Posts Tagged ‘a theology of pain’

I have questions: Does God speak to us through our pain? If so, what does God say to us when we are in pain? Or is pain just noise that keeps us from hearing and understanding God?

The other day I was trying to relax in my living room, I couldn’t. There was the constant roar of gardening equipment right outside my window. I looked out. A landscape company was trimming hedges and groundcover on the bank beside my house.

We live in a noisy world. It can make hard to hear. Is pain noise? Does it keep us from hearing God, truth, ourselves or does it lead us to truth?

The world is full of noise: cars, trains, planes, helicopters, jackhammers, chain saws, car alarms, generators, compressors, lawn mowers, dogs, street sweepers, data centers — noise, racket, din.

Is pain just more noise, a buzz saw in the central nervous system? Perhaps, yes, yes I believe sometimes it is just that. Sometimes it overwhelms my brain, eliciting confused thoughts and useless internal conversations that won’t stop and don’t help.

My wife tried out a new church today. The people who sat behind her never stopped talking, although they stilled a bit during the sermon, they got up for snacks in the back during communion and kept on talking through the Eucharist.

I can hardly be critical. I talk in church, and everywhere else too. I just keep chattering at others, myself, at my past, at God.

Pain can be like the noisy church-mongers. It can disrupt the holy places, in our bodies and minds. But, and this is hard, sometimes I think it does the opposite; it quiets us. Sometimes it may be God’s way to quiet us.

Be still, and know that I am God.”

Psalm 40:10

I’m not quite sure how to put this to you, but perhaps God sometimes wants to say or does says to you and to me and our world, “Shush!”

In the Psalm we are told to be quiet in order to know God. Can pain be a way of quieting us?

I’ve never personally heard an audible “be quiet” from God nor have I — come to think of it — seldom heard a modern person tell me that God told them to shut up, but might God lovingly shush us through pain and difficulty?

In the last eight months I have experienced some severe chronic pain. And while I have talked about my pain to doctors, family, friends and written about it in my blog and while my cri de cœur has been to be healed, the truth is that in these months I’ve never been more quiet in my life.

I must be honest here. At some level of pain I cry. The noise of severe pain overwhelms me, but at other times and at another level, it strikes me agonizingly silent, voiceless. Pain dummies me up. Pain de-noises me. Cut off from social contact by it, and alone in my bed, during many of my pain days, I have become dumb in the face of pain — physical and emotional and spiritual pain. I have experienced the mind numbing silence of suffering.

In these times my prayers become short, “God have mercy” and “Give me wisdom and strength to endure this.“

But lately it’s come to me that perhaps God is saying something through the pain, doing something lovingly morphogenic through the pain. Pain isn’t always a noise that renders a cry. Perhaps sometimes God is saying to me through my pain and by my pain, “I’m rendering you quiet.” This is how the book of Job ended, God talking, Job silent.

There is something directional in silence.

Proverbs 17:28 says that “even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise.”

Is pain rendering me wiser by rendering me quieter? Time will certainly tell; it always does, but perhaps this is what God — in part — is saying to me and doing with me.

If so, how am I quieter, in pain, in a good way?

I notice that in pain I am apt to judge others less. Instead I hurt for those who do wrong or who fail. I want no one to suffer like I have. My suffering causes me to pray for the world, not to judge it. And it is the ones who have done the most wrong who suffer the most and are the most needy of forgiveness and help and prayer.

Pain has also quieted my complaints. My complaint to God concerns what he has allowed in the world and in my life that I don’t want, what I think doesn’t help or enhance me, and so by it I reveal that I have made life about me. I have lived life too much for personal comforts and ego fulfillment. God is silent concerning my complaints and so I can see that in giving such a complaint I indict myself.

And so without answers that I want, savaged by silence, I continue in faith and become more allegiant to him as I exercise faith without reward. It isn’t that this makes me like pain. I hate it! It is dispreferred; often it is unproductive; sometimes it is harmful to me and my relationships. It cuts me off from people, and yet it has its uses.

In pain, and by contrast to it, I find myself silently grateful for small bits of beauty, a ray of sun in my kitchen, a short moment of relief, a goldfinch in my garden, a bon bouche, a loving family.

Finally, in pain I am much less likely to give flippant advice to those in difficulty. In pain I am less of a know-it-all. In pain I listen better. I understand. I don’t plunder others with trite answers.

Orual in C. S. Lewis’s Til We Have Faces, gives her complaint, her issue with the silence and ambivalence and cruelty of the gods. She gets no answer and then dropping her charge she says this: “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer.” In this answer there is much mystery and in my answers mystery too.

We each grapple with possible explanations for suffering. We each choose responses. All I am attempting to point out is that there is a quietness that exists within our options — and within God’s.

And so if we depart from noise we come again to silence and perhaps we can let it be that God is God even when he is silent.

Like Job we may then say, “I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer — twice, but I will say no more.”

Job 40:4-5

Here is the standard, modern, pervasive Christian framework, thesis, mindset, paradigm: God is made known in health; God is made known in solutions; God is made known in gain; God is made known in being made known through what we want.

I just refinanced a small real estate loan at a fantastically low rate. My response? Thank you God! Every good gift is from the Father. It’s easy to give that “thank you.”

But this God-as-gain paradigm rides on a thin, brittle epistemic rail of truth; it easily slips off and crashes into a adamantine wall of misunderstanding.

Yes, every material blessing is a gift of God, every lovely forest, towering peak, rushing stream, safe home, good meal, loved one.

A few days ago I spotted a goldfinch in my white blossomed, ornamental pear tree. Astonishingly beautiful! God — a god of beauty.

Yes, God is a God of beauty and of truth and understanding and rationality, and solutions flow out of his very essence, every income stream, every medical cure, every healing, every building plan, every scrumptious recipe — He is somewhere there behind it.

My mushroom and leek gravy today, originally his idea.

Yes, God is the Creator God, architect, founder, maker, artist and through his mighty power we have gained the universe, our gorgeous, looping, spinning solar system, stunning planet earth and all the blue-green beauty and burgeoning fecund good that lies within our small corner plot of good earth.

But God is also made known in ugliness, in pain; God is also made known in difficulty; God is also made known in loss. This is equally true whether we want to hear it or not. The gold finch will one day molder in the ground and frightening a school child along her way — a horrid rictus, an ugly death. 

Yes, God is solution, but yes, His primary, core, existential, ultimate solution involved He himself entering into and embracing pain, difficulty and loss — the incarnation of God in Jesus, God experiencing human frailty, God experiencing human temptation, God experiencing our suffering, God hammered onto a killing machine.

The good news is that Jesus healed and redeemed. And the good news is that Jesus suffered, that God suffered. Let’s face this square on. God is found in pain. How so? His essential solution involved pain.

Last night I dreamed about a broken work relationship in which I felt powerless. It’s rough. I lived that dream. How do I hook theology up to my experience relational hate, rejection and hurt? 

We know that God — agentive — is love. We love that! Let’s never lose that perspective. But the complete truth is that God — by choice, as an agency — is an ouch and a scream and has experience rejection too. God is love — as an amalgam. He is pain-love. That’s his chosen status. Yikes! We wish to rush away in a frenzy of Christian cultural cringe from heaven’s compounded, ugly-beautiful remedy. We don’t want such axiology. For many of the blithely hopeful this kind of thinking is a kind of theo-polution, a negative doctrinal bizarrerie. They won’t have it, and yet they will have it, and they will have it on a plate, and they will eat it and they will grimace and try to spit it out.

I think we who love God want God to be Valentine’s Day, all kissy, gifty and lovey-dovey, chocolate and hearts and seduction. I do. And He is.

I bought beautiful, expensive Valentines gifts for my sweet thing this week, fine pour-over coffee equipment. God too gifts us because he loves us. We are his valentine.

But look around — unblinkered — if you will. All love, even true love, involves also the gift of suffering, involves making a place for things we don’t want in another person. My wife and I have both broken down recently in the face of some overwhelming circumstances. True love involves some ugly tears. It also involves some sacrifices, and it comes to accept the chronic pain of loss, the loss of former glories, and eventually the loss of loved ones from our lives.

Here is the truth: God is made known by being made known in some things that we don’t want. Our response? It is to fight, take flight or freeze or reject.

But what about acceptance of the things we can’t control? What about a salutary acceptance of reality, reality God himself has allowed — your pain, your loss, your relational derailments and deplorements.

What is needed involves a tender, merciful love for ourselves and others, no matter what the unwanted and unvalued physical and material empainments we and they and we-they suffer?

Quite lately, I’ve been learning to be kind to myself, to be tender with my less-than-perfect body, to titrate a new bifurcated identity, powerful and powerless, a new mixed bag of a man extruded out of difficulty, both compensated and decompensated.

In Greek mythology, the Minotaur is a mythical creature, head and tail of a bull, body of a man. The Roman poet Ovid, gets at it: part man; part bull.

God is kind of like the Minotaur, very loosely. He is one thing, comforting, and another, allowing and even embracing discomfort, and we don’t get only part of the great complex of Him. And this is no Minotaur myth. We get all of God; He is a God of comfort and of a tolerated pain and he unifies these much in the way he is unified as a Trinity.

Proof? God once entered our pain, and carried it on his shattered shoulder, and he is still entering into your pain and mine, entering with a keen specificity into our mounting losses. This is the truth, the same as it was with Israel. In all our distressed he too is distressed. Don’t believe those who want to present you with an impassable God, a god who can experience no pain.

Jesus was God, and he took a brutal bag of horrible for us and the Father himself saw it and was moved to weep for in that moment of his kenosis all the horrors, jealousies, atrocities, lies, abuses, rapes, murders and wars in the world were gathered into Christ as God and dealt with them to forgive them. And in this, God’s spiritual agony far outweighed his physical pain. 

Latch on to this. You experience and you hear God speaking to you in your pain too! Amazing! Not our way. Not my way. His way — not our way.

David Brooks has this to say about a life that is a mixed bag of goodies — and badies.

“The valley is where we shed the old self so the new self can emerge. There are no shortcuts. There’s just the same eternal three-step process that the poets have described from time eternal: from suffering to wisdom to service. Dying to the old self, cleansing in the emptiness, resurrecting in the new. “

“One task in life is synthesis. It is to collect all the fragmented pieces of a self and bring them to a state of unity, so that you move coherently toward a single vision.”

Brooks has it right. The great task of life is synthesis, a divine synthesis of our view of God and of ourselves, a synthesis that paradoxically combines comfort and suffering. We take our stand there within suffering and comfort, and we stand there within an enigma, we stand as a theologically branched tree standing strong in a orthodox forest of many other staunchly dual-trunked Biblical truths. 

Fellow warriors, honor the complex truth, this divine complementarity, honor the reality that stretches from you to the very horizon of your life, and  leave nothing out so that we might be complete.