The Problem of Pain

I know you’re thinking this is probably going to be a rehash of C. S. Lewis’ brilliant book on the apologetic “problem of pain” — i.e., if God is love, and God is all-powerful, why does sin and pain exist?

But no. I long ago realized that as much as I love my favorite author, and would like to be that brilliant, it’s just not going to happen in this lifetime. So I won’t even attempt that.

Today I intend instead for this post to be about something quite different: An epiphany that I had this morning about my own sinfulness and shortcomings.

One of the problems with pain is that it kicks you when you are down, so to speak. These past few months we have all been struggling with pain: the various unhappy results of the coronavirus epidemic, including the fear of getting sick or dying, the isolation and loneliness of being “locked down,” the inability to be physically present with friends, loved ones, and brothers and sisters in Christ; even the frustration of seeing a substantial portion of your life savings evaporate as the markets react.

And more recently, the conflict has escalated between people I consider friends over how to consider and react to the government’s actions to try and stem the pandemic. This political battle, this glaring conflict of personal opinions expressed at times so unkindly on social media, has more deeply and negatively impacted me and many people that I know and love in ways that make some of the other negative impacts of Covid-19 seem small by comparison. We have come to realize how fragile our commitment to Christ’s words in John 13:35, and that is deeply saddening.

(And of course I realize that my own experience with the pandemic is much kinder than that of many others, especially those who have actually gotten sick or lost a loved one, and those who have lost livelihoods and are struggling to make ends meet, which we are not.)

And then of course piled on to that is this whole recent national experience as our endemic personal and systemic racism has once again reared its ugly head. After the murder of George Floyd and the street demonstrations which turned into riots which kicked all those small businesses while they were down — looting and burning, etc. — and all the fear that comes from seeing our society seeming to disintegrate into conflict and lawlessness in front of our eyes … and, once again, the debate within our churches about if or how we should respond, etc.

Then when you’re down, more kicking comes. This past month has been a difficult one for my wife and I for personal reasons. She has had very painful struggles with kidney stones, and her doctor suggested a possible surgical fix. She did the surgery, and it was completely unsuccessful. She has multiple stones in her right kidney and they were unable to get any of them. When she woke up I had to break the bad news and she was of course bitterly disappointed. Then the past week or two has been full of dealing with the difficult and uncomfortable effects of the surgery and her recovery. And we are now “back to square one,” as it were … how and what are we going to do that might help ease her suffering?

Piled on to that is my own minor frustrations and pain. Two weeks ago I was getting out of the hot tub (rough life, I know) and I slipped and fell backward. I didn’t hit anything, but as I tried to recover I felt a muscle in my left shoulder do something weird. Since then I have struggled with severe pain in my neck, to the point some nights of being unable to sleep. Fourteen years ago I had a cycling accident where I cracked the top vertebrae in my neck and suffered a severe concussion. (The blessing of course was that, despite the back of my helmet being obliterated by the mirror of a passing truck or bus, I wasn’t killed or paralyzed.) Occasionally I have struggled with neck pain that has resulted from that old injury, and this feels related. Darlene made an appointment with my osteopath but I couldn’t get in until next Tuesday, so in the meantime I’m just “dealing with it.”

So I’ve been foggy, and grumpy, and wallowing in self pity as I’ve had to deal with all of these little pains, piled one on top of the other. And it occurred to me this morning while I was reflecting on all this that there is a severe contrast between what the problem of pain is doing in my life, and what the problem of pain did in the life of Christ.

What the problem of all this pain (as relatively minor as it is) has been doing in my life is magnifying and giving opportunities for my own sinful tendencies to express themselves: my self-centeredness, my wallowing in my own misery, my blaming others, my seeking temporary pleasures to distract me, and perhaps worst of all my general tendency to ignore the knock on my own heart of the God who is trying to get my attention and wants to spend quality time with me to help me figure out how to take all this pain and use it to experience Him and express praise for His glory.

What happened this morning is the realization of what a vast gulf exists between the way I respond to pain, and the way Jesus responded to it. That’s the lesson of the Garden (of Gethsemane), and of the Cross. We know that Jesus was in incredible pain as He headed to His Passion:

And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. (Luke 22:44)

But His response to His deep pain is clearly so very different than my response to my comparatively shallow pain. Being in anguish, He “prayed more earnestly.” And what did He pray? “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)

drop of blood on snowSeeing this vast gulf between us once again drives this truth home: the problem of pain is that it demonstrates my deep sinfulness, against His deep righteousness. The contrast is as stark as blood on pristine snow.

So this morning, after weeping some tears of repentance over all this (as I should have done a long time ago), I did a little bit of therapy. What first came to mind is something stupid and selfish I said in a conversation with my son-in-law, when we were talking about his challenges and I yielded to the usual temptation to make the conversation about me. So I shared with him as openly and transparently as I could about the root of evil in my own heart that caused this to happen, and asked for his forgiveness.

And I know there is much more work to be done. That work lies mainly in drawing closer to the one whose blood flowed to the ground on my behalf. His forgiveness is my salvation, and it’s in the daily work of seeing the contrast between His righteousness and my sinfulness that I have any hope of ever becoming more like Him.

Also, writing this blog is a part of that process. (One of the weird things about me that may be hard to understand is the fact that writing is closely linked to that process of examining my own heart. Even if I don’t choose to post it as a blog, as I am doing here, the process of writing it does help me to think through and get closer to the place where I need to be.)

So much of my writing is like that. It’s quite possible it reflects my sinful tendencies. And it’s quite possible I may never make a dime off of it, or it may never have an impact on the life of another person. But it does help me. (There it is again! It’s all about me, right?)

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