Paying Attention to Pain
Some time toward the end of last summer, I decided—or maybe it was God who decided for me—that the theme for this year’s IMPACT High School program would be “Pain.” Our high schoolers have been preparing to work in the Bahamas this year. Hurricane Dorian destroyed swaths of that island nation on September 1. They lost everything. (Note: June mission trips are suspended, but we pray for God to make a way for us to serve later in the summer.)
Maybe we can’t begin to understand the pain of losing everything in an instant in a devastating storm. But as the whole world lost all semblance of “normal life” in the last short while, we can empathize at least a little with the shock and disbelief of having the world we know vanish so quickly. And whatever our current circumstance, painful or not, we all knowpain. It is part of every life’s journey.
“And whatever our current circumstance, painful or not, we all know pain. It is part of every life’s journey.”
The fair and ages-old question of how a good and loving God can allow pain and suffering is central to many people’s unbelief and to centuries of theodicy. But wrestling with these deeper questions, in my opinion, distract us from paying attention to pain itself.
“…our relationship with pain is mostly this: hide it, manage it, ease it, escape it or avoid it.”
Alas, pain is not something we like to pay attention to. Even though we know pain can be a positive thing when it tells us to take our hand off a hot stove, our relationship with pain is mostly this: hide it, manage it, ease it, escape it or avoid it. (Unless of course, we are usingpain for gain—as in pushing past the point of comfort in order to improve or master something.) In whatever way we experience it, pain is mostly something to be controlled—by us.
What we hardly ever think about is that pain is woven deeply and consistently throughout God’s story. From start to end there is violence, disease, death, devastation, persecution, abuse, betrayal, exile, war, lament, anguish, and agony. In short, every kind of pain. Our pain, however personal and deep, is not anything new.
“What we hardly ever think about is that pain is woven deeply and consistently throughout God’s story.”
We tend to turn to God as One who will remove our pain or the pain of the world. God does promise to do that eventually and perhaps our job is to help with that now, but God also works in and through pain. We need look no further than the focal point of all Christianity, the agony and death of Jesus on the cross, to know this.
So…if God is in and works though pain, we have to ask, Where? And maybe, even more importantly, Why?
For our first IMPACT meeting, I invited Ned Smith to talk to our high schoolers. Many of you know this, but Ned and his wife Erin are parents to four young children and Ned was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a terminal form of brain cancer, late in 2018. Ned’s journey, as he shared with us, has been one full of pain for him and for his family. But his journey has brought him and his family many moments of beauty, grace, love, connection with others and a deeper connection with God and with our church family. Watch Ned’s talk to our teens here.
I visited the Bahamas just six weeks ago and asked our partner, Pastor Ryan Forbes of the Assembly of God Church in Marsh Harbour (see a greeting from Pastor Ryan to our church youth here), how he thinks the devastation affected people’s faith. He told me right away it made everyone’s faith stronger. He said more people were turning toward God and that he counseled and prayed with people who would not have stepped foot in a church before the storm. To him, this was miraculous and surely evidence of God’s work through the pain of loss. There was more. Right after the storm neighbors helped one another and checked in on one another. Soon, volunteers arrived bringing food, water, generators and equipment to clean up. Strangers came to help. Strangers are still there helping now.
Even in our own community today, we hear story after story of neighbor helping neighbor, businesses supporting employees, governments building hospitals, essential workers risking health and welfare for the good of strangers, children decorating sidewalks with messages of hope for all who walk by. There are lights in windows and cheers in the air. And while we know there is pain, worry, and death around us, we cannot help but notice hope, too.
So maybe pain has something to do with hope…and here it is. In the first 5 verses of his letter to Romans, the Apostle Paul writes:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Regardless of our circumstance, whether in pain or not, we have peace with God through Christ Jesus. And this peace gives us confidence when we do experience pain and suffer. But the point here is what Paul writes next. Suffering (pain) produces the final product, hope. Hope does not arise on its own out of nowhere but is a product that starts with pain. The resurrection hope we just experienced at Easter could not have been without the pain of the cross.
“Hope does not arise on its own out of nowhere but is a product that starts with pain.”
There is no intention here to gloss over pain and only look for silver linings. I am confident that God is in the pain, too, suffering with each of us and all of us.
I kept a quote I think was attributed to the late theologian, Rachel Held Evans. It said this: “The person in pain is a theologian of exquisite experience.” For me, this hits the nail on the head of where God might be in our own pain. Our deepest pain teaches us to understand the deepest pain of others. And in understanding, our compassion grows. We bond with others because we relate to and share their pain. However alone we might feel, none of us is alone in our pain—of injury and illness, physical or mental, of death, of loss, of violence, of financial devastation, of addiction, of divorce, of estrangement, of disappointment, of cancelled plans, of crushed dreams. God is there—and we are there with each other. I think it must be meant to be that way.
“Our deepest pain teaches us to understand the deepest pain of others.”
So maybe resisting the temptation to ignore or look away from pain and instead, paying attention to it now and throughout our lives can bring us into a deeper understanding of God’s work in our lives, in our world and in our relationships with God and with each other. May it be so.