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[From “Gifts of and for the Church” @ Hutchmoot 2016.]
As Heidi and I began to talk about how we might split up this session on exploring God’s resources for the body, I found myself drawn to a topic that isn’t included in any of Paul’s official lists of spiritual gifts.
Still, it is a powerful gift because it tends to make those who receive it humble, sensitive, patient, and wise.
This gift helps make good teachers, good leaders, good shepherds.
Once you are given this gift, people listen to you differently.
They respect you.
They want to hear what you have to offer.
In fact, readers and listeners are drawn to those who are given this gift like moths are drawn to a light… they go out into the world and spread the word about your gift … and suddenly a crowd gathers wanting to know more, a crowd that you can’t keep away.
And yet, despite all these benefits, this is the gift nobody wants.
Nobody wants it because this gift is not glamorous.
It can be humiliating.
It can expose us.
It can destroy us.
It often paralyzes us before it opens us up to new strength.
The gift nobody wants is suffering.
I want to be careful about how I introduce this topic because mainstream Christianity has often done more harm than good while trying to unpack it.
This a hard thing to talk about because understanding the math of suffering doesn’t often remedy the emotional consequences of suffering.
If 2+2=4 runs a knife through your belly, you don’t much care how addition works. You just want the pain to stop.
So when you and I are walking through a season of overwhelming pain and a fellow Christian tells us, “God allowed this for a reason,” we might believe that is true deep down… but we might also feel rebuked, isolated, and well, angry.
In some of the hardest moments of my life, well-meaning Christians have come to me with trite-sounding conclusions like this,
when my daughter was about to have heart surgery…
when my husband and I walked through a devastating church disaster…
when I was worried about a situation with my oldest son…
and even though I haven’t hurt as deeply as many of you have, I’ll be honest, hearing religious words in painful times felt like hitting the earth after falling off a swing.
Why do religious statements like this cause us such pain?
1. First, they tend to project causality upon God. They blame Him for evil. They cast injustice onto the Father who is supposed to love and care for us. This can cause us to hesitate to approach our Refuge, a Refuge we need most desperately when we are hurting.
2. Secondly, religious statements can ask performance out of us while our hearts are breaking. Hurting people can’t perform. They can barely get out of bed, let alone jump through hoops. And that’s one of the worst parts of intense suffering, actually. We find out that we can’t do what we have to do, and this is a terrifying and hopeless realization.
So let’s make a distinction before we begin. God stands ready to make every problem and difficulty purposeful. I think that His sovereignty sometimes opens the gates to allow hard things to pass through to us– and that is baffling and sickening and devastating. But to allow pain is not the same thing as to create it. And the more I’ve thought about this, the more that distinction has mattered to me.
Many authors have written about the origin of suffering, asking how a holy and kind God wouldn’t just nip all evil and pain in the bud. If He is all-loving and all-powerful, why would He do anything else? It’s a good question.
If you haven’t read Dorothy Sayers’s address on this topic in her Mind of the Maker, it’s worth your time to do so. She cuts open injustice and sorrow like a surgeon. Of course, C.S. Lewis and Tim Keller have also addressed suffering – most of you have read their thoughts, I assume — and my recent favorite is Christopher Wright’s The God I Don’t Understand. (And not just because he has a brilliant Irish accent.)
But today we just don’t have time for all of this, so I’m not going to talk about why evil exists so much as the commodities redeemed pain tends to offer the body of Christ. I want to take your hurts in my hand and let you know that they are not wasted. All was not for naught.
If you are currently in the throes of intense suffering, I don’t expect this talk will be much comfort to you. In the worst moments of my life, there is nothing anyone could have said at a podium that would have helped me. I needed an arm around me. I needed a warm drink. I need patience and room to grieve. I needed a wide field and permission to yell until I couldn’t yell anymore.
But if you have passed through the first squeeze of pain and now stand dazed, wondering what happened to you and what could possibly come next, maybe this will help somehow. Maybe you will walk with me to the God who didn’t abandon you – though I know it may feel like he did.
I know you may not want to trust Him. You may be angry with Him for allowing you to hurt as much as you did. The thought of Him might make you flinch. But here is the God who sees you:
“He wipes away every tear. “
“He makes all things new. “
“He works all things for the good of those who love Him.”
These are statements of healing that deny neither the grief nor the severity of what you have endured. These statements invite you to be honest about the intensity of your emotions. They allow you to believe that Jesus sometimes sits beside Mary and Martha, weeping in compassion with them, days, decades, an entire lifetime after he has allowed Lazarus to die, and before he raises him from the dead.
And while Jesus weeps in compassion, it’s okay if you do, too… believing what Andrew Peterson has taught us: that after the last tear falls, there will be love, love, love, love, love.
II Corinthians: A Well-Broken Man
I didn’t appreciate the book of II Corinthians very much until the past few years.
Like most poets, I’m a Gospel of John Junkie. John fits the way I think, feel, process.
If I’m going to be linear, I want Romans.
If I want catharsis, the Psalms.
I love the Old Testament for its typology.
I love Ephesians and Galatians for their promises of grace.
I love James for his ability to convict me.
I want to love Revelation, but mostly I need it because of how it burns me and casts me belly down on the floor before a holy God.
I feel terrible admitting this, but II Corinthians was just kind of “Meh” to me compared to all that… until I realized that it was the story of a well-broken man.
In II Corinthians, we find a lover of God who has been obliterated by pain.
This is a guy who was used to being good and self-reliant–he was brilliant, powerful, articulate, successful–the kind of guy who had it all before losing it all, and even though he had a bright and shining mountaintop encounter with God during his conversion, God also let him mature in that faith by experiencing what C.S. Lewis calls the “troughs.”
What Michael Wells calls the dark room.
What John of the Cross calls the dark night of the soul.
And after he’s been through the wringer, Paul is able to show how trouble is a classroom that will one day transform our presence into a portable trauma center–both for people we love now and people that we will come to love in the future.
Let’s talk a bit about finding a purpose in the gift of pain
The desire to help people after we have survived pain is fairly common. Even in the secular world, parents who have lost children find a way to turn their sorrow into support groups or prevention crusades for other families. Abused women take classes in counseling and then adopt young women who are battered and confused. Addicts lead recovery classes.
So it’s not that Christians are the only ones who respond to pain redemptively, but I do wonder if this tendency resides in human nature because we are deeply marked by the image of a God who is in the business of redemption. And for the Christian who is connected intimately with a healing God, resources for maximizing our gift of suffering are even greater.
Not only do we have access to our own experiences and the hard-won wisdom they have purchased, but we also have access to the resources of a God who sees human pain big picture and who is already working to make all things new.
Paul writes of the:
“…God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. 6 If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.” (II Cor. 1: 3-6)
As Heidi taught us, we are interwoven. What comes to the one is poured out to benefit the many.
Last week I was walking my students through Tess of the D’Urbervilles (one of my favorite books), and we were talking about what we could learn from Tess by the end of Phase 3.
In other words, instead of talking down to a disgraced woman – if we were to sit at her feet and ask what wisdom she had gained – what could we learn? I was so impressed by some of the insights my students provided just by taking time to step into the role of “student of the sufferer.”
We can learn a similar concept from the book When Helping Hurts, which discusses how upper class churches tend to move into financially-challenged countries and communities feeling confident in all regards, simply because of the presence of financial resources.
However, emotionally, spiritually, financially, relationally, we are all impoverished somehow. And so there should be an inherent respect as we reach out to those in need, a recognition that we have much to learn from those who have hurt, and that if we have resources to share, they do as well.
There is value to our wounds. There is value to our poverty.
The Credibility of the Broken:
If you’ve been around people who know their own poverty – people who have suffered and come to know the extent of their own weakness — or if you have suffered to that point — you already know how this experience causes people to replace platitudes with narratives.
Instead of throwing out, “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle,” hurting people admit quickly: “Here’s what happened to me, and I couldn’t manage it. I found the ends of my strength, the ends of my convictions. It was too much for me, and here is what happened after I realized thatI could not perform for God…”
Then, they tell you a real story. They welcome you into details that aren’t the same as your details, but you feel a resonance with them, because you get how it matters that a girlfriend of yours dropped a jug a milk on the kitchen floor after coming home from the hospital with no sleep, and then collapsed to her knees and knelt in that milk and wept.
Or she says, “I sat in my van in a Walgreens parking lot at midnight, and I cried until the anger came, and then I hit the steering wheel hard and yelled, “Why, God?” so loudly that a couple of teenagers hanging out at the other end of the store heard me, and they laughed. And I never felt as lonely as that in all my life.”
Our hurting friends say that stuff, and even though we haven’t been there, we’ve been there.
Those who have hurt deeply somehow speak our language, because they speak the universal language of human trauma. We gravitate toward them, for when they tell us what they have survived, we see how we might survive, too.
Not only are we drawn to them emotionally, though. We are also drawn to them empirically. We sense that the proof is in the pudding…“A thing resounds when it rings true,” said Andrew Peterson, and this rings true because it has passed through the fire.
A few weeks ago, I heard Dr. Elsinore Stump speak on suffering, and I was amused by her engagement with John Milton’s writings. Because of her religious beliefs, she considers the Puritans her enemies, and yet she was so cute, talking about how she didn’t like their cause while admitting that Milton’s suffering caused his writing to grow so honest and mighty that she was forced by his pain to value his thoughts.
The same is true of many of my favorite writers. The same is true of many of my favorite friends and mentor. The good ones often hurt until they grow rich and deep.
A few weeks ago, I was listening to Michael Wells teach on Hebrews 11 (the cloud of witnesses passage) and when he got to the section that talks about people who suffered without finding an earthly answer to their pain, I burst into tears on my yoga mat and just wept.
Was I crying out of empathy? No. I was crying because he reminded me that those who suffer faithfully without discovering a “happily ever after” on this planet are “those of whom the world is not worthy.” It’s an honor to be in that company.
God sees this kind of pain. He hasn’t forgotten it.
How different that message is from the shame we tend to feel while hurting. When we are in pain, we are usually lonely. And suffering doesn’t just hurt, it often feels like guilt. It feels like foolishness, too — like we should have been able to avoid it.
It is a door opened for every accusation of hell, which will make us first despair before we finally break through the birth canal of our weakness, into an expanse of reliant hope.
Our suffering proves what we think we believe, but only know after pain
One of the greatest benefits of the gift of suffering is that it burns away what we think we believe but actually don’t.
I don’t know how many youth leaders asked me in the 1980’s: “If they hold a gun to your head, will you confess Christ?” but this sort of thinking was a crucible in evangelicalism long before there was any real threat of that sort to Americans.
Still, I obsessed over that question, lying on my bed worrying about it. I wanted to be a good and faithful Christian, and I was terrified that maybe I didn’t have what it took for a time of need.
Then I found out I didn’t have what it took, and it didn’t even take a gun pointed to my head. It took a whole lot less than that for me to crash.
I met the end of my self control. I saw how I didn’t believe what I thought I believed, not really.
Through pain, God delivers us from our self-reliance and self-promotion
This was humiliating and disorienting, but it was also a tremendous blessing, because through that awareness, I had to come face-to face with my self reliance.
I think Paul also had to come to this realization. He writes:
“For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. “
See that? When self-reliance is exposed, we are burdened beyond our strength… and we despair of life itself. Because that is how it feels to realize you don’t have what it takes. It feels like dying. And the stronger you are, the harder that death is.
Especially for the strong, it’s a death sentence to realize how weak we are. But there’s a purpose in this complete and utter exhaustion… to make us stop deluding ourselves about the ability of our will so that we can begin to rely upon God’s indwelling power.
This treatment of human weakness differs wildly from much of what we hear today in Christian circles.
Many of us who were growing up in the midst of the Christian authenticity movement tend to think we’ve reached health when we simply step into the light with our hardest secrets and finally admit – “I can’t fight this any more. I’m just like this. I can’t not be like this.”
This tendency isn’t limited to any single minority segment of the population – it’s a tendency that applies to all of us. Many—most of us are handed a temptation during suffering—a temptation that promises to make us feel happy, safe, known… finally not alone… and when it comes to us, that temptation hits right in the core of our vacuum. It makes all the sense in the world for us to chase it.
Have you ever heard Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese”? Here’s an excerpt:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Ugh. I hate that because I’ve seen people live like this, chasing whatever feels good and leaving a wake of destruction behind them. And Oliver is not alone in her epicureanism. You have hard the same message in a hundred different ways, right?
Chase your bliss.
Trust your instincts.
And when we are hurting, what a sweet and beautiful thought such escapes can be.
Besides, what could be so wrong about happiness? Is God cruel? Humanist/Christian theology so popular in our era tells us that we deserve euphoria. So, ifGod seems to be asking us to do something bigger than what we are able to do, He must not require it of us. He must not be serious, really. Or if He is, He must not be fair.
I’ve toyed indulgence as an escape for pain, teased it out, tested it — and I have found it full of a strange mix of intoxication and terror. It is a thrill, a high, an endorphin rush that turns cold and empty. It is a blast of sharp pleasure before a long night of terrible loneliness. There is delight to sin, but this delight fades into a cancer of the soul.
And as much as all my flesh cringes to face reality instead, at the intersection of my honest desperation and God’s holiness, His sufficiency meets me. This process hurts. To see that what we want is forbidden, and to then see that we don’t have the strength to resist what is forbidden–to realize that all of our wounds and wants cry out for what God prohibits—that is a powerful moment.
It is a devastating moment. And in many circles of Christianity, that devastation is not valued.
But it should be valued, because in maturing as a Christian, there often comes a point in which we realize that these cracked, leaking jars of clay and thorns in the flesh – are severe mercies — because they propel us into a union with God that we cannot achieve in our own goodness, in our own self-justification, or in our own autonomy.
Loving our Jars of Clay : Loving our Thorns in the Flesh
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.
Again—our hurt pours out to others.
For so long, I was ashamed of myself that I couldn’t do the Christian life right. And yeah, I teach literature, so I should have known the dangers of hubris.
In every good book, pride is foreboding. It means that a tragic hero is about to fall.
But still, it took so much to shake me out of that expectation.
Some time back in the mid 1990’s, I asked God to “give me one pure and holy passion.” And I wonder sometimes if God said, “Alright, my Love. I can do that. But this is going to burn. It’s going to feel like a Lion clawing off dragon skins.”
After this, I landed in a world that felt so severe and unbearable, so chaotic, so random, that I wondered if God could be real, of if He cared for me much, if he was. In the absence of the roar of my own glory, I found the gravity of my blessed weaknesses. I learned to trace the scars and burn marks keep me from becoming conceited.
I found the terrible, beautiful thorns of my flesh. I suffer because of them, and so I have pleaded with the Lord to remove them… but He has answered instead:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
What then, God? What is left for me to do?
“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
The gift of weakness. The gift of suffering.
Here we sit together today, inside of this weakness. And at the quivering end of ourselves what do we find? A new creation.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. …
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us:
“We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. “
We’ve circled round, see? We who emerge out of the cocoon of pain are commissioned to generosity. We have been invited into reconciliation so that we can reconcile.
Look down at your hands for a moment… those hands of yours that have wiped so many tears of shame and grief from your own face. Those same hands will be transformed into the hands of the Great Physician.
You will walk into the battlefields with Lucy’s cordial, whispering the name of Aslan over those who cannot lift their heads.
And though we are all sore and weary, I am glad to be in your company…
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.
Rebecca Reynolds teaches Classical Rhetoric and Philosophy of Faith in eastern Tennessee, and is a contributor to the Story Warren website. She’s the author and illustrator of the pediatric series From the Medical Files of Dr. Phineas C. Bones and collaborated with Ron Block as the lyricist for his critcally-acclaimed album, Walking Song. She lives in Kingsport, Tennessee, with her husband and three children.