"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

The Blessing of Pain

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Lent 4, 5 March 2017, SJE ©2017  James 1:1-18, Ps 23, Matthew 16:25-26 (this was a hard time coming, so I’m not too sure about the flow of ideas…and my back hurts today)

This continues in our series about pain and the abundant life, today with the challenging title, ‘the blessing of pain’.

My approach to the question of the blessing of pain is necessarily contextualized in my own 18 year experience with chronic neuropathic pain – pain that ended my military career, and has continued to limit my ability to thrive and survive in terms of what employment I can tolerate, and what I am able to do for recreation.  So how is it I can speak of blessing in this situation in life?

Pastor Aiden Tozer stated that “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.” This fits well with the CS Lewis quote I used in my last pain sermon, that “pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world”. These are challenging thoughts, as we would much rather think about our God as a God who only takes away hurts, who only makes things better, where better is something which fits our definition of better. In this it is important to distinguish between our thought, and God’s thought. How is it then that it is the blessing of pain which we focus on today?

One of the most fascinating articles I have read was written by a high-performance physician and academic about how he ended up with severe chronic pain which was initially untreatable. After seeing scores of specialists, having multiple tests run, there was no diagnosis. He was flabbergasted to experience some of the things he had heard patients complain of: physicians who give up when a diagnosis is not apparent, those who said it was purely psychological, and those who said that there was nothing which could be done, and that he would just have to learn to live with it. On the other side of chronic pain, this physician realized how poorly his profession is set up to deal with unremitting chronic pain (and probably how poorly he had treated patients although that is never mentioned).

As a chronic pain person, I can attest to similar frustration. It reflects an aspect of humanity’s response to those things it cannot control or understand, which is to minimize, moralize or to remove the reminder. You hear this in other contexts, such as friends and acquaintances trying to help you deal with your own serious diagnosis, or with the sudden death of a loved one. How many times have we heard (or said) things like, “Everything will work out for the best”, or “It is probably for the best” or “you will just have to get over it”.

There is a real danger here for Christians in communities of faith. We are fundamentally called to be a people of joy, but sometimes that joy becomes forced and then suppresses our ability to sincerely be with people who are in the furnace of trial…because of some idea that Christians are supposed to eternally happy. This is a lie of the modern world and when we bring it into our communities it can stifle our abilities to journey with those who are enduring trials. These empty bromides do far more harm than good, which is why my usual advice when people ask what they should say to a friend in trouble is simply to say nothing but to be there with them. This follows the example of Job’s friends before they ruin everything by trying to explain what’s happening. Sometimes we don’t need to do anything, but just be.

But, if we are to take James’ words seriously, what I should advise those askers is to respond with this, “You’re suffering? What a great opportunity for joy!” “You’re suffering? What a great opportunity for joy!” Rejoice, for your sickness / financial disaster / death of a child / death of a spouse / loss of job is an opportunity for God to bring you real blessings. This is exactly what James speaks about in this introductory portion of his letter. It is an interesting comment on the modern church that this passage is excluded from the normal cycle of readings, when it speaks so directly to something we all understand so intimately.

James starts with the zinger up front – “count it all joy when you meet trials for your testing produces steadfastness which, in full effect, will leave you perfect and complete” (paraphrasing). The word ‘trials’ here is the same word which we hear in the Lord’s Prayer “lead us not into temptation” or “save us from the time of trial”. James tells us that there is specific outcome from the process of facing trials of different kinds, and that that outcome is spiritual maturity and completeness. This refrain will be echoed again in the 12th verse when James reiterates the blessing present for those who stay steadfast under trial who will receive God’s crown of life.

Now, this is a nice thought. But, it can easily become yet another of those bromides that rolls so easily off the tongue. One of my neighbours experienced a traumatic brain injury a few years back that left him blind and disabled – we frequently see his wife walking with him around the neighbourhood. That sort of reality, life with a chronic disabling condition, is not one that you want to speak into by saying, “as long as you remain steadfast you’ll be blessed”. I know how I want to respond to those sorts of suggestions when they’re said to me. Some future state of painlessness and blessedness doesn’t do much in the midst of the torment of trial here and now!

The fact of the matter is that life with a chronically limiting condition is not something which intuitively translates into an understanding of God’s blessing being somehow imparted either immediately or at some future point. So it is fine and good to speak about steadfastness or perseverance leading to the perfection of self, but what does that perfection look like when it exists within the same context of the chronic condition? This is such a contrary thought to the way of this world.

You can see that clearly in my earlier comment about the experience of physicians who develop a chronic health condition – I’ve not encountered one of those pain conversion stories where the physician relates how positive their encounter with the health care system has been. This is a reflection of our culture’s imperative to remove suffering as quickly and with as much finality as is possible – to deal with suffering with ‘extreme prejudice’ if you like. I suspect one of the reasons those physicians have those experiences is because once the usual suspects have been tried and failed, their peers become highly uncomfortable in the face of a condition which they do not know how to fix. We, as a culture, are pathologically addicted to the quest for a quick fix for everything, as this is a symptom of our endless quest to control everything.

Where then do we find the blessing in trials of various kinds? Let’s look at a bit more of James. If we look at life as a series of episodes of trials, instead of a single incident we’re trying to figure out, things start to fit. Perhaps the message is that a life of faith, dealing with trials as they come, in turn prepares us for later (and potentially greater) trials. Rather than one 50 metre sprint to the finish, James is speaking about a mode of living that accepts trials as a part of our existence, and sees trial as a way of training for what comes later.

So like John Wesley’s idea of progressive sanctification, our life, with its trials, becomes a training event for the next trial we must face. So the coming of a trial is an opportunity which allows us to grow in steadfastness and spiritual maturity. This highlights one of the key aspects of facing trials which James speaks of when he tells us if we lack the wisdom of how to deal with trials then we should turn to God and ask in faith. The wisdom of God is what allows those trials to be transformed into occasions of the development of spiritual maturity and steadfastness.  In this sense, the trials of our lives are like trips to the local gym with a personal trainer, each visit teaches out bodies, our muscles to be stronger, more responsive. Under the wise eye of a skilled trainer, we undertake those developments safely, in a way that allows us to avoid injury. This is a metaphor for what James is speaking of, where the gym trainer forms the fount of God’s wisdom for dealing with life’s trials, which strengthens us and so prepares us for future challenges.

It is also clear in James that this is not always a happy process. In verse 12 he states that “Blessed is the person who remains steadfast under trial.” Note that being blessed, contrary to the world’s perception of blessedness, has little to do with being happy and contented. One can be mightily blessed and yet not possess happiness. One of the reasons for this seeming dichotomy is that these words about suffering can only be understood in an eschatological sense, that is, when grounded in a reality that places Christ at the centre, and looks toward an end time when all things will reach a culmination in the person of Jesus. That we are speaking in that sense is clear through the Gospel reading, where we are called to take up our crosses to follow Christ. Jesus teaches that to save your life is to lose it; while losing your life for Christ will result in life being found. Real life, true life, abundant life, only comes through the process of surrendering that which was never ours to God. The word used for ‘life’ in the Gospel is psyuche life, or soulish life as opposed to purely biological life. We are speaking here not of finding your life in this world, but truly finding real life at the end of time when Jesus returns in glory to judge both the living and the dead. The teaching is fundamentally eschatological, that is, having to ultimately do with salvation. The answer comes in an image: Jesus riding on a white horse bringing righteousness and completion to everything.

This passage, about bearing one’s cross, has been often misused to explain why people should not take action to address injustice. Bearing a cross does not mean we accept our world as it is, and do not advocate or work to change it. We are fundamentally called to bear witness to the world, which is a radical and transformative act. Rather, bearing a cross can be seen as dealing with those trials which are not, and have never been under our control. It is also important to emphasize that Jesus is not speaking about each of us carrying the cross of Christ. Rather, the taking up is of our crosses – that is, each of us has our own trials to bear and our task is to bear those trials. This is not a passive process, but one which is actively engaged with those trials. Yoder goes so far as to state that our cross-bearing life is an active one which sees us seizing a public discipleship that contains a willingness to be countercultural and counter-state in the public arena. That is, at the heart of meaning on this question is our willingness to be humbled in many ways, including publicly, for the sake of bearing our crosses.

For many years I kept my Metis heritage secret because it was easier that way, easier because I didn’t have to reveal to people that I was one of the “them”, that is, indigenous people. About 20 years ago I realized that I was leaving most of the heavy lifting of reconciliation to others because by virtue of genetics I was able to hide in plain sight. I came to see that my public declaration of who I really am was necessary so that I could speak out against the things which continue to threaten indigenous people because it is my obligation to do so. Taking up that cross, in this case, picking sides in a painful and centuries-old colonial conflict, has exposed me to racism and hatred in ways I could not have imagined. Particularly because I look white, that public outing of who I truly am is an important witness because I can’t be categorized in the same way the culture looks on other indigenous. It also required me to embrace generations of pain and brokenness and denial as my family attempted to survive through the terrors of colonialism. This, I believe, is the essence of what both Jesus and Yoder are speaking of, a willingness to bear those slings and arrows for the sake of spiritual integrity to live into your Godly calling.

We see that question of spiritual integrity come through in James. Right after the direction to pray for wisdom in faith, James contrasts that approach with one who doubts, who is double-minded. The Greek word double-minded literally means double-souled, and links us back to the psuche – soulish life – of Matthew’s Gospel. What is double-souled? A person who does not maintain a consistency of purpose and intent, that is, spiritual integrity. The double-souled person will pray, but also work to protect themselves from the world because they expect that God will not respond to their petition. You can see in that duplicity the presence of great brokenness – I’m going to do what I should in asking God; but I know that I need to still need to stay in control because I can’t really trust God.

By contrast, a person who has a soul-anchor in Christ, approaches God with consistency and sincerity of purpose – that is with intentionality, is demonstrating spiritual integrity. This is not an unobtainable standard that places the onus for failure back in our lap because we have not achieved some absolute standard of spiritual integrity. Rather, this is a reminder that we are to approach God with singleness of intent and blamelessness in action, to the best of our abilities, and as consistently as we can (and not like a wave tossed by the wind).

What does it mean to trust God? It means an admission that it is not possible to do all things with only our power and ability, and that ultimately we are not in control of our lives. So we approach God in faith knowing that we cannot do this ourselves. It also reflects the ancient creed used by the Israelites, the “Hear O Israel”, The Lord our God is one God, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind and strength. This is the first and great commandment. Loving God with one heart, and not saving part of your heart to love the things of this world.

This also contains a model for how our communities are supposed to enter into sharing of trials with each other. We do not stand on the outside looking in, offering those minimizing statements to others in order to protect ourselves from pain. Rather, we are called to be Christ-like, and to enter into the trial itself with the person who is suffering. We join together as fellow cross-carriers who are linked by the one who carried the ultimate cross for all our sakes, linked through our mutual understanding of pain and trials and our steadfastness, learned as a community over centuries of encountering suffering and pain.

So, where then is the blessing in suffering? Suffering, Godly suffering, defines us as individuals and as a community. Suffering, Godly suffering, refines us by bringing us back constantly to focus on what is important and not the distractions of this world. Refining is never a hurt-free process, as you are converting one substance into a purer form. At the end you are left with something precious. It is adversity that allows us to see what is really valuable and important because the things of this world, transient and thin, quickly fall aside when the trial begins. Suffering also allows us to better understand the trials of others: and so my trial teaches me, and I can in turn be in community with someone else in trial, and together we can offer mutual support.

Note the importance of this reciprocity of being in trial, as there is a bit of a trap here. I do not support my brother or my sister in the faith because of obligation, or because I am able to ‘fix’ their situation. This is a position the church, and clergy in particular, fall into.  I do not support you in community because I am somehow expert in facing trials, but because I come out of my trials acknowledging that I’m a broken person, and cannot do this alone.  So I offer support in community as a form of reminder: you are not alone; others see your pain; others have experienced pain like yours; others have survived pain like yours…and all this provides for a reciprocal blessing because ultimately we are here to remind each other of the ultimate sufferer, Jesus Christ.

Bringing this back to my opening illustration of physicians who become chronic pain patients, one of the dynamics that works out in their professional practice is usually a radically shifted perspective on patient pain. The one example I opened with left his practice as an internist and became a specialist in pain and addiction, and now takes the cases other physicians refuse to accept: opioid addicts with chronic pain. While his pain was resolved through surgery, the blessing of that trial was a remaking of his life, so that he is now blessing many who live with similar trials. This is the model of how trial becomes blessing in the context of the faith community: our trials transform us, so that we can in turn be transformative within the community.

This is very much the image of Christ upon the cross. It is in His person that we find the ultimate answer to the question of blessing in trial.


Most excellent article on pain by Ephraim Radner – certainly one of the best I’ve ever read.  Anyone talking about physician-assisted suicide should read this, “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.” http://livingchurch.org/covenant/2017/02/15/the-craft-of-suffering/

CS Lewis’ equally excellent book, The Problem of Pain.  This, along with A Grief Observed, set out Lewis’ theology of suffering, and then how he lived it after the premature death of his wife, Joy.

Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, Pillar New Testament Commentary

Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary

A book titled, Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free, by Tullian Tchividjian.

This series was conceived and first preached at St Paul’s Bloor St, Toronto.  Their sermons are marvelous, preached some by our own Barry Parker.  http://www.stpaulsbloor.org/sermons  This particular series is available: http://www.stpaulsbloor.org/sermon-series/path-through-suffering Podcast subscription too.

What happens when physicians end up with chronic, untreatable chronic pain?

http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1306467 Lessons in Pain Relief — A Personal Postgraduate Experience, Philip A. Pizzo, M.D

https://www.painnewsnetwork.org/stories/2016/1/6/a-doctor-learns-what-its-like-to-be-a-chronic-pain-patient My Journey From Doctor to Chronic Pain Patient, Lisa Kehrberg, MD

Miroslav Volf on how Revelation explains how all will be made right:  I was particularly interested in Volf’s discussion on violence and peace in the final chapter. He proposes that without a clear understanding of the Christ of Revelation (riding on that white horse, judging in blood), there is no way that violence can be deterred in the present. Jesus of the cross must be married with the Christ of Revelation. This is a powerful counter to the textual critics who attempt to reduce Revelation to a vague metaphor in an attempt to square the loving Jesus of the Gospels with the image in Revelation. Volf states clearly that understanding the depth of the coming judgement is the only way a Christian can understand the command to non-violence in the present.





Written by sameo416

March 25, 2017 at 7:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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