Pain. Suffering. Who likes it? Most of us are running for the hills from our own pain and the pain of others. We hide from it. We repress it. We eat, spend, drink and work too much to deaden it. Because if we’re suffering, it must be some deficiency in us, right?
My friend’s husband died. People cross the road to avoid her because they don’t know what to say. People stop ringing her because, well, they used to do things as two couples and now it’s just her, and won’t that be a bit awkward?
As part of the Church in the West, we have got to develop our theology of suffering, of pain. It’s part of the currency of life and has nothing to do with what we deserve. Money removes our lives from the closeness of life and death in a way that it doesn’t in other cultures. We’re inoculated by our country’s wealth against the expectation of childhood mortality, of living until our 80s and of life generally being ok.
Some of us are fortunate enough to go through life without experiencing any major crises at all, but what happens when crisis does hit? A wise friend pointed out to me that when we’re in the pit of despair, barely able to get through each day, this is not the time to get your theology sorted. We need to talk about this now.
In my work in prisons I’ve seen a lot of hurting, so I’ve reflected a lot on pain, suffering and the great unfairness of life. I’ve wondered what God thinks about it and how we should respond to it, both in ourselves and in others. In the last few months, many close to me have had profound struggles: ill, newborn babies needing heart surgery and resuscitations; a friend in her mid-30s losing her life partner to cancer. This is the hideous part of life that leaves you with aching chasms asking why, and gnawing feelings of inadequacy. It feels like there is nothing you can say or do.
But we can. We can be present to the pain in our own lives – the sting of not getting that job, the hurt of another wedding that isn’t yours, the unfolding nightmare of your dad’s Alzheimer’s really beginning to kick in, and be present to witness pain in the lives of others, along with praying.
Acknowledge pain. You don’t need to give it free reign, encourage it or think Jesus loves it. But to pretend you’re not feeling something you are is just old-fashioned repression – which, it turns out, isn’t one of the fruits of the spirit. God made our feelings, and in the long shadow of the enlightenment – where reason is king – we can end up ignoring our feelings all together. Especially the painful ones. I mean – is it even Christian to be sad? Yes.
Journey with the pain. This might be long or short. It might be years of walking with a cancer patient. It may be a day of just letting yourself admit that you really wanted that job.
Stay present with the person in pain, ask them what they would like you to do and sometimes use your intuition.
Ask God where He is? Hassle God on their behalf. Remind Him of the persistent widow, of Jacob, of His promises to be with us and say: “Please do this in the life of this person I love. Turn up.” Connect with God for them. We belong to the Lord and to each other.
Ask God what he wants you to learn through this? At a very difficult time in my life, someone gave me this verse –
I will give you hidden treasures,
riches stored in secret places,
so that you may know that I am the Lord,
the God of Israel, who summons you by name.
I was encouraged that there were things God wanted to give me, precious things, even in the secret place of my pain. God doesn’t do pointless suffering – there is always a spark of life or some richness that can be found, although, this doesn’t always feel like it’s true.
Be real. It’s ok to say: “I don’t know what to say. But I want you to know I love you.” Who does know what to say when an eight-year-old drops dead?
Know that God can handle it. God is big, outside of time and has all insight and wisdom. We do not. My pea brain doesn’t understand all this suffering or why my beautiful friends have to endure this – but I don’t need to, I’m not God. My job is to listen to God and be a carrier of the healing, soothing presence; a presence that can sit with and not run away from death, destruction and pain.
Tragic, awful things happen to good people all the time. We need to get our heads around that. Life is not fair. Some people have an endless rollercoaster of heartbreak, others skip through with a platinum credit card, a fabulous job, a model family. But always, always God is present. To me, and to the Syrian orphan in the refugee camp. The one we serve didn’t get off the cross until he was done – until God’s will was worked out. That’s the blueprint for dealing with pain: stay with it until God says it’s done. We can’t rush these things. And know that as well as the promise of presence, after the agony of the cross came the healing and wholeness of new life.