“I can’t stand the pain.” Most of us have probably said these words at some point in our lives. The degree of pain would vary from person to person depending on the nature of situation. Discomfort. Grief. Regrets. Sorrow. Anger. You get the idea, right? When pain comes to our lives, it comes with a lot of other things. We spend more time and energy dealing with the other stuff. At best, we relegate pain to a point of secondary importance. At worst, we forget about the pain.
“There will be no more pain, nor sorrow; no grief and death.” (Revelation 21:4) One of my friends quoted this verse in the context of a love one going through chemotherapy. I would have ignored the comment, but you see, the person going through chemo was my brother. I got the feeling that the family members are ignoring the pain. Why shouldn’t they, right? We do not want to revel on our pain. Well, for one, it is painful. Secondly, it is much easier to not talk about it. It is always helpful to simply talk about the weather or focus on the good food in front of you. You get the idea, right? Pain is not welcome anywhere.
The Book of Revelation mentions pain as a direct result of sin. We do away with pain because it reminds us of our evil ways and fallen creation. It does not refer to pain as an avenue for spiritual encounter. Many Bible scholars view pain with its instrumental properties. What do you get when you go through pain? How does pain make you a better person? These are some of the questions coming out of an instrumentalist view of a painful experience. What I am going to suggest here is that there is a better way of looking at pain as a spiritual instrument. I am suggesting we look at pain and suffering through the cross of Jesus.
Henri Nouwen, a Christian author and theologian, speaks of experiencing the depths of God’s Presence in the midst of a painful encounter. In his book, Here and Now, he speaks of a life where “pain can be embraced, not out of a desire to suffer, but in the knowledge that something new will be born in the pain” (Nouwen 1994:39). Jesus says we need to die like a grain of wheat, for “unless the grain of wheat dies, it cannot bear fruit” (John 12:24). Whoever loses one’s life for Jesus, whoever embraces pain by way of the cross, will keep one’s self, one’s being for eternal life.
“Why is God allowing this to happen to me?” My friend shares this to our group. We are on a mission trip and our host pastor, my friend, is sharing with us a recent situation in his family. His only son is in the hospital. Blood clot in the brain. Early morning hours at the hospital surgery. Probability of paralysis. Chances of memory loss after surgery are high. I am sure you can now picture what my friend is going through. I am surprised my pastor friend is still able to play his part of hosting us, driving our group around the city, and asking our team members questions about the mission trip. If that were me, I would have dropped everything. I would have said: “This is unfair.” I would have raised my voice and started blaming God. “Where is your love, now.” Anger. Fear. Rage.
Grief, pain, and sorrow are real issues in a Christian’s life. In all these situations, the common thread is the experience of suffering. Paul writes of filling up what is lacking in Christ’s suffering (Colossians 1:24). Paul is not saying God’s atoning sacrifice is not enough for the remission of our sins and the redemption of the world. Paul is simply saying we continue Christ’s ministry of suffering through our grief, pain, and sorrow. Our pain and human location is not only an instrument to a greater futuristic heavenly good. Our pain is also the place where God meets us. In a mysterious way, pain and suffering become agents of God’s grace, healing, and transformation. Henri Nouwen says: “Jesus shows, both in his teachings and in his life, that true joy often is hidden in the midst of our sorrow, and that the dance of life finds its beginnings in grief” (1994:38). We share in the suffering of Jesus (Philippians 3:10). We become more like Him. Our suffering becomes the glory of our brothers and sisters (Ephesians 3:13). We continue the ministry of Jesus. We take up the cross of Jesus in our daily walk (Luke 9:23-24). Jesus is in the pain and suffering.
Someday, there will be no more pain. There will be no more sorrow. This is correct. There at the end of times, we no longer need an experience with suffering and pain to facilitate deeper spiritual encounter. God’s presence will be with us in His fullness and for all eternity. Meanwhile, we are still here on earth needing help with everything. We drink from the cup that Jesus offers us. “We need to remind each other that the cup of sorrow is also the cup of joy, that precisely what causes us sadness can become the fertile ground for gladness” (Nouwen. Can You Drink the Cup. 1996:51). The way of the cross is the path of fruitfulness. And the ultimate fruit we are looking for is a deeper encounter with our God, an experience of healing and transformation that only His presence can bring.