myself up as an expert, as I have not mastered this – I still get down, sometimes despair, rail against God and others, but I will share some of the insight I have gained walking that road.

I need to kill a sacred cow right up front: any discussion about pain and suffering that attempts to demonstrate that a person suffers as the punishment for sin is not something that is grounded in Christ.  This is not to say our choices do not have consequences – the excessive use of alcohol will ultimately result in liver problems.  But, to ascribe a personal tragedy to God’s judgement is frankly contrary to the New Testament.  We hear this clearly through the Gospel today.  The disciples ask Jesus about the man born blind, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  Their world view is explicit in that question, as there is no room for other possibilities.  The man was born blind because of his sin, or his parent’s sin.  If you think about that, how is such a thing even possible – did he sin before birth that he could be born blind?  The disciple’s world view can only conceive of such a disability as the consequence of an offense against The Law.  Jesus puts that to rest by stating clearly that the blindness has nothing to do with sin, but everything to do with making God’s kingdom manifest in the here and now.

If you remember nothing else from this bit of narrative remember this: our pain and suffering is not inflicted on us as punishment.  This is a refrain hospital chaplains hear constantly, “I don’t know what I did to make God so angry with me.”  There is no causal relationship here; we disappoint God does not equal inflicted pain.  Don made this clear last week as he spoke about how the ‘why’ of pain can only be answered by a return to the first principles of the Old Testament, and the point at which creation becomes corrupted resulting in the introduction of suffering.  Now, while God does not inflict suffering, He will certainly make use of it.  A given person’s suffering will absolutely be used by Almighty God in order to make the works of God apparent.  The pain of a believer is ultimately a tool of evangelism which convicts a dark world.

One of the particular facets of modernity and post-modernity is the manner in which we approach such questions.  CS Lewis, in his book, God in the Dock, points out that ancient man approached God as a criminal might approach a judge in court, with fear and trembling.  There has been a shift with modernity, as we now see ourselves as the judge, and constantly make assessments on how God is failing to meet our expectations of the way He should behave.  God is in the dock, that is, the accused’s chair in the court of the culture.  Our expectation is that God owes us an explanation for everything we wonder about, and so our first response when faced with pain and suffering is to ask the question, “Why God?” Why me?  Why this? Why now? And inevitably, “What have I done to deserve this?”  These are entirely the wrong questions to ask in the face of pain, mostly because the answers tend to lead to more pain.  If we trace the lineage of suffering back to Genesis, the answer to pain rests in the actions that led to a fallen world.  Pain and suffering are not a part of the intended design of the creation, but they were admitted into our real through the fall of humankind.  The reality downstream of those distant actions, is that suffering is a part of the fabric of reality, and a part of every person’s life.  The explanation is already there, and to ask the question of God about a particular personal context is nearly meaningless.

Similarly meaningless is the usual starting point to engage the question of suffering in the world.  It’s usually phrased this way: If God is good, and all-powerful, and loves his creation, he would not permit that creation to suffer.  Therefore God is either not good, not all-powerful, or does not love his creation.  Out of this reasoning we have books like Rabbi Harold Kushner’s, When Bad things Happen to Good People.  Kushner works through the death of his son Aaron and arrives at the conclusion that God was not omnipotent.  This is a difficult position for a Christian, as it undercuts large portions of the Bible’s teaching on the nature of God.  These questions of theodicy, the justice of God, are not helpful in approaching the question of the presence of evil because they start from a faulty assumption: that the removal of pain and suffering from the world would be a “good” thing.  I will suggest, along with a long line of writers on this question, that suffering, through Christ, is equally transformed into a vehicle of grace.  The fundamental problem we have with pain is that we constantly seek to judge God by human measures.  If you really loved me, I wouldn’t hurt so.

That question misses much of the reality of the nature of God, and you can see that clearly in the experience of parents.  How many times does a parent decide that a child, or an adult child’s choices have to be allowed to come through to ultimate consequences?  Or, how many times is a parent’s caution ignored until the child learns first hand why they were warned?  On one of our first camping trips with our daughter, who was 3 or 4, I gave her a safety lecture about the raised metal fire pit, and how she was not to touch it because it was dangerously hot.  No sooner had I finished speaking then she reached out a hand and laid it on the fire box with a smirk (before I could stop her)!  And, of course, quickly withdrew it and began crying.  Our adult children sometimes set themselves on paths which we know to be heading to disaster, perhaps because they have entered a relationship with an abusive partner convinced that they can change them. Sometimes the best we can do as parents is to pray for understanding to come quickly before too much damage is done. Ultimately, the existence of free will in the creation means that all sorts of evil, pain and suffering is allowed to exist, and this has very little to do with God’s nature – but everything to do with the nature of humankind. Don addressed this when he mentioned that the coming of Christ reveals our default positions on pain.

Now, our understanding of the ‘why’ of pain is usually corrupted by the cultural perception of pain and suffering.  Stated directly, first world culture has no understanding of pain and suffering beyond the imperative to eliminate them.  The message of the Enlightenment taken to the extreme it is presently is that science, and particularly medical science, will eventually solve all problems.  Our attitude to pain is to find the quickest way to remove it, which can be done a variety of ways: pharmaceuticals, legal and otherwise; alcohol or other licit or illicit drugs; extreme sports; overwork; sexual addictions, and the list goes on, to find anything that removes our need to deal with pain.  Some of that can be traced back to the pharmaceutical industry providing medications with the highest profit potential, which sometimes means promising happiness or at least peace with minimal side effects.  This is a really modern understanding of the place of pain.

When you look historically at the development of western society, it was not that long ago that things like infant mortality and disease would cause much higher rates of death.  One of the challenges of doing family genealogies is that there was so much death, and reuse of proper names, that it is easy to get a child of 6 months mixed up with a subsequent adult of the same name.  People in earlier times, and not much earlier times, lived in the reality that there were frequent widowing, frequent death of children, and death of siblings happening all the time (without even considering the impact of two world wars).  A second change has been the institutionalizing of suffering and dying, as it was not long ago that an ill family member would be cared for in the home, and palliative cases were almost always a family affair.

As I mentioned, the first question usually asked by someone who is dealing with significant pain or suffering is the question of ‘why?’ This question is the wrong one to ask, and it is also the wrong way around.  A better question to ask when you’re not in pain or suffering is, “Why am I not suffering?”  “Why not me Lord?”  Suffering is the default setting of the creation, and so it is more unusual to be free of pain – this is the truly exceptional part of the human condition.  We have come to expect this as a right in the first world, as we are usually successfully oblivious to the reality that most of the world does not live the way we do.  Freedom from pain is our right, and so we ask the question, why?

Our first world right to be free from suffering is not so much about pain, it is really about control. The worst thing you can do to a first world dweller is to take away from them their sense of control.  In an article in the Miami Herald reflecting on physician assisted suicide laws in several US states, the author reveals that most people that support the law are not ultimately doing it because they are afraid of pain. Rather, it is because they fear the loss of control more than anything, and so the final act of self-determination, the final proclamation of control, is to choose the time and manner of one’s death. In Oregon and Washington 90% of those who opted for hastened death under the new law did so because of the fear of loss of autonomy.  This pathological fixation with control is really a first world problem, created because of a series of lies which we have been told are the truth: all suffering will ultimately be eliminated by the magic of science’s irresistible progression to total knowledge. This is not just a first-world lie, but it’s also a lie of the affluent…people who are starving or dying at the hands of despots have no ability to believe that autonomy is something they can claim. Discretionary wealth is what leads us to believe that we are the ones who are totally in control. This was the primary teaching that took the Israelites 40 years to learn, as set out in Deuteronomy 8:3, “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” It is a lesson that we need to learn anew repeatedly, and one of the ways we learn that lesson is through suffering.

Theologian Ephraim Radner highlights this when he observes that today the absence of Jesus in the discussion about suffering and pain obscures the truth and, “That should tell us something about our vocation in the midst of a culture that, feeling the pain everyone feels, can only seek to destroy it, even if it means destroying the life that bears it.” The idea that pain may have benefit is a culturally heretical thought, because there is nothing in modern western culture that is prepared to accept that there is any possible benefice in the question of pain.  We have a huge pharmaceutical industry that bases much research on trying to answer the question of happiness, or at least freedom from suffering, with chemicals. This is because the world sees naught in suffering except waste and despair, and a major focus of the modern world is the ending of pain by any means possible.

Once people decide to abandon the question of ‘why?’ the next focus is on the ‘how?’ of surviving the suffering. Here we cast our eyes directly to science, usually in the person of our physicians, to seek something to remove the pain. It is again the wrong question to ask.  For most of human history, the ability to medicate away pain has not been an option which was available.  CS Lewis marvels that the world which generated a number of major religions did so entirely in a time when there was no general anesthetic.  Think about that – effectively everything that has been written about the question of suffering was done throughout times when there was no real chemical option. This has all come in the modern era.  So, the next question is the ‘how’ I am going to get through this pain.  This is perhaps also an unhelpful question.  Let me tell you why. When I started on my journey of chronic pain 18 years ago, I went through the usual few years of exploration of medical intervention. My point of hope in those years was the next intervention. If classical physio didn’t work, maybe acupuncture might. If acupuncture makes me barf, maybe manual manipulation, and so on. The ‘how?’ question kept me going for a few years, but there came a point where I had to face the possibility that this might be a life-time issue. The ‘how?’ becomes less pressing at that point, because the only answer to the how question is putting one foot in front of the other, day in and day out. That leads to another how question: how is it that you intend to survive for the next, say 50 years? That question leads to little more than despair and an overwhelming sense of futility – something I saw literally 100’s of times with Workers’ Compensation Board cases involving disability and chronic pain. The only real question of ‘how?’ is ‘How will you fix me?’ and when the answer is that there is no fix, usually sensitively stated as, ‘it’s about time you just learned to live with this.’ (which is probably the least helpful thing you can say to a person in prolonged pain), or ‘let me put you on massive doses of narcotics’ (which is ultimately equally unhelpful).  So ‘how?’, like ‘why?’, are questions that lead to nothing but further pain and suffering.

A different ‘why?’ question we should stop for a moment to ask is why is there suffering in God’s broken, but very good creation?  CS Lewis does a marvelous job outlining this in his book, The Problem with Pain. It has to do with the gift of free-will, and the reality that pain and pleasure exist as a result of freedom, freedom which tells us something of God’s love, but even more about us. Why does freedom cause suffering? Because freedom allows us to choose to do evil over good, and this tells us far more about humanity than about God. Humanity is in need of a remedial or corrective good, which continuously points us back to the direction we are intended, by design to be heading.  Lewis writes these truly awful but startlingly true words, “…pain insists on being attended to.  God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” (91) So pain exists at least partly because it has a corrective effect.

An example offered by Lewis is the narrative of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Issac. If God is omnipotent, would he have not already known Abraham would decide to go through with the sacrifice? So could the whole unpleasant thing have been skipped over, saving us the pain of trying to understand such a story?  Lewis quotes Augustine in answering that challenge by noting that the test was not to prove something to God, but so that Abraham would learn that his obedience could endure such a command. (101) Such suffering is not good in of itself, but this does not stop the suffering from being turned to the good by God.

The real question which pain should prompt us to ask is: ‘who?’  Writer George MacDonald set this out clearly in one of his unspoken sermons, “The Consuming Fire” when he notes that, “[The Son of God] suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their suffering might be like his, and lead them up to his perfection.” This is the focus we learn throughout Scripture, and it is key to being able to deal with pain and suffering in our lives, for it places those nasty realities in a framework which allows some comprehension of the purpose for pain in the creation.

What is more is we don’t have to get hung up with the culture on the ‘why?’ question about suffering, and can move right past the ‘how’? to the critical question of ‘who?’  There is only one answer needed to the question of suffering in the world, and that answer is Christ upon the cross – and that answer is the reason why people reject our faith.  Who has already suffered cosmically for the entirety of the brokenness of creation past, present and future?  Jesus.  Who has already born the spiritual, emotional and physical pain to the greatest extreme possible?  Jesus.  The answer to the question is contained entirely in God the Father’s answer to the Son’s cry on the cross, “Father, why have you forsaken me?”  The answer to that question is silence, as all the pain possible in us and the entire creation is poured onto Christ.

We are called to model the radically different approach to reality.  It is one of the things that should make non-believers see us as lunatics, in that we not only acknowledge and embrace suffering and pain, but also that we ultimately at the core of our faith celebrate such things.  We understand that suffering is a part of the reality not only because of Don’s explanation from Genesis, but also because of the New Testament teaching, for example in Romans: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”  This groaning is a normal part of the creation, and particularly for Christians because we know what the ultimate destination for the creation looks like.  And we know that God helps us in that suffering creation because Paul goes on in Romans to tell us that, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”  Our suffering is brought constantly before God in the groanings of the Spirit. Literally, as we lay in a hospital bed groaning in physical pain, and our loved ones standing around that bed also groan in emotional pain, the Spirit translates our groaned prayers into spiritual prayers that are too deep for words.  This is the first point of consolation in a Christian understanding of suffering, that we know God is present and experiencing our suffering along with us.  So those times when all you can do is “roll with the blast” of suffering and death (Mountain Goats), you know that God is with you.

Jesus dies, and leaves for three days.  Then he returns to the family he left, the disciples, and greets them with the peace of God (John 20:19).  This forms a model for us, and follows what intense suffering can feel like: a descent into hell, but for the Christian that is always balanced by the giving of the Peace of Christ.  In this we stand alongside Job, who also provides a model for us.  What struck me out of that reading was the physical impact of the arrival of each of the messengers, for I can remember times like that when you dread the next ring of the phone because of what it might bring.  Job tears his garments, and immediately we’re told, “20 Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and [and did what? Wept? moaned? no, Job] worshiped. 21 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.””  Is it not amazing that Job’s first response after being told that all his herds, all his wealth, all his children are all gone or dead, is to fall to the ground not in despair, but to worship.

The problem of the world’s approach to suffering is that it attempts to understand the question without the fellow-sufferer of Christ.  This is the reason that an end to suffering is sought at any cost, even if that cost is destruction of the life that bears it.  Suffering bereft of Jesus has no meaning, no context, and no possible solace or succor when the wonders of science finally fail.  Those who take God out of suffering have removed the only real source of relief.  This is why Fr McNabb can say with confidence that “The loveliest thing in the whole world is the Hill where Jesus died.”

It is this perspective that keeps me going through chronic pain, because I can always turn to the example of fellow-suffers.  So like Job, sometimes I can tear my clothes but then fall to the floor to worship the Almighty.  Like Jesus, in my loneliness of the Garden moment, I can pray to ‘take this cup away’ but also the critical balancing statement, ‘not my will, but thy will be done’.  And even when I feel that it is all ending – those cross moments – I know that the three days of darkness and death are always balanced with “My peace I bring, my peace I leave with you.”



Written by sameo416

March 4, 2017 at 1:21 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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