Peace overcomes pain

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.

Psalm 22:1-2, Bible

This psalm from chapter 22 is often read on Good Friday. Christians have associated this text to the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus on the cross. Jesus quoted this in part while on hung on the cross to die.

The Book of Psalm contains many complaints. For this reason, it wasn’t one of my favorite books of the bible. There are many joyful psalms of praise and celebration which I prefer; and then there are many sad and depressing psalms of lament, which I dislike (especially if I’m not in the mood to read it).

The good bishop, N.T. Wright, recently wrote in Time:

“Yes, these poems often come out into the light by the end, with a fresh sense of God’s presence and hope, not to explain the trouble but to provide reassurance within it.”…. “It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell.”

https://time.com/5808495/coronavirus-christianity/

When the psalmist could not see any relief in sight, all he had was pain. He doubted God. If you haven’t read from the bible of the numerous chapters of people feeling sorry for themselves, open up to the book of Psalm. It’s full of it. This is why so many people can relate to the psalms. These writers complained about their pain and they accused God of forgetting and for not caring. Job’s friends came up with invalid reasons for his extreme sufferings (read about it in depressing book of Job). They blamed his sufferings on his past sins. How inconsiderate. If I had friends like Job, I’d tell them where to go.

If one were to contract COVID-19 (or any other sickness for that matter), we might want a spiritual explanation as to why we contracted the disease. There is no good “spiritual” reason why a person contracted COVID-19 or any other disease. No, I’m not talking about a clinical reason, but rather, a spiritual reason. Spiritualizing it doesn’t improve a person’s emotional agony or discomfort. It doesn’t do a person any good.

God wants us to put ourselves in a proper place and be subordinate to the will of God. That is to humble ourselves. It gives room for God to come into our lives and give us peace–a true peace that is beyond all human understanding.

This is the same realization Jesus might have had on the cross as he suffered in pain. He experienced the love and peace of the Holy Spirit while he writhed in pain at Golgotha. I know. Sounds wierd and ironic that peace and pain can go together. Peace and pain can co-exist. This is the irony that so many people find so difficult to understand.

As Christians, and as non-religious folks, we all want answers to our problems, and we want them now. Our natural human desire is to alleviate our pain. We hate pain. We want it to disappear.

One direction people take is to doubt the existence of God. When we witness or hear of so much pain in the world, we begin to rationalize: “How can there be such a cruel God? Who would allow human beings to be put into cruel and painful circumstances? Such an inhumane or merciless God simply cannot exist!”

Another way our mind can wander is to wrongly attribute cruelty toward a loving and merciful God. We begin to doubt God’s goodness, and that God is truly good. We lose faith in a good God. We walk away from the Church. Emotionally and intellectually, it easier to doubt that a loving God can allow injustice and suffering. As a result, we push God out of our lives.

Another way our minds will rationalize a seemingly irrantional God of peace and pain is to find reasons why we might be deserving of pain and suffering.

Examples:

“I have done something very bad and sinful, so now it’s payback time… God is getting even with me now and that’s why I’m suffering.”

“I hurt that rotten person years ago, and that’s why God took away my son or daughter, my father or mother.”

“I’m such an evil person. That’s why God gave me cancer,” or “That’s why God sent the Coronavirus… to wipe out this evil world of evil doers.”

When we demand answers for which there isn’t an answer it’s a vain attempt to spiritualize our pain away. Our human capacity to accept uncertainty is limited, so we prefer to limit God by putting Him in a box. We relentlessly search for a rational answer. We set limits on ourselves as humans beings, and we end up pushing God further away.

Why do we do this? We want to put God where it makes more sense to us. We want to set God in his place. We prefer to think, “that if there truly is a God, then this is who God is. This is what God is like; and so this is how I can be stronger.”

We prefer to own our own problems. By setting God in a place where we want him to be, we think we can garner more control over our lives. We come up with our own solutions to our own problems.

Our goal for a human solution is empty and vain. It is not where God is found. God likely has a totally different solution. God’s knowledge is infinite and All-knowing. If we really knew the mind of God, what God already knows might actually surprise us.

It is not our job to rationalize God. God does not want to be included in our human equation. In God’s mind, there is no such thing as a human equation. Our job is not to put God where we think He ought to be. That is to falsify God and take God’s name in vain.

Our place is to be subordinate to God and become willing vessels of God’s will. When God has His rightful place in your life, it is then that you will have peace. When God feels welcomed in your life, it is then that you will have joy and hope.

What God wants more than anything is to wrap his big arms around you and tell you that He loves you. He desires to be with you. His presence surrounds you and protects you like a mother hen who guards her chicks. The love and mercy of God is greater than what we can imagine.

God wants to come to you in the midst of all your suffering… even in the midst of your chaos, your pain, sadness, sickness and disease. The capacity of the love of God is much greater than our human capacity. God’s love is deeper, wider, and higher.

Our own human capacity to love is extremely limited. We do not have the patience, the courage or the kindness to love like God can. That’s why we prefer to push aside a God who allows suffering. But God is much bigger than our vain human imaginations.

If God the Father absorbed all the pain that Jesus suffered on the cross, God can certainly live in us with all our pain and suffering. How so? God is God, and we are not. God can come into your life, filled with pain and chaos, filled with burdens that you cannot bear, and then fill it with God’s own peace.

Millions of Christians in the world today have experienced the overwhelming love and mercy of God. Christians in the world today currently suffering are experiencing God in the midst of their sickness and pain, in their wars and violence, in their persecutions and personal troubles. Millions more will enter into the Compassionate heart of this Triune God. He is calling out to each individual person, and that person might be you today.

I admit, the idea of a suffering God is not popular in Christian circles. The suffering Christ was once nailed to the cross. The crucified Christ was nailed on Friday. Well, we call it Friday but we really don’t know what day it was. We also like to call it “Good Friday”. It was not a good thing that happened but we call it “good” anyway. Behind this, there is an extremely important truth. It is a “Good Friday” because we already know there is hope coming on the third day. Jesus would soon rise again from the dead. We know the ultimate outcome is renewed life–a resurrection from the dead.

When we invite guests to come over to our house, we want to make sure we have it cleaned up, spotless and all tidy. We do this not for their sake, but we do it for our own sake. We take pride in our own perfection.

In God’s economy, God is not like this at all. God’s way is like this. As we welcome God to enter our lives and live within our pain and suffering, the Holy Spirit will fill us with peace, joy and hope. This is why we can invite God to come into our hearts and homes while we are still a mess. Yes, from our human point-of-view, this sounds unconventional and very different to what we think ought to be normal.

The good news of Christ is not that God came to wave a magic wand to banish away all our pain and problems. The good news of Christ Jesus is that God vanished from the empty tomb and resurrected in bodily form on the Third Day, and rose to live again in the flesh. He conquered and defeated death. If death could not hold Jesus in the tomb, then death will not be able to hold us down in the grave. This is why we celebrate Easter this Sunday.

Death is one of the biggest fears of humankind. If God in Christ Jesus defeated death on Easter, we also have hope of eternal life with God forever. May all praise, honor and glory be to God our Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Empathy and resilience: shaped by suffering

If you remember back in grade school standing in line waiting to be chosen by the assigned team captains for a team in sports. Almost every time, I would be picked last for a team. Because I was the skinniest and one of the shortest boys, I was almost always the last one chosen. I was nicknamed Conan (from movie Conan the Barbarian, the god with a great muscular physique).  I hated that I was skinny and short.  I hated all the slight comments I heard spoken about me from other kids, intentional or not. Gym class was never fun for me. Being singled-out last place can affect how a person views oneself.  I developed a less-than-ideal view of myself.  I endured this all throughout my elementary and even into my high school years.   I didn’t enjoy grade school. I did develop some empathy for other kids with lower views of themselves or who were picked on. 

I know others have suffered much more than I have but I want to relate this to what I’m about to share here. There are Christians (and other religious minorities) who suffer due to their faith within anti-Christian societies. People languish in prisons, sometimes unjustly, like political and religious prisoners. Women have been abused, raped and used in sex trafficking People, including children are inflicted as innocent victims of wars, bombings, and ethnic-cleansing, and boys are forced into becoming soldiers. People suffer in silence with bouts of depression, mental illness, and thoughts of suicide. There is serious suffering happening in the world today much more severe than tauntings in school yards, but nevertheless, words can intensely hurt too and adolescent teens know this.

I have learned throughout the latter years of my life that suffering shapes a person. It can shape us in a bad way; and it can also shape us in a good way.  Either way, the shaping of a person can always result in something good.  There is always something we can be grateful for.

As we experience healing from our life’s hurts, and allow God to use us, the suffering we have experienced can become a blessing to others.  Little do others know that the person who has suffered can become a giver of empathy and understanding to another who is experiencing suffering in one’s life.

As a stone has been shaped by water and heat and pressure, one’s own suffering through the pressures of this life can shape us to increase our capacity to have more empathy for others.  In order for God to use a person, we must allow God to heal us and rebuild us from the inside so that over time, we can develop an inner resilience. As we mature and find healing and strength, God will shape us into vessels that God may find useful. This will then enable us to journey with them and enter into their loneliness and desolation. To do this, requires healing from one’s own past hurts. This is inner spiritual resilience.

People who have not gone through the pressure of being shaped by suffering, and experience healing will find it difficult to empathize and understand the pain and hurts of others.  Lashing back at others and those who hurt us will still be a natural reaction from our past hurts. But if you have suffered, you can consider it a part of the joy you receive when you can offer of yourself empathy and understanding to the person who is suffering.

Today, I work as a chaplain and minister to others who are hurting. In looking back, I realize today that God used my suffering and increased my capacity to empathize with people’s pain. Bringing a small measure of empathy and understanding into people’s lives is what gives me some consolation. Pressure and heat shapes a stone. So pressure and suffering shapes a person’s capacity to bring empathy into other people’s lives.

Enduring hardship through faith

Living in caves can be modern experience; it can also be a hard life.  It makes me think of a time when the early saints had to endure an amazing amount of cruel and hardship in the pre-church era. Hebrews 11:37-38 (ESV) says:

“They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”

This verse indicates that faithful people of God in the Old Testament had been forced to live underground, in deserts, and hid in dens and caves (as were prophets in 1 Kings 18-19). They were a shunned and disparaged because of their faith. They were not just typical Jewish followers but were despised for their deep faith and conviction within broader Judaism. They were living amongst Jews but were still shunned and seen as an abhorrent sect within Judaism.

In the Church today, there is also sectarianism, as in many other major/established religions. Parts of the Christian church also face disparagement and shunning because of their deep faith and conviction. They are not only persecuted by people of different or opposing religions, but from followers of the same religion.

I’m glad we don’t are not as separated by denominationalism as we formerly were. There are still subtle differences but we have come a long way in being respectful of our religious and spiritual differences. I appreciate that it’s our differences that make us unique and special.

I have brothers and sisters in the Lord who went from borderline fence-walkers to devoted Christian believers. I also some dear friends who went the opposite direction and/or stopped attending church. Our society is multi-faceted. Some of us want more devotion and deeper spirituality. Some of us want less or nothing of the sort for various personal reasons. Despite our personal convictions, God is still sovereign and in control, so who are we to judge others for their deep faith or lack of it?!

May we who are faithful, endure, hold-on, and remain thankful for the sacrifice of our spiritual and religious ancestors who paved the way for us. It made our path of devotion and service to the Lord a little easier to walk. God gives each of us strength to follow him; and faith is given to each generation–even this generation, from Baby Boomers to Millennials to generation Z.  God is forever faithful to us.

Driscoll and Harris on Chan

Mark Driscoll and Joshua Harris tagteam to inquire more on Francis Chan’s motivations for stepping down from Cornerstone Church, Simi Valley, CA to L.A.  Chan says his desire is motivated by love to give and sanctification, which includes poverty, suffering, and simplicity. I get the sense he believes the church is not where it should be and he wants the church to move back to the core truths as found in Scripture.

… and more on Francis’ spirituality of suffering below. I haven’t heard this kind of message from any pulpit for a very very long time. Sounds like it’s a forgotten path of Jesus that we North American Christians ought to return to.