Joy When It
To get the whole world out of
And washed, and dressed, and warmed, and fed,
To work, and back to bed again,
Believe me, Saul, costs worlds of pain.
JOHN MASEFIELD IN THE EVERLASTING MERCY
* * * * *
Pain! Physical pain, mental pain, emotional pain, psychological pain, neurotic pain, imaginary pain. Sharp pain, gnawing pain, slow pain, dull pain, recurring pain, wasting pain. What can one say about it with respect to joy? We are born in pain, we live by enduring and inflicting pain, and mostly we die in pain. Today billions of people are being nagged by pain, many of them constantly. If ever there was a killjoy, its name is pain. As C.S. Lewis expressed it, "Suffering is not good in itself." It makes life miserable for deserving and undeserving.
The best way to start is always with the Bible. The prophet Micah, in a famous chapter, called on all who trust in God to "love mercy."1 If we would follow Jesus, we must demonstrate sympathy and tenderness as He did toward those who suffer. As Lewis says, "What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators,
the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads."2
It is said that on any given day, three-fourths of the human race isn't feeling well. Books on pain and suffering vastly outnumber the books on joy, more than one hundred to one. Many people don't want to hear about other people's pain, but they are quite willing to talk about their own. As I understand it, the general attitude toward pain developed by Americans during the past century of medical research and progress is to get rid of it as expeditiously as possible. Sympathy is always acceptable, but it's boring to spend time blaming the pain on anyone or anything. Just stop it, people tell us. Take a pill; skip fortitude and bravery. As my dentist says, "We don't make heroes around here."
Does God send pain? Is that what He is like? In recent weeks I have been reading some theological articles that set out to justify God's reasons for inflicting pain on the human race. In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis suggests that pain is "God's megaphone." Others treat pain as "God's warning." In Psalm 119 we read:
Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word . . . It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes . . . I know, O Lord . . . that in faithfulness You have afflicted me.
That seems to attribute pain directly to God.
In the vast literature on the subject one learns about punitive pain, corrective pain, undeserved pain, submissive pain, and even redemptive pain. I am slow to regard pain as divine punishment, or to consider sickness an instrument of God to promote redemption. Many hold such views, but I find little in Jesus' teaching along those lines. To be candid, I am vastly ignorant on the subject, and find it singularly unattractive. Shakespeare wrote, "Sweet are the uses of adversity," but some of his platitudes don't wear well. I wonder which particular pain he had in mind when he wrote that.
Many of the common kinds of pain and suffering seem to be senseless and lacking in redeeming qualities. They afflict the just and the unjust indiscriminately. It is even harder to rationalize the suffering of a whole race, such as took place during the Holocaust, which left such a stain on the twentieth century.
My beloved late wife, Winola, was a woman of God if there ever was one, but after enduring weeks of the most extreme suffering, she died of cancer. During her last days her groans and cries of pain were heard throughout the convalescent home even after she lapsed into unconsciousness. In such cases the joy comes only as one thinks of the beloved as being with Jesus, free from pain and reveling in the everlasting fellowship of the saints in glory.
In the New Testament we find Jesus in the flesh, cheerfully walking about Galilee in excellent health, saving and healing men, women, and children, and in the process getting rid of pain. At his touch diseases were cured and evil spirits were exorcised. Those to whom Jesus ministered began jumping and leaping for joy. They shouted and sang and worshiped God.
From Jesus' example I am convinced that the Heavenly Father wants His people as He had originally created them: free, healthy, and filled with gladness of heart. Yet in the Old Testament, specifically in the book of Job, it is clear that God allowed Satan to inflict pain on a righteous man. Does He still? That's one of the questions we want explained when we get to heaven.
In the New Testament the pain that Jesus suffered on the cross was as cruel as the Romans knew how to make it; yet it was different. That pain, endured for us, became atoning and redemptive pain. By the grace of God, Jesus' suffering became a passport to our wholeness and joy. Thus the blood shed at the cross became healing for all of those who believe in His glorious resurrection from the dead.
Apart from the pain of Golgotha, then, can any pain be said to have been actually good? Yes, indeed. I leave it to the medical profession to answer such questions, but we all know that pain often tells the sufferer what and where the trouble is that
causes the pain. The problem is that when the source of pain is discovered and isolated, it does not always respond to treatment. Healing, as was the case with Winola, sometimes turns out to be insoluble in this life. However, the final chapters of the book of Revelation assure us that a final solution does exist. They leave us with the joy of this assurance: that this life is not the only life.
Christians also recognize one kind of human suffering that is peculiarly honorable and good. The Bible itself links it to the joy of the Lord. That is the pain caused by the persecution of believers for the cause of Jesus Christ.
Frank Uttley writes, "Christ seemed to put persecution into a different category from sickness and disease, at times even regarding it as a means of blessing. 'Take joy,' Jesus said, 'when you are persecuted for righteousness sake, for yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.' He also told His followers that 'if they persecuted Me, they will persecute you. In the world you shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer: I have overcome the world.' "3
The distinction between suffering caused by persecution and other forms of suffering is significant. Pain under such duress turns a questionable "bad" into a positive "good." We regard the acute pain the apostle Stephen suffered while he was being stoned for his faith in Jesus as a badge of honor. The Christian church esteems Stephen its first martyr. John Foxe's Book of Martyrs is freighted with stirring stories of Christian men and women who defied pain magnificently when facing their accusers.
It is significant that in our own time the continuing persecution of Christian believers, often with torture, in dozens of countries around the world is finally gaining wider recognition. It has been said that more Christians have died for their faith in the twentieth century than in all the previous nineteen centuries combined.
In his beautiful book The Tender Touch of God, Michael MacIntosh describes the healing process in simple but powerful terms: "Stop the bleeding, dress the wound, let God heal."4 In so doing
he drew upon some famous words of Monsieur Ambroise Pare, the famed surgeon of Agincourt (1415), now considered the father of modern surgery. Today we should be continually grateful to the armies of doctors, nurses, and aides who are committed to the reduction and alleviation of pain in our world. Never should we let the cacophony of medical politics so deafen us that we cannot see the beauty of healing that is taking place in our midst.
Meanwhile it is hard to say a good word for pain when one reads about the horrendous, painful cruelties inflicted by human beings on each other even today in many parts of the world. A drunken driver who is taken to a hospital in pain after an accident deserves his punishment, we say. But what can we say about another victim in the same hospital, an innocent child facing a life of perpetual pain as the result of a drive-by shooting?
Human pain has been around for thousands of years and seems to be on the increase in our technological age despite the painkilling drugs. No doubt the devil and his minions are busy at their forges and laboratories, inventing and devising new, repulsive, excruciating forms of human torture. That too is part of the mystery of iniquity; but in the midst of it Christians are heartened to read in the book of Revelation that a day will soon come when there will be no more crying and no more pain. Praise the Lord!
Pain does have this positive value: It will bring to a halt our indulgence in wasteful and useless thoughts, and force us to concentrate on more important matters. It can even galvanize us into action. A young boy growing up in a Christian home in Ohio had left home and was working on a canal boat when he injured his foot while chopping wood. He contracted blood poisoning and soon became an invalid. During the long, painful months in bed he resolved to seek an education upon recovery. He studied for the ministry but then became a teacher, then a school principal. During the Civil War he joined the 42nd Ohio Volunteers, became a hero during the fighting at Shiloh and Chickamauga, and rose to major general. After serving in
Congress as Representative from Ohio and U.S. Senator, he was elected President of the United States. It was while lying in bed in pain that he decided to change the direction of his life. His name was James Abram Garfield.
When in pain we can also call to mind our obligations to those we love, and accomplish tasks that we keep putting off. We can offer up prayers long unsaid and read chapters in the Bible long neglected. We can even recall friends in far worse pain than we are suffering, and make fresh contacts with them in the Lord. Thus time spent in pain can be used eventually to reorient our lives.
Pain has a way of drawing Christians to their knees in prayer. Whether one is praying for one's own needs or is interceding on behalf of others, the fact that God answers such prayers with healing has been certified and confirmed by literally millions of people. A person prays; the pain stops. Always? No, not always, but often enough to make me, for one, a firm believer in prayers for healing.
During World War II I served for a time as a military hospital chaplain, visiting the wards daily, praying with wounded soldiers just arrived at Hamilton Field from the battlefields of the South Pacific and offering them the promises of God and the sacraments of the church. Believing Christians have the highest regard and admiration for persons engaged in the professions of physical and mental healing. Yet we know also that there is a ministry beyond medication to those who are never healed. Even among them while there is life, there is hope. The Gospel of Mark describes a woman who spent all her money on physicians and whose pain only grew worse at their hands. When healing did come to her, it came from the Son of God.5
Recently I was surprised to read the statement, "Most of the major religions have seen pain as necessary for coming closer to God." Where, I ask, is that thought found in the Bible? Where is there any evangelical agreement to it?
My friend and late prayer partner Captain Harry Jenkins was a war hero and a cheerful, committed Christian. When he was shot down over Vietnam and then subjected to the horrors
of the "Hanoi Hilton" for seven years, he proved a great encouragement to his fellow prisoners. Now I ask, was it "necessary" that Harry Jenkins sit in pain hour after hour on his torture stool "in order to come closer to God"? How absurd. The truth is that for seven years a loving God stayed close to Harry, healed him, and brought him safely home.
C.S. Lewis wrote that the Christian doctrine of suffering requires self-surrender and obedience. This means that if we can't get rid of the pain we should simply learn to endure it. After all, things could always be worse. But Lewis adds something quite interesting:6
The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world; but joy, pleasure and merriment He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy.
Amen! There is another important point of doctrine I would add. The comedian Flip Wilson sometimes enacted the role of a very comical young lady named "Geraldine," who explained her unusual activities by saying, "The devil make me do it." "Geraldine's error lay not simply in acknowledging the devil as a joke, but in refusing to accept personal responsibility for her behavior.
The demonic is very much involved as a source where pain is concerned, and always has been. When a bent-over woman came to Jesus on a Sabbath day to be healed, Jesus straightened her back and healed her, bringing great joy to the woman and to those who witnessed the miracle. The synagogue leader who was present waxed indignant, but Jesus said, "Ought not this woman . . . whom Satan has bound think of it for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?"7 An answer to our Lord's rhetorical question is found in 1 John: "For this
purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil" (3:8).
We Christians sit by a loved one in pain, or receive a call from the sheriff about a loved one in trouble and hurting, and we are tempted to ask, "Why is all this happening to us? How do we explain it?" At such times it might be well to listen to "Geraldine's" demonic excuse. Satan is cruel, and he operates still in our midst, every day, every hour, every minute. If there is one resource Christians have that can discomfit the devil and disturb his machinations, it might be the subject of this book: the joy of the Lord. As Paul wrote, we are not ignorant of Satan's devices. Scoffing the scoffer is a well-tested weapon.
Finally, we have the example of Christians in pain who have used their condition to lead others to Christ.
A Christian friend of mine was arrested during a demonstration that turned violent, and wound up in a jail cell with both shoulders dislocated. While she lay on her cot in intense pain, the young woman who was her cell-mate approached her bunk, crying.
"I'm so sorry to bother you," she said, "I know you're hurting, but you see I've just got to know Jesus and get right with God. I've been horrible. Please, please tell me how to find God!"
"At that moment," my friend told me, "I knew pain, but I also knew joy."
Perhaps you are asking, "Where is the joy 'takeaway' in all this for me? Is there something I can do if I want to get in on Jesus' secret?" Yes, there is. For openers, go to a Christian bookstore and get yourself a brand-new Bible. Start reading in both the Old and New Testaments, underlining such words as joy, delight, gladness, and singing wherever you come across them.
Take special note of the last three verses of the book of the prophet Habakkuk, who was one of the greatest men of any ge. He wrote at the time of Nebuchadnezzar's conquest of Jerusalem (586 B.C.), and his words apply directly to us in the 1990s:
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls,
yet will I rejoice in the LORD.
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign LORD is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to go on the heights.8
What contentment! What deep assurance! The promise is that even when life's supports fail us, our faith in God has us walking on air lighthearted and surefooted.
I suggest that you resolve not to dwell unduly on the one pain or problem that is giving you so much trouble. Shelve it. We were not placed here to concentrate on ourselves as some animals do, but to serve the Lord and help each other. Try echoing the words of the psalmist, who said, "Let me hear joy and gladness!"9
1. Micah 6:8
2. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (London: Geoffry Bles, 1946), p. 98
3. Frank Uttley, The Supreme Physician (London: James Clark & Co., n.d.).
4. Michael K. MacIntosh, The Tender Touch of God (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1996), p. 200.
5. Mark 5:25-29
6. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 103.
7. Luke 13:16.
8. Habakkuk 3:17-19 NIV
9. Psalm 51:8 NIV
Chapter 16 || Table of Contents