God and Our Pain
It isn’t easy to hold on to God when God seems not to be dealing kindly with us. That was a point made by the writer of the book of Job some thousand years ago. It’s a point which many people make today.
In her book Belief Beyond Pain (published by Triangle, UK) Jenny Francis shares her experience of battling with the pain caused by chronic pancreatitis, a disease which originated, in her case, in adult mumps. Chronic illness changed her life, and sometimes she was, and is, angry about that. She was, by profession, a social worker as well as being a vicar’s wife, a role that has its own demands. It is hard to practise faith filled living when you are in constant pain, when your body no longer does what you want it to do. Jenny Francis writes: When I go to work it (the pain) is with me, when we go for a walk or on holiday, it comes too. It is my ever-present companion when reading, writing, studying, in prayer, in church, in bed… To know that I can expect no complete relief this side of heaven is fearsome.”
In the Bible, Satan questions whether Job will keep his integrity as a believer if God removes the protective hedge which Satan feels God has planted around him. Can Job keep his faith through pain and loss? “Stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones,” Satan told God, “and he will surely curse you in your face” (Job 2:5 NIV). And Job certainly writhes, both spiritually and physically, when he is attached by pain. That writhing leads to profound questioning and searching.
One of the best known Christian books about pain written this century is C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain. This is a book which has been much criticised, particularly in philosophical circles. It oversimplifies, and Lewis who had both studied and taught philosophy at Oxford University, seemed to be unaware of the move towards linguistic philosophy which had revolutionised this discipline in the post─Great War period of the 20th century. Nevertheless, the book emphasises certain points which are valid, and one is that God can use pain for good.
This is the point that is also made by Jenny Francis, and has been made by Job. But it is not Job’s only point. Job stubbornly refused to accept the theology of his day which said that pain is caused by unconfessed sun. He argues that people often suffered quite undeservedly. Life, he pointed out, was not always fair. He cried: “Like wild donkeys in the desert, the poor go about their labour of foraging food… Lacking clothes, they spend the night naked; they have nothing to cover themselves in the cold… But God charges no-one with wrongdoing.” Job 24:5─12
In other words, God does not always appear to be on the side of those who suffer. People are in pain, and God sometimes doesn’t seem to be there. Job’s ultimate verdict was that, in spite of everything, God was there. But this conclusion did not come easily and it’s as well that any who suffer should keep this in mind. It is difficult to see the purpose of the dark clouds while the sun is still hiding. Note, too, that in Job’s search for an answer, he is often angry, and God appears to accept that anger. He certainly points out that Job hasn’t all the answers in his search for the truth (and the book is about that rather than primarily about pain) but nevertheless accepts and essentially approves Job the questioner. It is the “comforters” with their glib theological answers whom God censures.
In this book, Suffering, Allister McGrath says “Explore what God might be saying to you through your experience. Learn to think positively, creatively and prayerfully about what you are going through” For if we do not learn to do this we must still suffer the pain and we will learn noting from it.
God gives none of his children a ticket exonerating them from suffering. He did not exonerate his son Jesus from suffering. Rather God suffered with Christ to save the world so that ultimately there might be an end to pain. But not this side of heaven!
This side of heaven, we have to learn to utilise the pain creatively. God who also suffered shows how that can be done… but it’s never easy.
Author: Major Barbara Bolton