Seriously God? Week 6: Pain is a problem
We are in the sixth week of a series called Seriously, God? Making Sense of Life Not Making Sense. In this series, we are examining obstacles that often keep people from taking God seriously or developing faith and trust in God.
Over the last several weeks we have looked at when God says no, when God seems to be in our way, when God allows the wrong people to rule, and when God seems uncooperative. We have covered many topics over the last few weeks, and if you have missed any of the messages, go to our website saintmary.life and catch up.
Today we look at the problem of pain and suffering. Pain presents a problem for Christians. No doubt about it.
The classic argument goes like this: If God is all good and all-powerful, he would not allow pain and suffering. Since there is pain and suffering in the world, God must not be all good or not all powerful. Either God allows suffering when he could stop it, and, therefore has bad intentions, or he wants suffering to end but is powerless to stop it. On its surface, it seems unanswerable, like an air-tight argument against Christianity, and it appears to prove that it doesn’t make sense to be a Christian.
At the same time, our dissatisfaction with pain and suffering hints that we need to look again.
In C.S. Lewis book entitled the Problem of Pain, he writes this: “In a sense, [Christianity] creates rather than solves, the problem of pain, for pain would not be a problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving.”
If we have a problem with pain, a disquiet in our hearts, minds, and souls, it would stand to reason we believe that pain is unnatural. It’s not the way life is supposed to be. Pain is not a problem if there is not a loving God. If all of life came from random chance or from a God that did not love us, we would just accept pain and suffering the way a fish accepts water. We wouldn’t question it. Yet, we do. Something in us, deep in us, knows that pain and suffering are not natural. They are a break from how things are supposed to be.
That cry from our hearts points us towards deeper understanding. Our hearts help us begin to see that the argument against Christianity is too narrow. It reduces our goodness and wellbeing simply to the absence of pain. If feeling good is our ultimate aim and purpose in life, then a good God would not allow suffering. However, we know in our hearts that feeling good is not the ultimate aim of life. We know there is more because we do things all the time that can be painful or uncomfortable.
Pain does not discount a loving God. While God does not want us in pain, God uses pain for our good and the good of others. Romans 8:28 says, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Every pain in your life God uses for your good or the good of others. That may sound like wishful thinking, but what if it is true.
And then there is the fact that people who often go through the most pain and suffering actually have the closest relationship with God. They go through pain worse than what we have experienced, and the pain seems to lead to a deeper intimacy with God. How is that even possible?
We see witnesses of this in our world today and in several witnesses in scripture. This is what we find in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul writes the letter from jail. He is imprisoned for preaching and teaching about Jesus. Imprisonment was in some ways the least of the pain he received. He had been beaten with rods, nearly stoned to death, shipwrecked, and had his life constantly threatened by people who opposed the message of the gospel. In his dedication to Jesus, he lost friends, lost sleep, and went without food or shelter.
Suffering and loss for Paul were not some theoretical issues. He experienced it. After experiencing that pain, Paul wrote, “I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
He considered everything as unimportant in comparison to knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. All the pain and loss—he is referencing the status he once had—are nothing compared to knowing Christ Jesus. He seems to connect the two here. The pain, the suffering, the loss led him to what is most important in life—knowing the person of Jesus Christ. Pain and suffering may be the impetus to find the truth that is Jesus. It’s been said you will not know Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.
We might hear those words from Paul, and if we were sitting across the table from him or standing outside his prison cell. But that’s not the end. Paul would say, “Wait. I’m not finished yet. Not close… “For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”
Paul considers his loss of comfort, his loss of status, and his loss of physical freedom rubbish compared to a relationship with Jesus Christ. That word “rubbish” is actually a weak translation. Paul would have probably used the four-letter word we use for crap or dung. It is meant to be extreme.
“To know him and the power of the resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings, by being conformed to his death…”
Wait a minute. Paul says he is privileged to know Jesus and wants to share in his suffering. He wants to partner in his pain. Was he crazy?
But then he says, “If somehow I may attain the resurrection of the dead.”
Paul says there is a connection between suffering and resurrection. There can be no Easter Sunday without a Good Friday. Jesus went to the cross, so he could rise again. Through suffering, Paul joins himself more deeply to Jesus Christ and so has hope that he, Paul, will rise again.
But Paul knows he is not there yet. The resurrection will come through the pain, but that’s not where we are in the story. He knows that is where he is going. When he suffers, he doesn’t look at the suffering; he doesn’t give it his full attention. Instead, Paul says he focuses on the finish line in the same way a runner in a marathon may be suffering a ton of pain, but they do not stop running and think about the pain. Instead, they focus their eyes on the finish line. Paul says he focuses on Jesus and the prize of the resurrection.
The truth is, Jesus never promised to take away suffering. It sounds crazy to us. But it’s true. Jesus doesn’t take away suffering, he transforms suffering. It doesn’t mean our suffering will make sense. As a matter of fact, it most likely won’t. But he does give it meaning.
St. Paul says that Jesus on the cross to the world seems like foolishness or weakness. St. Paul says that Jesus on the cross is actually the wisdom and power of God. It seems to make no sense, but by taking on a body, and suffering in and through that body, he transforms and makes suffering redemptive. This is how he redeemed the world.
There is no depth that Christ hasn’t gone. There’s no amount of suffering that he didn’t endure, not to take it away, but to redeem it, to transform it. And by this, he invites us to unite our sufferings to his. When we experience any type of suffering, whether it is super small or it is overwhelming, he comes into that and is with us. All of us are going to suffer, but suffering without Jesus just hurts. Suffering with Jesus can change the world.
Suffering and pain are real. And when we experience them, it is easy for us to narrow our focus and concentrate only on our pain. We can learn from Paul, who challenges us to widen our view and focus on the upward calling in Christ Jesus. Focus on where you are going, not where you are.
While pain does present a problem for Jesus’ followers, no one can argue the scriptures do not address pain and suffering. Over and over again, the scriptures confront it. Perhaps of all the differences between our thoughts and God’s thoughts, we are most different from God on the subject of pain. Human beings say pain discounts a good God, and people who know God say pain and suffering can allow us to know God more intimately. God uses pain to raise us to new life.
In just two Sundays, we will be celebrating new life in our annual celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. With that in mind, I would ask you to pray that over the next couple of weeks that maybe you would invite someone to come to Easter Sunday Mass with you. Pray that God will open the doors to their heart to be open to an invitation. Pray also that you would recognize when the Lord gives you the opportunity to invite them.
Through all the difficult questions and situations in our lives, God calls us closer to himself. You, me and those around us. Let us have the courage to enter in to the call of God and be willing to invite those who we believe need a place to go to come and join us on Easter Sunday.