Monday, March 17, 2014

Pain Has a Purpose

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?  Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?  Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”   Mark 8:31-38 (NRSVA)
As we approach Holy Week we are looking at texts that bring the suffering of Jesus into startling focus.  Today our text is about pain, picking up a cross and following God to the place where they spit on you, pin you spread-eagle on crossbeams, and leave you to bleed-out and die on the town garbage dump.  And then they break your legs.  It is not a “feel-good” text; Christ’s movement to the cross is all about pain!

The issue of pain does not escape any of us.  And we’re usually ready to talk about it if asked (sometimes you don’t have to ask)!  Pain is one of the lowest common denominators for human beings; we all know the experience of pain to one degree or another.  We talk about it, manage it, control it, deaden it, use it for motivation, fear it, and some even love it! 

Christina Ricci and Angelina Jolie are two movie stars
who have admitted that they inflict pain on themselves for “therapy”.  Christina Ricci was interviewed by Rolling Stone magazine and described in detail why she inflicts pain on herself:
She stretches; her sleeves ride up; there are raised round scars on her forearms, burns on the back of one hand.  She later explains where each mark came from:  how she heated a lighter, held it against her hand, a stunt to impress some boys when she was angry about "not looking very good."  The forearm scratches come from soda tops and fingernails:  "It's like having a drink," Ricci says, "but it's quicker.  You know how your brain shuts down from pain?  The pain would be so bad, it would force my body to slow down, and I wouldn't be as anxious.  It made me calm."[1]

The differences between Jesus and Christina Ricci are too obvious to dwell on the subject.  However there is at least one marked distinction that ought to be made:  the actress craves the pain so her brain will shut down and she won’t have to face her life – selfishness taken to extreme; Jesus endured the pain to embrace life and secure life for others – selflessness taken to the divine. 

An actress trades one type of pain so she will not have to accept another.  The Lord endures all the pain that is possible to destroy the effect it has on the human race.

Well, what do you do about pain? 

Pain has been, is, and will continue to be part of our human experience.  The questions are “why” and “for what purpose”?  If I’m going to have to deal with pain in my life, I want to know, or at least understand better what purpose this “unwelcome visitor” pain, serves!  

The book of Job is probably the oldest of the Bible’s texts.  In it the writer deals with the oldest question, why is there suffering…why must we experience pain?  The book closes with less of an answer to the questions than an assurance that God truly loves us and is watching over all that happens.

I once attempted in a sermon to answer the “why pain question” for a church member who was experiencing more than his share:

All the pain in the world is the direct or indirect result of sin (original, and secondary).  Pain sometimes comes to us as a result of other people's sin, not our own...but it is the best ‘wake-up call’ we can have to remember we are part of one another....and when one part of the human family aches, we all must groan.  We are connected, and, at base level, we are most connected by our suffering. 
When Adam and Eve sinned the ground was cursed, all creation felt the groaning.  That was when pain entered the equation of human existence.  Pain was the accompanying trumpeter announcing the approach of death. 

Sometimes the best way to deal with what seems to be arbitrary, contradictory and malevolent is to watch how others have navigated the rough waters of pain. 

I want to show you two scenes from the Movie “Shadowlands”.  This movie is the story of C.S. Lewis and his struggle with human suffering. 
Lewis was, in my opinion, the clearest Christian communicator of the 20th century.  He was an atheist as a young man, and only became converted in mid-life.  As a confirmed bachelor in his 50’s he finally married Joy Gresham, a divorced American single mother. 

The first scene is a lecture at Oxford University in 1952 (the same place where John Wesley taught in the mid-18th century).  Lewis (played by Anthony Hopkins), is lecturing on pain and suffering, attempting to answer the question of God’s point in allowing suffering:
I don’t think God particularly wants us to be happy; I think he wants us to be able to be loved, and to love.  I think he wants us to grow up.  We think our childish toys bring us all the happiness there is; and our nursery is the whole wide world.  But something, something must drive us out of the nursery – to the world of others, and that something is suffering.[1]

At this point in his life Lewis is still unmarried and pretty much teaching intellectually rather than from practical experience.

The second scene is several years later, after he has fallen in love with Joy (played by Debra Winger).  They became friends at first, and then married for Joy’s sake, so she could stay in England.  She is diagnosed with cancer, almost dies, and then experiences remission.  Then, as the disease makes a comeback Joy and Lewis (she called him “Jack”) are on a trip to find favorite place from boyhood memories.  The threat of Joy’s growing cancer is hanging over their relationship:

Jack:    You know, I don’t want to be somewhere else anymore; I’m not waiting for anything new to happen; not looking around the next corner – no next hill.  I’m here now; that’s enough.
Joy:      That’s your kind of happy, isn’t it?
Jack:    Yes, yes it is.
Joy:      It’s not going to last, Jack.
Jack:    We shouldn’t have to think about that now – let’s not spoil the time we have together.
Joy:      It doesn’t spoil it; it makes it real.  Let me just say it before this rain stops and we have to go back.
Jack:    What is there to say?
Joy:      That I’m going to die, and I want to be with you then, too.  The only way I can do that is if I’m able to talk to you about it now.
Jack:    I’ll manage somehow; don’t worry about me.
Joy:      No, it can be better than that; I think it can be better than just managing.  What I’m trying to say is that the pain then, is part of the happiness now.  That’s the deal.[1]

The Mark of God’s Love

As much as human beings are interconnected by our common experience of pain, our connection with God’s love is also marked.  I had emergency surgery for a ruptured spleen when I was 16.  I was not nearly as indestructible on the football field as I thought when my soft underbelly met the knee of another player.  

Two days following the surgery the ancient nurse came into my room and said, All right, young man, time to get up and do our walking!  I wanted to say to her, what do you mean ‘our’ walking – you got a squirrel in your pocket, lady?  I’m in pain here! 

My thinking was if we were going to do walking, I wanted her to share some of the pain.  In actuality she did.  That nurse was small but wise, and she had a look, a cold stare that could freeze hot tamales! She knew about pain; you could tell it in her eyes.  She’d borne children and known hardship and discipline.  She’d lived four times as long as me, and now she was sharing my pain.  We walked, and I eventually felt better, stronger.  She helped, because she understood.  And we are forever linked by the suffering we shared.

In our pain there is the evidence of our connection with God’s love.  God’s way is to bring His love to us.  C.S. Lewis also said that God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.[2]  What is it that He shouts to us?  It is His love.  It is John 3:16…He so-loved us, He sent His son to bear the pain we could not endure.

In Gethsemane Jesus faced the spiritual pain of all the sins of all people for all time.  On the cross Jesus cried out over both the physical abuse and the spiritual desolation, knowing the intensity of pain no one has ever known.  And His pain produced our salvation.  We are connected to God by salvation, and His death, like Joy Gresham Lewis’ is part of the happiness of our redemption day.  His pain is the evidence of God’s love. 

Dealing with Our Pain

Sometimes we can get our mind around the purpose for our pain as it connects us with the Son of God.  But even that doesn’t tell us what to do with that pain.  Three things stand out as primary:

#1.  Don’t run from it…embrace it. 

It is God’s reminder, His still, small voice of leading, loving you.  Remember you have not yet been hung on a cross, nails driven through your hands and feet, and a crown of thorns jammed-down on your head. 

Neither are you paying for the weight of the sins of the whole world.  Neither are you innocent of sin. 

He was all of that.  Your pain is teaching you Christlikeness.  Don’t run from it.

#2.  Don’t despise it. 

Pain is one of the few warning systems the body has to help it heal.  Dr. Paul Brand of Carville, Louisiana, one of the world's foremost experts on leprosy, describes how "leprosy patients lose their fingers and toes, not because the disease can cause decay, but precisely because they lack pain sensations.  Nothing warns them when water is too hot or a hammer handle is splintered.  Accidental self-abuse destroys their bodies."[3]

Far from destroying you, your pain can help you see more clearly than ever the miracle which is life – and the Author of that miracle!

#3.  Love in the presence of pain. 

C.S. Lewis had a horrible childhood, with experiences of death and a father who had no love for him.  He was wounded badly in World War I, seeing the cruelty and brutality of a horrific war firsthand. 

He rejected any idea of a loving God, and buried himself in books and scholarly pursuits of academia; he insulated himself from the possibilities of love and relationships.  He reasoned that a God who allowed that kind of pain cannot be welcomed into human life. 

In excluding the God he couldn’t see, he isolated himself from the humans around him he could have seen.

Until he met Joy…[final film clip]

Why love, if losing hurts so much?  I have no answers any more; only the life I live.  Twice in that life I have been given the choice, as a boy, and as a man.  The boy chose safety; the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness; that is the deal.[4]

The ancient sufferer, Job, tells us pain is part of who we are as human beings, as assuredly as the sparks fly upward. 

But the pain now is part of the happiness God has waiting for us.  He said that was the deal!
…he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”   Revelation 21:4 (NRSVA)

[1] David Lipsky, "Nice and Naughty," Rolling Stone (12-9-99), p.50 © 2000 / Christianity
[2] Edythe Draper, Draper’s Book of Quotations for the Christian World, (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publisher’s, Inc., 1992).  Entries 8256-8257
[3] Philip Yancey in "Pain:  The Tool of the Wounded Surgeon," Christianity Today, March 24, 1978
[4] Shadowlands, Anthony Hopkins, Debra Winger  ©1993 Savoy Pictures, Inc.  @ 2:06:00 (Elapsed time 36 sec)

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