Maya Angelou Writes About Pain

maya_angelou_review_12312016Maya Angelou. 2015. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Orig Pub 1969). New York: Ballantine Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

When I was in graduate school, I shared an office with a black student from Trinidad. He was an easy person to like and we had a great time together. After a few weeks, however, I wondered why he seemed so different to me—he had no chip on his shoulder. I was accustomed to the African American chip and he lacked the chip.

Introduction

In her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou wastes no time in revealing the chip. The first story that she shares is a story of shame, embarrassment, and torment in reciting a poem on Easter Sunday in Sunday school at the age of about three where she writes about her mother dressing her:

“As I’d watched Momma put ruffles on the hem and cut little tucks around the waist, I know that once I put it on I’d look like a movie star. (It was silk and that made up for the awful color). I was going to look like one of the sweet little white girls who were everybody’s dream of what was right with the world.” (2)

Angelou was born April 4th, 1928 as Marguerite Annie Johnson[1] in Saint Louis, Missouri, which would place this event around 1931 during the Great Depression. Her awareness of social position at age three is astounding—my first awareness of the existence of black people did not come until I was around 5 years old and at that point I had no awareness of my social position or lack thereof. The idea that I would define my own identity at age three in turns of another social group is incredulous. Ms. Angelou was either an incredibly gifted three-year old or she is writing in adult voice about her experiences as a child, imposing an adult chip on a three-year old shoulder. Because she self-identifies as a civil rights activist, I suspect that the later interpretation is more appropriate.[2]

Deep Pain Theme

Whether you accept the chip or not, this is a powerful image of deep pain, which is a theme throughout this memoir. In the following chapter, she writes about the experience of being abandoned by her parents (5-9); later, she is reunited with her mother only to be raped at age eight by her mother’s boyfriend (77-82); the final chapter recounts how she solicited a physical relationship with a good looking boy—to upgrade her own self-esteem—and has a child out of wedlock at age 16 (273-283). The deep pain, that these events reveal, leads us to excuse her use of adult voice, in part, because such pain leaves little room for the vicissitudes of a sheltered childhood.

Not Extreme or Extraordinary

Such deeply troubling and painful events may seem extreme. If I had not worked in a hospital that serves African Americans, I might have questioned whether this memoir was typical of the African American experience but I met many women with similar stories. Sadly, such circumstances are too typical. What surprised me most about my conversations as a chaplain intern with these women was how few of them were willing to shoulder the chip to blame others.[3] The grace and magnanimity of these women—most of whom were deeply religious Christians—was a testimony to their faith.

Assessment

Maya Angelou’s memoir, I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, documents her early life experiences as a young black woman from the age of three until about sixteen living in the rural south (Stamps, Arkansas), Saint Louis, and California. Angelou is an engaging and expressive writer who writes about her deepest and most painful experiences growing up. Hopefully, she found catharsis in writing and we, as readers, can share in this catharsis.

Footnotes

[1] April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014.

[2] http://www.MayaAngelou.com/biography.

[3] For Angelou, the chip is never far off. Near the end of her memoir, she writes: “The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.” (272)Maya Angelou Writes About Pain

Maya Angelou Writes About Pain

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Prayer for Those in Pain

wedding-009

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Heavenly Father,

Prepare our hearts, oh Lord, for the coming holidays when we

must face that empty chair,

must answer questions that intrude too much,

and much remember events from the past that refuse to be history.

Turn down the lights a bit,

Let the old music play bit more gently,

Give me some space when I seem a bit distant.

In the power of your Holy Spirit,

Remind me, oh Lord, of your love in Christmas lights.

Shelter me in your arms again.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Prayer for Those in Pain

 

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Blessed are Those Who Mourn

New Life
New Life

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon, Virginia, May 20, 2015 (translated from Spanish)

Welcome

Welcome to Luncheon for the Soul this afternoon at Trinity Presbyterian Church. My name is Stephen.  I am a volunteer pastor from Centreville Presbyterian Church.

Today’s message focuses on the need to take a new attitude about grief.  When we are in pain, do we turn to God or lean into the pain? (2X)

Prayer

Let’s pray.

Heavenly father.  Thank you for your presence among us this morning.  We especially give thanks for life, our health, and the riches of fellowship that we have in your church.  In the power of the Holy Spirit, open our eyes and give us ears that hear.  In the precious name of your son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

New Testament Reading

Today’s text comes from the Gospel of Matthew 5:4.  This is the second beatitude and a part of the introduction of the Sermon on the Mount.  Hear the word of God::

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4 ESV)[1]

The Word of the Lord.  Praise be to God.

Introduction

Who do you mourn for? (2X)

I remember in my case the death of my sister, Diane, in 2007.  I am the oldest in the family so she was 2 year younger than I.  For this reason the loss of my sister was especially difficult, but also because we were friends our whole lives.  My father was a student during much of my youth and we moved around a lot during those years.  Consequently, Diane was my only real friend until I was 8 years old. We learned about life together. Now, Diane was in heaven and I was alone with my memories.  The following year, 2008, I began my seminary studies.  Were those 2 events related?  Maybe yes; maybe no.  At this point, I believe they were.

What have you learned during your experiences of loss? (2X)

Old Testament Reading

The second beatitude comes directly from Isaiah 61:1-3 where it reads:

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion– to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.” (Isa. 61:1-3 ESV)

We remember this passage well because Jesus read it during his call sermon in Luke 4.

Who receives consolation in these verses?  Two groups stand out:

  • “all who mourn” and
  • “those who mourn in Zion”.

The context of these verses is the Babylonian captivity which came in response to the sins of the Judeans.

But, why does God mourn? (2X) God mourns for our sins because our sins come between us and a Holy God (Gen 6:5-6)[2].  Our sins separate us from God.  Therefore, when we mourn our own sins God promises to offer us consolation.  Jesus Christ says:

 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4 ESV)

Analysis

There is a second reason why the second beatitude offers God’s consolation.  Grief is a kind of lamentation. A lament is a song (or prayer) of mourning and there are many laments in the Book of Psalms.

A lament has a important form consisting of 2 parts [3].

In the first part of a lament one tells God everything that burdens your heart.  All the pain, all the fears, all the anger.  It is important to be very honest with God.  It is good to be even angry with God because God is great and your anger makes it obvious that you take God really seriously. This part of the lament is finished when all the pain has been emptied.  At this point, the soul is quiet.

The second part of a lament arises exactly because the soul is quiet.  At this point, it is possible to recall the blessings of God in your journey of faith. This part of a lament consists primarily of praise. So it is ironic that a lament is for many people, many times the path to salvation. Here we see the consolation of the second beatitude:

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4 ESV)

Who do you mourn for? (2X)

In my case, I was in the process of lament when I started by studies in seminary.  But, up to this point, I never put those two things together in my thoughts.  Did God use my pain to draw me closer to himself?

More Analysis

When we grieve it is true that we experience real loss. We need here to make a decision:  will we turn to God or lean into our pain? (2X)

This decision is important because pain is a powerful emotion which has the capacity to cause changes in our identity.  It is a Garden-in-Gethsemane moment in our lives (Mateo 26:36-43). In a real sense, our identity is a collection of all the decisions about pain in our lives.  Ultimately, is our identity in Christ or in our pain? (2X)

Over what do you grieve? (2X) Jesus reminds us:

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4 ESV)

Closing Prayer

Let’s pray.

Almighty God, beloved Son, ever present Spirit, we praise you for your gracious love and consolation in times of pain and loss.  Cleanse our hearts of these losses, the fears, the shame, and the evil passions that cause us to sin.  In the precious name of Jesus, Amen.

 

[1] “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” (Luke 6:21 ESV)

[2] “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (Gen. 6:5-6 ESV)

[3] Card, Michael. 2005. A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

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Nouwen Ministers Out of Pain

Henri Nouwen, Wounded HealerHenri J.M. Nouwen. 2010. Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Orig  1972). New York:  Image Doubleday.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Many call stories recited by pastors started at the foot of a hospital bed. Mine did. Others have suffered chronic illness of a sibling or child.  Been there.  Awareness of our own pain helps us appreciate the pain of others (4).  Lived it. I first read Henri Nouwen’s book, Wounded Healer, in the years before attending seminary.  Reading and understanding did not, however, immediately go hand-in-hand.

Lost Transcendence

Thinking in terms of the scientific method, the hardest step in problem-solving is often defining the problem—defining the problem in such a way that further inquiry is both doable and productive [1]. For Nouwen, the core problem of postmodernity is a lost sense of God’s transcendence (20-21).  Citing Robert Jay Lifton, modern people are characterized by historical dislocation, fragmented ideology, and a search for new immorality (12). Nouwen sees these characteristics as more lost connection with the past or the future (12-13), lost belief in objective reality (15), and lost meaning in the traditional symbols of the church (18-19).  This lost sense of transcendence leaves the postmodern person only able to perceive an “existential transcendence”—a kind of breaking out of their private lives to get lost in mysticism or revolutionary causes (20-23).  He sees Christianity itself through a dual lens of mysticism and revolution; conversion is itself a personal revolution (23).

Examples

Churches are clearly experimenting with this idea.  Pub ministry offers a kind of bottled mysticism [2]; mission trips present a “revolutionary” breaking of the routine; all sorts of “causes célèbre”, however kinky, give people a sense of being “edgy” or “revolutionary” giving a dull life some sparkle.  The problem with this sort of transcendence is that it is not transcendence at all.  Nouwen’s existential transcendence is more a kind of participatory immanence than transcendence—transcendence is a divine attribute, not a human one.  Only someone lost to themselves or lost in themselves requires surrender to an external “cause” or mountain top experience.  Existential transcendence is an ersatz sense of the divine, not divinity in the usual sense [3].

Still, Nouwen is onto something significant here–the church’s task is to point to God both in our daily experiences of life and in our mind’s eye.  God is not dull and boring; we are negligent disciples if we make him appear that way.  The Psalmist writes: “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.” (Ps 33:3 ESV) Tension, however, exists in existential transcendence between reflecting the divine image (Gen 1:27) and reaching for one of those shiny apples (Gen 3:6).

Case Studies

Nouwen makes use of two important case studies.

The first case study is more of a description.  He describes a troubled young man named Peter.  Peter is 26, drifting through life, having trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality—likely a psychiatric patient (7-9).  Nouwen writes:

“Peter was not torn apart by conflict, was not depressed, suicidal, or anxiety-ridden.  He did not suffer from despair, but neither did he have anything to hope for…Perhaps we can find in Peter’s life history events or experiences that throw some light on his apathy, but it seems just as valid to view Peter’s paralysis as the paralysis of all humans in the modern age who have lost the sources of their creativity, which is their sense of immorality [transcendence].” (17)

Peter is a kind of archetype—perhaps a younger Henri Nouwen.

The second case study is what chaplains refer to as a verbatim—a case study of a pastoral visit that went poorly which is discussed in a chaplain group as a learning tool.  The case is of a middle-aged blue collar worker, plagued with loneliness and despair, in the hospital for surgery who is visited by a young seminarian and later dies in surgery (56-58).  How might this pastoral visit gone better?  Had the chaplain dealt more effectively with the man’s loneliness and despair, would the man have survived? (72)

Principles of Leadership

Out of this impressive case study, Nouwen derives 3 principles of Christian leadership:

  1. Personal concern;
  2. A deeply-rooted faith in the value and meaning of life; and
  3. Hope that always looks for tomorrow, even beyond death. (76)

It is a bit odd at this point that a Catholic priest, like Nouwen, would not draw his principles of leadership more directly from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  For example, What leads us to be concerned? Why does he reference faith in life rather than faith in Christ?  What leads us to look beyond death?[3]  Maybe his principles have a biblical origin, but we will never know from his meditation.

Title

Nouwen does give us some origins.  His title, wounded healer, is drawn from a story recorded in the Jewish Talmud about the coming Messiah.  Nouwen writes:

“The Messiah, the story tells us, is sitting among the poor, binding his wounds only one at a time [unlike others who bind them all at once], always prepared for the moment when he might be needed” (88).

Nouwen sees one of the greatest wounds being loneliness which is compounded for the minister by professional loneliness—more a sense of being irrelevant (89-93).  Nouwen sees our own woundedness as helping the minister to connect with the suffering and offer them both hospitality [a safe space to share] and community (93-99).  In this way, the minister empowers the suffering to confront their own issues and find peace with God (Psalm 95:7; 102).

Assessment

Henri Nouwen’s book, Wounded Healer, deeply influenced me early in my seminary career, in part, because of my own experience of loss and pain. His lost sense of transcendence troubles me now that I understand better what he was saying and what he was not saying. Where is God in his pain? How can a priest be so radically alone? These are troubling questions for a book so influential among pastors and seminarians.  Nouwen redeems his own pain through ministry, but one gets the sense that he is still ministering out of his own anti-strength, strength not Christ’s.  Still, his writing is ever-fresh and his case studies are helpful and will be of interest to seminary students for years to come.

Footnotes

[1] The steps in the scientific methods are:  felt need, problem definition, observation, analysis, decision, execution, and responsibility bearing.  See:  Stephen W. Hiemstra, “Can Bad Culture Kill a Firm?” pages 51-54 of Risk Management, Society of Actuaries, June 2009 (http://bit.ly/1H0Vt68).

[2] http://PubTheologian.com

[3] The idea of approaching God through human experience runs counter to scripture.  God stands outside of time and is holy in the sense of set apart—he must approach us, we cannot approach Him.  In the Tower of Babel story (Gen 11), for example, God comes down and laughs at the people trying to build a tower to heaven.  The uniqueness of Christ arises is that in Christ God comes to us.  With spiritual disciplines, we strip away impediments to God approaching us, we do not ourselves approach God.  This is one aspect of God’s sovereignty.

[4] In my own experience, Catholic priests more typically focus on administering the sacraments in a hospital setting and leave pastoral visits to the laity.  However, Nouwen was writing in 1972 when things may have been different.

Nouwen Ministers Out of Pain

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Christ and Culture

Christ_culture_110132013By Stephen W. Hiemstra

At Pentecost the Holy Spirit speaks Gospel into culture.   And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to peak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:4 ESV).  Here the Holy Spirit communicates the Gospel among all people groups through languages that previously separated us under the curse of Babel (Genesis 11:7).  Language marks culture.  Much like Pentecost is God’s antidote to Babel, the Gospel is an antidote to culture.

To see this, define culture as the history of our collective decisions[1].  If we consistently made rational decisions based on complete information and an objective decision process, then cultural differences would not exist because we would all act the same.  We are not the same because we make poor decisions and base those decisions on prior experiences.  Consequently, as time passes our societal laws, customs, values, and morals (the lessons learned from our collective history) grow more and more unique.  And this uniqueness separates us from one another.

Because resources are limited and contested, bad decisions, which are more costly than good decisions, leave a larger cultural imprint.  Bad habits trump good ones.  Because pain screams while God whispers, culture can seem like the history of collective mistakes, griefs, shame, injustices, and pain.  Cultural isolation temporarily eases our pain as we look inward, but wounds not cleaned fester.  When the church acts as an instrument of the Holy Spirit, it amplifies God’s voice and speaks Gospel into the context of cultural pain[2].

Culture is to groups what personality is to individuals.  Personality is defined in habitual behavior.  When we tell our personal stories, these stories consist mostly of recounting our wounds, obsessions, injustices, and learning experiences.  It is the rare individual blessed only to recount mountain top experiences.  The ministries of presence, fellowship, and care allow us to amplify God’s voice, like the church more generally, in personal reflection.

What does the Gospel have to do with culture?  If culture is primarily the history of our collective mistakes, griefs, shame, pains, and injustices—in a word, sin, then confession and forgiveness of sin are redemptive and transformative.  Christ redeems us from the guilt of sin and the Holy Spirit transforms our lives abating sin’s pollution.  Our worldly cultures are sanctified.  So Apostle Paul can write:  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).   When the church speaks Gospel into culture, it becomes an instrument of Pentecost.

What if we cling to worldly cultures rather than sanctify them?  In effect, we are arguing that our personal and collective mistakes, griefs, shame, injustices, and pain count for more than Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  We are relishing our wounds or hiding behind them rather than submitting them to Christ.  Alternatively, Christ is seen as only human, but not divine.  When Paul prays for relief from a personal affliction, God responds:  My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).  When we hold worldly cultures close to our hearts, we frustrate Christ’s work of sanctification, grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), and yield to the itchy ears rather than proclaim the Gospel (2 Timothy 4:3).

What if we become prodigals—insisting on our inheritance without God’s truth and substituting worldly cultures for Christ and His sacrifice?  Think here of overtly idolatrous cultures, such as atheism or hedonism[3].  This is what Paul is talking about in Romans 1:24 when he talks about God giving them over to their shameful desires.  In this context, Paul takes up the mantle of a covenant lawsuit prophet evoking covenantal curses.  Rejecting the new covenant in Christ evokes the curse of law—reaping what we sow[4].  The Good News is that in Jesus Christ prodigals who return home and repent can be forgiven—not getting what we deserve.  The Apostle John writes:  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

At Pentecost we remember that Christ, not culture, is our true shelter from the storm.


[1]Jonathan Edwards (Freedom of the Will (1754). Vancouver:  Eremitical Press, 2009, p. 38) employs a similar starting point (a recursive decision process) in setting up a discussion of free will.

[2]Contextualization is actively studied in missionary circles.  For example, see,: James E. Plueddemann.  Leading Across Cultures:  Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church.  Downers Grove:  IVP Academic, 2009.

[3]Some view modernism from this perspective.  Nikita Khrushchev once said:   Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any god there (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuri_Gagarin).  Khrushchev apparently believed that the USSR had constructed a Tower of Babel.

[4]This is more than just a Pauline rant. The hermeneutic of the prodigal in Romans allows Paul to create space for the redemption of Jews who have rejected Christ (Romans 11:11).  Pentecost redeems worldly cultures, even Jewish culture.  Luke (12:10) and Mark (3:29) are less gracious and consider blaspheming the Holy Spirit (rejecting salvation through Christ) unforgiveable.

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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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