“Life IS Pain!
…Anyone who says differently is selling something.” That is the Dread Pirate Roberts’ famous line from The Princess Bride and one that has always stuck in my brain. I guess because I hope it’s not true, but realize deep down that it is. Pain is a part of life. That doesn’t mean life isn’t good overall. I feel very fortunate to have the life I have. And that’s not to say there aren’t some really bright spots in each of our lives. But to believe that any of us has a pain-free life or ever could is denying the reality of what life is. Life is pain. But it is a pain we don’t have to go through alone. And that is the great promise of Christ, we are not in this alone. Even one of the names by which we refer to Jesus, “Immanuel” means “God with us.” And when Jesus left, he sent in his wake the Holy Spirit to guide us and be with us as we continue on through life.
All of which SOUNDS great, but why is it so hard to see Jesus in our pain?
It’s the strange dichotomy of life that in our pain is when we are most likely to both turn to and away from Jesus. And it’s in our pain that we are most likely to find him there or be completely absent. But is he? Is he really absent or do we just not have eyes to see and ears to hear? Most of the time, I think it’s the latter. I have found that most people who turn away from Christ after a tragedy never had a clear understanding of God’s promises in the first place. Their faith was built on a false belief that God would protect them from this kind of harm (whatever it is) and when that belief crumbled in front of them, their faith crumbled along with it. If we don’t have a strong foundation of trust in Christ, it’s easy to be swept away by the tidal wave of fear, grief, pain, and anxiety that engulfs us in times of trouble. It’s the reason why it is so important to build your faith in times of tranquility, in the times when the storms are not about to drown you so that when they DO come (and they will come), you can hold on fast to your faith to see you through. That’s a lot of metaphors, but I hope it paints a picture that is easy to relate to. Trusting in Christ in the deepest parts of our pain is what will see us through when life gets rough, and it will get rough. Even the most faithful of God’s followers, even the most rock steady of Jesus’ apostles suffered in their lives. Believing in God didn’t protect them from the pain of life. But it gave them peace and comfort even in the midst of their most horrible moments.
Joseph’s story in particular is one of hardship and extraordinary faith.
If you haven’t read it for yourself (or seen the “amazing” Broadway musical), Joseph suffered through some pretty rough stuff. His brothers plotted to murder him, they sold him into slavery and told their dad he was killed, he was framed for a crime he not only did not commit but never even happened, and was left to rot in jail despite being promised by one of his fellow prisoners to help him get out. Eventually, that other prisoner made good on his word and Joseph was not only released from prison but become the right-hand man of the most powerful ruler in the entire region – the Pharaoh of Egypt. It’s a rags-to-riches story, Bible fashion. And through it all, Joseph’s faith in God was so strong he never wavered. It’s not that his life was great. Being sold into slavery by your brothers could really mess with your mind. But he trusted in God so much he was able to see blessings wherever he went and it helped him to persevere even in the most difficult of times. He believed that God was there for him perhaps despite the evidence against it. He was not the only one. Stephen, one of Jesus’ followers, was stoned to death for his belief in Christ. Moses wandered forty years in the desert and never saw the promised land. And even Jesus prayed to God in the Garden of Gethsemane to avoid the pain he was about to go through. Even Jesus.
So what good is it to say “God with us” in the midst of our pain?
Even Jesus Christ himself suffered and was not saved from it. If you have your Bibles or a Bible app on your phone, our reading this morning will be from 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11. It’s toward the end of your Bible among the other letters the apostle Paul wrote to the churches he served. And I think this very concept of “what to do in the midst of pain” is exactly what he was trying to address in his letter to the church at Thessalonica. He was trying to address our vigilance in faith. And even though he was talking about the time when Jesus would return, he was addressing how we should lead our lives while he is away.
Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2 for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.
4 But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5 You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. 9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.
Putting on faith and love as a breastplate and the hope of salvation as a helmet.
The very things which draw us closer to God also protect us in times of trouble. Faith, love, and hope are our protection against the desolation and onslaught of despair. Because it’s easy to despair when we think of the evil that surrounds us. It’s easy to despair when we lose loved ones, when we go through harsh, physical pain, when we watch others deteriorate in front of us – it’s so easy to give in to despair. But it is our faith, love, and hope that can sustain us through it all. It is in the midst of pain when we have the greatest opportunity to lean on our God. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Peter Wehner, a columnist for The New York Times wrote a really well-written piece about faith in the newspaper last year. As I was searching for inspiration on how best to answer this difficult question, these words appeared and I thought it best just to share them with you. “In the midst of hardships and heartaches” what does Christianity have to offer? He writes, “Consolation…people who walk alongside us as we journey through grief, offering not pieties but tenderness and grace, encouragement and empathy, and when necessary, practical help.” Not that non-Christians can’t offer this, too, but hopefully in a healthy Christian community we are characterized by such things. He also writes we have consolation in hope, that this life is not all that there is and our home is not actually here but with God in Heaven. And even though these words said at the wrong time or in the wrong way can seem shallow and empty, the hope that God offers is real. There is something more. But what he closed with is what really summed it up for me.
“There is also, for me at least, consolation in the conviction that we are part of an unfolding drama with a purpose. At any particular moment in time I may not have a clue as to what that precise purpose is, but I believe, as a matter of faith, that the story has an author, that difficult chapters need not be defining chapters and that even the broken areas of our lives can be redeemed.
The book of Isaiah, in prophesying the messiah, describes him as ‘man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’ We’re told ‘by his wounds we are healed.’ For those of the Christian faith, God is a God of wounds, where the road to redemption passes directly through suffering. There is some solace in knowing that while at times life is not easy for us, it was also hard for the God of the New Testament. And from suffering, compassion can emerge, meaning to suffer with another — that disposition, in turn, often leads to acts of mercy.
I have seen enough of life to know that grief will leave its mark. But I have also seen enough of life to know that so, too, will love.”
In the film, The Princess Bride, Westley and Buttercup are finally reunited.
For a time, they were separated. Westley decided to leave his true love to seek his fame and fortune in the world. But while he was away, Buttercup received the news that Westley’s ship was captured by the Dread Pirate Roberts and all aboard were killed. When Prince Humperdinck comes to court her, she agrees to marry him even though she doesn’t love him. But Westley rescues her from Vizzini and both of them are overcome with joy. Westley asks her, “Why didn’t you wait for me?” And Buttercup looks up at him bewildered. “Well, because you were dead.” Westley smiles and says, “Death cannot stop true love. The best it can do is delay it for a little while.” God wants us to look at our own pain in the same way – with hope instead of despair. To hold on to love, to know there is something more, to believe that God will be true to his promise even if we can’t possibly understand how. Westley wanted Buttercup to believe in the love they had for each other, that their love could overcome even death. God has given us his Son Jesus Christ so we can believe in his love for us.
I’m not into Christian platitudes.
I think they do more harm than good. And one that really irks me and makes me wince is “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” First it implies that God is the one causing you pain or sorrow or fear or anxiety or whatever your current nightmare is. God gave that to you. Thanks, God. Second, it puts the blame on the person going through the pain. It says to them surreptitiously that if they can’t handle it, it’s because they don’t have enough faith. God might be shouting in our pain, but the pain itself is so intense sometimes we just cannot hear. There isn’t an easy answer to the question of pain, but I do believe that in the end, love wins out. Trust that God has not left you in the midst of pain. We may not be able to hear him or see him or know what is going on, but he is there. If this seems confusing to you, don’t worry. This is a problem Christians have been grappling with for centuries. But I want to encourage you to stay connected to a community of faith, one that knows you and one that you know. I want to encourage you to say daily prayers and study your Bible and do good deeds and stay steeped in the knowledge and love of God. By doing so we are building brick by brick the foundation of our faith that will sustain us in the storm. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.