The Problem of Pain, Psalm 51:10

Slave Ship, Art in Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, Charlotte, NC
Art in Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, Charlotte, NC

The Problem of Pain, Psalm 51:10

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Centreville Presbyterian Church, Centreville, VA,  August 24, 2003

Greeting

Good morning!

A key point when we face pain and suffering is that God remains with us.  We are not alone.

The prime example of this principle comes in the story of Daniel[1].

Now after Daniel survived a night in the lion’s den, King Darius was astonished that Daniel was still alive.  So, he summoned Daniel into his throne room and asked Daniel why the lions had not eaten him.

“It was easy, your Excellency,” Daniel said. “I went around and whispered in each lion’s ear — ‘After dinner, one of our elders will say a few words.'”

Scripture

Create in me a pure heart O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me. Amen

 Psalm 51:10-12 RSV

Illustration

Let’s start this morning with a little mind experiment.  Think of someone that you respect.  What is special about this person?  Are they strong? Are they good looking?  What led you to respect them?  Chances are that many of the people you have in mind have suffered serious pain in their lives.

Larry’s Funeral

In July I attended a funeral of a colleague, Larry.  Larry was special.  No one was a stranger around Larry.  Larry had the glow.

At the funeral people talked about Larry’s lust for life and his joy.  Larry was known for his singing.  He was known in the office because he remembered co-workers’ children and asked about them.  About third of the church was filled with colleagues of Larry from other parts of town.

At the funeral, people talked about Larry’s strength.  He was a father and a grandfather.  He could throw a football an entire city block—twice the distance of his own brother.  What really stuck out at this funeral was the long list of testimonials—Larry clearly touched many lives.

Why do I mention this?

Larry was black and confined to a wheelchair for the time that I knew him.  Underprivileged, handicapped, and killed at age of 48 by the disease that crippled him, Larry was no stranger to hardship.  In spite of everything, he persevered in winning the golden crown award in the fellowship of saints.

Challenges Grow Us

We respect people that overcome difficult challenges.  In his book, Where is God When It Hurts, Philip Yancey reports that leaders, such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, George Washington, and Queen Victoria, were all either orphaned at an early age or experienced severe childhood deprivation[2].

Why God?

The problem of pain sums up with the question:  If God is all powerful and all loving, why does he allow such pain and suffering? In shining light on this question, I will divide my comments into three parts.  First, I will look at the nature of pain.  Second, I will review Biblical views on pain and suffering.  Finally, I will conclude with a few words of wisdom.

What is Pain?

Pain communicates.  When we put a hand on a hot stove, our hand seems to shout:  get me out of here[4].  When we do something stupid and suffer ridicule from our friends, we experience a different kind of pain.  In the physical world or a social context, pain demands immediate attention.  It teaches us what to do and what not to do.

In discussing the spiritual side of pain, it is helpful to distinguish avoidable from unavoidable pain.

Avoidable Pain

Avoidable pain challenges our intelligence more than our faith.  When we drive without a seat belt and have an accident, God is not normally blamed.  Instead, the wisdom of wearing a seat-belt becomes painfully obvious.  Not all avoidable pains in this life, however, are equally obvious.

Sin.

The relationship between sin and pain is well understood.  Sin occurs when we do something that we should not do.  The obvious case is murder.  The immediate consequence of murder is the pain of imprisonment or death.

Iniquity.

Iniquity is more insidious than sin.  Iniquity occurs when we fail to do something that we should have done (Proverbs 3:27).  Iniquity can not only produce pain, but also a consuming guilt and shame.

When I think about iniquity, I remember a puppy that we had when I was in high school.  This puppy was very enthusiastic and slipped out of the house one morning as I was walking to school.  That morning I was late and the puppy did not catch up to me until I was quite a distance from home.  Upset with him, I sent him home.  Obediently, the dog immediately ran across the road and was struck dead by a passing car in front of my eyes.  I had done nothing wrong, but what I failed to do cost that innocent puppy his life.

More than sin, iniquity challenges modern society.   Consider, for example, the effect of technology on our ability to work 24-7.  As work fills our lives with good things, we have less time to raise our children, care for our elderly parents, and commit time to God.  The workaholic has no special proclivity to sin, but finds iniquity a constant challenge.

The Learning Process.

In the example of the workaholic, it is ironic that something good (like work) should lead to something bad (like iniquity).  This problem arises because the normal learning process breaks down.

Psychologists describe learning as responses to positive and negative stimuli.  We are attracted to positive stimuli and we avoid negative stimuli.  In other words, if it feels good, do it!  Or, as my doctor always tells me, if it is hurts, don’t do it!

The learning process breaks down when a positive stimulus is associated in the short run with pleasure and in the long run with pain.  Such phenomena are described as social traps.  Smoking, alcohol or drug addiction, cheating on our spouses and compulsive attention to work are all social traps.  In each case, the immediate gratification of our desires leads us where we would not normally choose to go.  Because the learning process breaks down, social traps require spiritual instruction.

Unavoidable Pain

Because God gives us the freedom to make decisions, bad decisions can generate avoidable pain.  The problem is that we cannot always avoid pain caused by other people’s decisions and the natural world has rules that all of us must respect.  Accidents happen.  Unavoidable pain is accordingly a consequence of free will and life in the natural world (Lewis, p. 34).  Still, the tendency to blame God for our pains has been with us since the time of Job.

In his book, The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis (p. 90) describes suffering as: any experience, whether physical or mental, which the patient dislikes.  Like Lewis, I use the terms pain and suffering interchangeably because of personal experience.  When my wife, Maryam, began her battle with breast cancer eight years ago, her surgery and physical recovery were completed within weeks.  The immediate pain went away.  The scars on her soul and mine, however, never completely healed.

Perceptions of Pain

During World War II, anesthesiologist Henry K. Beecher noted that only about one in three soldiers injured on the battlefield requested morphine while about four out of five civilians with similar injuries made this request.  This led him to conclude that physical injuries and the perceived pain are not directly linked (Yancey, p. 177).

Beecher’s conclusion makes sense because morphine calms a patient’s anxiety.  We can infer from Beecher’s observations that soldiers and civilians differ in their morphine use primarily because their sources of fear differ.  For the soldier, a trip to the hospital meant that he would likely survive the war.  For the civilian, the trip to the hospital meant pain and potential disabilities.  In effect, the soldiers’ joy in leaving the battlefield came associated with physical injuries that would terrorize a civilian.

Because fear magnifies our pain and suffering, pain management and a full recovery require that we deal with the spiritual side of healing.

Biblical Views of Pain and Suffering

God works to grow our faith and relationship with Him.  Sin thwarts this objective but God typically does not immediately punish us.  The point of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was to redeem us from God’s judgment and to bring the hope of eternal life—the Good News of the Gospel.   The Biblical view of God’s relationship with His creation can accordingly be interpreted as an antidote to the pain and suffering of the natural world.

The Beatitudes

To understand how Christ’s earthly ministry could end with the cross and the resurrection, it is helpful to begin with the Beatitudes—the happy attitudes.  In Mathew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins with:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
”Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted
(Mathew 5:3-4 NIV).

Notice that Jesus starts his sermon with suffering[7].  What could be more ironic than: happy are those who suffer?

Billy Grahm on Pain

In his book, The Secret of Happiness, Billy Graham describes the mourners in the second Beatitude as those who mourn of their own spiritual inadequacy before God[8].  This is not a spirit of self-pity.  Rather, it is someone who has sensed the presence of a Holy God and found the comparison with self unbearable.  Mourning of spiritual inadequacy is accordingly followed by mourning for repentance (P. 20-21).  More to the point, we are all born under sentence of death, mourn under pain of death, and need the comfort of redemption.  Suffering accordingly plays a key role in our understanding of Christ’s redemptive ministry.

Pain And Suffering As A Wakeup Call

The Beatitudes give us hope that redemption, not suffering, is at journey’s end.  It is accordingly not surprising that the Bible disputes the common notion that God uses pain to draw attention to our sins.

The clearest example of this principle is found in chapter 9 of the book of John.  When Christ heals the man born blind, he answers the question of sin directly: who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind? Jesus answered:  Neither this man nor his parents sinned, …but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life (John 9:1-3 NIV)[9]As in Christ’s ministry to the blind man, the point of our pain and suffering is not to draw attention to sin but for God to build a stronger relationship with us (Yancey, p. x).

Spiritual Warfare

In the Bible, great pain accompanies great joy.  In Mathew’s account of Christ’s birth, Mary and Joseph flee in the middle of the night to Egypt to avoid King Herod’s attempt to murder the Christ child[10].  Although we love to celebrate the joy of Christmas, the original Christmas story was marred by genocide and the stench of death.  Great pain accompanies great joy[11].

Ludwig Van Beethoven

Consider the life of Ludwig Van Beethoven.  During the period when he was losing his hearing, Beethoven wrote his ninth symphony, the Choral Symphony, taking the text from Friedrich von Schiller’s poem, Ode to Joy.  On its opening night in 1824 Beethoven conducted the orchestra. The music was so beautiful that some of the musicians cried.  Yet, Beethoven heard none of it.  He was so deaf that when the symphony ended a member of the orchestra had to get up and draw Beethoven’s attention to the audience who had already begun to applaud.  Had Beethoven given into depression in his deafness rather than looked to God for inspiration, the world would have been robbed of one of its greatest musical treasures.

Beyond Pain

Just like we must look beyond the pain of crucifixion to see the joy of the resurrection, we must look beyond the suffering in our own lives to see the perfect future that is in Christ.  Just as James writes:

Consider it pure joy, my friends, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:2-5 NIV).

This Biblical view of pain accordingly turns the stimulus-response world of human psychology upside down.  Normal learning is disrupted because a positive response (that is, joy) follows a negative stimulus (that is, suffering).  In Christian psychology, the cross we bear always precedes the crown we wear.  This is why Paul writes: but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Words of Wisdom

In confronting pain and suffering, we are not alone.  We are not alone!  As the Apostle Paul writes:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8: 35-39 NIV)

Like Daniel in the lions den (Daniel 6:10-24), we testify to our faith by how we cope with pain and suffering.

Why Me?

The temptation in time of great adversity, of course, is to turn inward[13] and ask:  Why me?  The consequence of turning inward is that we end up blaming God for our problems and we become slaves to fear.

Stressful Year

During about a 12 month period in 1992-93, I lost my job, my son was born with a kidney defect, and my wife went through her first battle with breast cancer.  This was the hardest year of my life and I reacted by retreating into my work.  Out of deep seated fear, I worked every waking hour to learn new skills and to advance my career.

Initially, this approach worked.  I found a better position and was later promoted.  As time passed, however, the office situation changed.  Technical skills became less important and I found myself less able to adjust—I lacked self-confidence and fear prompted me to turn ever more inward.  It took me almost a decade before I was able to trust God enough to pull out of my shell.  While these years were not exactly wasted, I vowed before God that I would never again let myself become a slave to fear.

Where is God Leading Me?

Instead of asking why me, a better question to ask is:  where is God leading me?  Focusing on God’s plan for our lives is not only better theology; it diverts our attention away from our suffering and directly reduces our pain.  The change in attitude is also critical.  We are no longer victims of our own fears, but servants of an almighty God who are both willing and able to cope with the adversity.

An important byproduct of our own suffering is an increased capacity to minister to those suffering around us.  As the Apostle Paul wrote:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 NIV).

The strength that we gather from a life at the foot of the cross therefore allows us to be available to those who suffer around us.  Can you listen?  Can you empathize?   In the words of Paul: Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15).

Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi [14]

Lord, grant that I may seek rather

To comfort than to be comforted,

To understand than to be understood,

To love than to be loved;

For it is by giving that one receives,

It is by self-forgetting that one finds,

It is by forgiving that one is forgiven,

It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life. Amen

Benediction

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Amen.

(Romans 15:13 RSV).

 Footnotes


[1] See chapter 6 of the Book of Daniel.

[2] See chapter 6 of the Book of Daniel. Zondervan:  Grand   Rapids, Michigan.  P. 141.

[4]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.  Lewis.  P. 93.

[7] It is interesting that in the much shorter version of the Sermon on the Mount found in Luke 6, Luke also highlights these two among the four Beatitudes he lists.  Mathew lists nine Beatitudes.

[9] Likewise, Job learns to depend on God in adversity (McGee, pp. 188-89; Job 42:1-3 NIV).  Similarly, Paul write:  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9 NIV).

[10] Mathew 2:16-18. Exodus 1:15-22.

[11] Similarly, in speaking of the second coming in Romans 8:22, Paul describes it as the pain of childbirth which is immediately sweep away by the joy of holding a newborn baby.

[13]If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!  Ecclesiastes 4:10.  Also, Cloud and Townsend, p. 216.

[14] Graham. p. 24.

References

Cloud, Henry and John Townsend.  1992. Boundaries.  Zondervan:  Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Cross, John G. and Melvin J. Guyer. 1980. Social Traps.  University of Michigan Press:  Ann Arbor. 1980.

Graham, Billy 1955. The Secret of Happiness, Garden City, NY:  Doubleday & Company, Inc.

Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain.  MacMillan Publishing Company:  New York.

McGee, J. Vernon.  1991. Job.  Thomas Nelson Publishers:  Nashville, TN.

Skinner, B.F. 1971. Beyond Freedom and Dignity.  New   York:  Bantam Books, Inc.

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