Wonder Why? The Problem of Pain Part 2 – Shadows of the Past: Pain's Sources – Matthew 19:11-12, Romans 5:15b

We have been looking at the problem of pain, something we all experience and something which causes many of us, if we are honest, to question God. “If God is both all-good and all-powerful, how could he allow suffering in the world?” 

(Part 2 of a 4-part series looking for answers to the question, if God is both good and all-powerful, how can he allow us to suffer?)

Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” (Matthew 19:11-12)

For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! (Romans 5:15b)

I heard a story about the lasting consequences of the choices we make, especially as it pertains to our families. A young newlywed had her parents over for dinner. As she and her mother prepared the roast, the daughter reflexively cut a few inches off the end of the roast and threw the trimming away. She asked her mother, “Why do we do that, anyway?” Her mother, who had done the same thing all her life, couldn’t really remember why, it was something she had learned from her mother. So the pair decided to call dear old grandma and ask her if she knew. Grandma’s reply made them all laugh: when she was a newlywed sixty years ago, her first apartment had a small oven that could only hold her small roasting pan. So when she went to make her first roast, she had to cut the end off to make it fit. And so a tradition began that no one had bothered to question for decades. So it often goes with traditions. We do it that way because we’ve always done it that way, even if it doesn’t make any sense anymore.

We have been looking at the problem of pain, something we all experience and something which causes many of us, if we are honest, to question God. “If God is both all-good and all-powerful, how could he allow suffering in the world?” 

Last week we laid the foundation for this four-part study by acknowledging that pain is not always bad; that it often serves a purpose. It teaches us not to do certain things, like stand too close to a fire. Or it reveals something deeper that may be bothering us. Just this week, my wife awoke with severe pain in her abdomen, and after a few hours, we finally went to the emergency room where they found out that she not only has a 3mm kidney stone, but that her kidney was infected as well. We would have never known about the infection if it wasn’t for the acute pain that woke her up at 1 in the morning. 

As we discussed last week, pain is not always bad because it often serves the higher purposes of diagnosis, of treatment, and of prevention of future suffering. Therefore, the question, “How can a good God allow suffering”, loses some of its bite. It is precisely BECAUSE God is good that He sometimes uses the alarm bell of suffering to get our attention.

This week we are going to move on to look at the sources of pain – and why pain must exist in the first place. Specifically, in this message we are going to look at the kind of pain that can be more easily explained: the pain caused by human freedom and the exercise of our free will. This is what I like to call the 90% – the pain that, while often very tragic, can also be rationally understood as a natural consequence; as cause and effect. Notice that I said it can be MORE easily explained, but not necessarily easily metabolized. 

There is the other 10% of pain, which we will explore next week, that mysterious pain caused by rogue waves that seem to come out of nowhere. Pain like Job experienced when it seemed that God himself was against him. Suffering that seems meaningless and unjust, like the suffering resulting from an earthquake or a tornado or cancer. We will explore that type of “rogue wave” pain next week, and I encourage you to join us if you have ever, like me, been struck by the senselessness of some suffering in the world.

But back to this week’s topic: pain that can be explained as the natural consequence, or the result of, human choice and free will. This is the kind of pain that is hard to blame on God. Only a very stubborn person would blame God for shooting the gun in a drive-by shooting, or blame God for a purse snatcher swiping someone’s handbag.

I chose two scriptures for today that may at first sight seem disconnected, but they serve a purpose. 

The first scripture is Jesus talking about eunuchs from Matthew’s gospel. While the primary subject Jesus was addressing was marriage and singleness, the basic precept revealed in that passage – that some are born eunuchs, that some are forced to be eunuchs, and some choose to be eunuchs by their own free will – very well describes the lived reality of most suffering. Some of us are born into woundedness, some of us are wounded by others, and some of us can’t seem to stop wounding ourselves. Or more appropriately, we all carry each of those kinds of suffering in life: we are all wounded by ourselves, by others, and by our past. 

The second passage I chose this morning, the one about the first Adam who brought sin and suffering into the world, and the second Adam –Jesus – who brings all relief to our suffering – addresses the more difficult, but still rationally understandable, concept of “original sin.” I’m sure you’ve heard the concept – maybe even scoffed at it at times – but the biblical notion that we suffer from the choices made all the way back in our family trees is being proven true by psychologists and sociologists in shocking and surprising ways. I don’t particularly enjoy the doctrine of original sin, but the time is coming when even the most rigid critic cannot deny that there is something to the fact that woundedness begets woundedness as far back as we can measure. We will get there together in just a few minutes. 

But first, let’s go back to that passage about eunuchs. Jesus asserts that some of us are born wounded, some of us are wounded by the will of others, and some of us wound ourselves. It is hard to disagree with that tidy observation. Jesus is categorizing suffering in ways we can all at least recognize. Some of our suffering is our own fault, some of our suffering is the fault of others, and some of our suffering seems to be bred into us. 

Those first two that I just mentioned – that our wounds can be self-inflicted or inflicted by others – are pretty universally accepted truths. For example, if I hold my own hand over a flame and burn it, I have chosen that pain. It is a natural consequence of my own free choice. I have no one to blame but myself. 

And by the same token, if someone else holds my hand over a flame – by force – and burns it, they have chosen that pain. It is a natural consequence of their own free choice. I cannot blame myself, but them for my pain. The blame for my suffering rests squarely on them.

All of this depends, of course, on the idea that we as human beings have free will to make our own choices. Logic and reason tells us this is so. And the scriptures teach us that God gave us free will to do whatever we wanted to as far back as the garden of innocence. Yet somewhere along the way, we rebelled; we knew we were rebelling, and we did it anyway. If I had to pin it down, I’d say most of us play out our own personal fall from grace somewhere around age 12. 

But if free will is the root cause of so much suffering, why would God grant us such a dangerous gift? The answer is simple yet profound: because of love. 

God is love, and God desires for us to enjoy the fullness of that love. But love cannot exist apart from freedom. If I cannot choose to love you, it is not love. Love requires that I choose you. Olivia has a small stuffed kitten named Emma. She introduced me last week. As Olivia carried Emma around one morning while she was getting breakfast before school, it was clear that Emma loves Olivia, because that is how Olivia has designed their relationship. But ultimately, Emma is just a stuffed cat, a prop. And while it may seem fun for a while to imagine that Emma loves Olivia, so much yarn and cotton stuffing cannot really love anyone at all. It is incapable of love, because it has no free will. Emma does not pine for Olivia while she is away at school. In the same way, if we had no free will, we could not really love God, but we would be straw men and women on His toy shelf. Amusing to Him, perhaps, but not capable of giving and receiving the greatest gift in the universe: love. 

Love cannot exist without freedom and free will.

By definition, however, with free will must come the freedom and the option for us NOT to love – to rebel, to reject, to harm God and others – in Biblical language, the same freedom that empowers us to love greatly also empowers us to wound greatly. Freedom to love means freedom to wound.

We are free to choose sin. And thus we beget suffering. All of us. No one is exempt. It is as though each of us by simply coming into the world adds one more car to the traffic of life. We didn’t start it, but the moment we arrive, we are contributing to it.

Just to take it a bit further, a great deal of pain in the world is the result of our free will in competition with the freewill of others. If God created a sterile, clean room, and placed you in it all by yourself, then placed an apple in the room for you to enjoy, it would be no sin to eat that apple. But now imagine he puts another person in the room who also desires to eat that apple. Now there is competition between your free will and the free will of the other person. Who will get the apple? 

No matter how you look at it, there will be some measure of suffering. The options are simple: either one of you will not get any apple at all, or each of you will only get only part of an apple. Taken out of the theoretical clean room and into the real world, competition between free people leads to suffering of unimaginable kinds, from petty theft to horrific wars that destroy millions of lives. 

That’s enough on the philosophy of freedom and sin for today. Can we all agree on those two precepts – that free will is the source of most, if not all of our wounds, whether it is our own fault, or the fault of others?

Good. Now for the harder one. Jesus said that some are born wounded. What about the wounds we are born with? Can we inherit wounds from our past?

This inborn suffering is far more difficult for many of us to accept as the result of free will. How can we trace a child born with neurological and physical disabilities to the result of free will? While fetal alcohol syndrome and children born addicted to drugs are obvious examples of the immediate consequences of free will gone wrong, that doesn’t explain the child born to parents who were not doing anything overtly wrong. 

To add to the complexity of this concept of “born woundedness,” it is not just overtly obvious wounds that we might blame on the sins of our fathers. Our woundedness might be more subtle, but it is just as much the result of free will from the past. A child of alcoholic parents is more prone to alcoholism. A child of parents who struggle with depression and anxiety, or who are abusive, tends to perpetuate that depression, anxiety, and abuse in their children, and so on.

We are not just talking about the natural consequences of sin in one generation, but many generations. Like ripples that spread across the vast sea of our ancestry, the decisions made by our fathers’ fathers and our mothers’ mothers impact us today in ways we aren’t even aware of. Sometimes the ripples are easier to trace – a suicide or a crime committed three, four, five generations back can often be discerned in the patterns of behavior in a family today. 

Yet other ripples of free will are less obvious. Even seemingly innocent choices from our ancestors can have painful or positive natural consequences today. Say an ancestor immigrated to the US from a life of poverty. That choice affected their descendants, arguably forever. Say they chose to settle in a large city instead of a farm. That choice affected all of their descendants too. Then say they took work in a factory instead of a bank. That choice again affected their children and their children’s children. Now say that factory job involves working with chemicals that we only now know cause genetic mutations that will pass down forever in their DNA.  

Now, I realize that is a negative example. I could just as well have given a positive example of the positive outcomes of past choices. I do not want us to panic about the choices we make, only to recognize that small choices can have lasting consequences, and that some of our “born woundedness” can only be explained by the choices made in ages past.

But wait, there’s more. It gets weirder. In studying for this message, I’ve been reading a fascinating book about inherited trauma called “My Grandmother’s Hands” by Resmaa Menakem. Menakem is a therapist and trauma specialist who works with, among others, those who are dealing with PTSD. The book specifically addresses inherited racial trauma, which is itself an important topic worthy of study. But the underlying premise is just what we’ve been talking about – that some of the “born woundedness” we all carry today can be traced centuries, if not millennia, back in time.  

Menakem makes a compelling argument that we carry woundedness in our bodies in profound ways, and points to surprising research that suggests that even traumatic memories can be passed down biologically. 

He points to a 2014 study with profound findings. Several mice were occasionally subjected to the scent of a chemical that smells like cherries, and at the same time received a mildly uncomfortable shock that caused them to wince. Predictably, over time, whenever the scientists removed the shock but still released the cherry-smelling chemical, the mice would wince. That part is not surprising, we know about pavlovian responses from elementary school. 

The surprising result was what happened to the descendants of those mice. Their children, who had never been subjected to electric shocks, also winced at the cherry smell. Even more remarkably, subsequent generations also winced at the smell of cherries, even though they were generations removed from the initial electric shocks. 

Scientists are still scratching their heads trying to understand how it all works, but it goes to show that we are somehow wired to carry woundedness for generations. A study with similar findings has been done on the DNA of the descendants of Jewish holocaust survivors, showing that the trauma of that event still lingers in the DNA of their children’s children.

I don’t pretend to understand why this all works, but I think it will become more and more apparent that the scriptures are right: even though we may not like the biblical concept of original sin, it is hard to deny that there are wounds we carry today that are the result of the sins of our fathers.

Well, that all sounds like pretty bad news, thanks for a downer message, Pastor Steve. Is there any good news?

Of course there is. And this is the most important part of today’s message.

Just as free will forges the chains that wound us, free will can also break those chains and set us free. If we can break patterns of sin and selfishness, and learn to exercise self control, opting to trade in a life of selfishness for a life submitted to the goodness of God, we can not only stop the woundedness in its tracks, but even replace that chain of suffering with a stream of blessing to our children and their children’s children. Mind you, when I talk about children, I am not only speaking about our biological children, but everyone we might interact with and bless in some way. Just as sin begets suffering, blessings beget blessings. 

But free will will only get us so far. Resmaa Menakem, the author of the book on inherited trauma, makes a very good case that we must “metabolize” the woundedness we have inherited in order to break the cycle of generational suffering. In other words, according to Menakem, trauma deposits stress and dysfunction into our bodies and minds – and I would add also into our spirits. Left unresolved, that stress will cause more pain down the road, so therefore we must do what we can to resolve it. His word for dealing with those wounds of the past is “metabolizing” them, just as our bodies metabolize nutrients in food to help us live. 

As a secular psychologist, Menakem advocates for healthy things like counseling and behavioral coping strategies, as well as surprisingly beautiful suggestions such as group singing, humming, and meals shared together in a safe, encouraging community. God knew what He was doing when He invented fellowship!

And as for maladaptive coping mechanisms like drinking to forget, or drugging ourselves to self-medicate, or escapism, or codependency, or any other unhealthy coping strategy, I couldn’t agree with Menakem more: such things only spread wide old wounds and amplify the trauma to those around us.

While I agree with Menakem that there is some measure of healing that we can bring about by reigning in and redirecting our free will, I have come to believe that there are simply some wounds that are too great for us to metabolize on our own.

Here’s what I mean:

Some of us, by our own choices, have made such horrendous decisions in the past that it seems like we could never unwind the clock to a point where things could just be as innocent and as pure as they once were.

Some of us have been so beaten down by the hands of others that we see no way out from this pain.

Some of us were born into such abusive families that the pain is intractable. We don’t even know where to begin to heal the pain, and even the thought of lifting the bandage to take a good look is too much to bear.

There are wounds in each of us that simply cannot be healed by any earthly means. There are hurts that run too deep, regrets that run even deeper, and shame that plunges to the deepest depths of our souls. Try as we may, no matter how healthy our coping mechanisms may be, we cannot metabolize some pain, we cannot heal some wounds.

And this is where the good news comes stealing home. 

There is a balm. There is a river. There is a water that is alive and heals, and whoever drinks it will never thirst again. 

Write this down: By His Wounds, We Are Healed.

The blood of Jesus is the healing ooze, the ointment that touches our deepest wounds and makes us new. Some sins cannot be atoned for by our own efforts. I suppose I could argue that no sin can be atoned for, really, apart from the grace of God.

I would like to invite the worship team to come back up to the platform as we prepare to dine at the Lord’s table.

When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we are not having snack time. We are putting ourselves on the table to go under the knife of mercy, to invite the surgeon’s skillful hands to cut out the cancer of guilt and shame and regret and sin, and put us back together, better than new. 

For every link in the long chain of our sin, this bread is a hammer that shatters steel. For every rip in the flesh and scar of the heart that the world cannot repair, this cup holds the medicine that makes all things new.

Today, I want to warn you away from taking this holy sacrament lightly.  If this means nothing to you, then you should not participate. But if you, like me, know that you are in need of healing, this blood is for you. 

By His wounds, we are healed.

As the worship team plays this hymn, I would invite you to do things slightly differently. If you would take the cup and the bread back to your seats without eating, we will take them together after the song. 

If you are ready for Jesus to do business with your wounds, please come as we sing.

It is only the grace of God that is honest with us; Only the purest love from the best of Friends has the courage to speak this truth to us and say, “I know you are guilty. No matter what this gaslighting, saccharine pop culture says, you are a heaving, miserable mess inside. That feeling in the pit of your gut is not wrong. Yes, you were born into this mess, and yes, others have made it messier, but at the end of the day, it is your mess to deal with now, and it won’t heal anything to waste one more minute placing the blame here or there. Blame doesn’t heal. In the end, nobody can take responsibility for ending this cycle of pain but you. It won’t do an ounce of good to point the finger at your mother or your father or the neighbor next door. What’s done is done. What’s paste is past. But child, lean into this promise with everything you’ve got: there is power, power, wonderworking power in the blood of the lamb – in the blood of Jesus. For the mess that is too big to clean up, the love and forgiveness of God makes all things new. For the trauma that is too vast to metabolize, the love and forgiveness of God will break it ALL down. For the wounds that are so deep that they will never heal on their own, the love and forgiveness of God restores you in full, body, mind and soul.”

Healing cannot take place until we give up all hope of a better past. We must move on from commiserating over our brokenness, and learn to celebrate the unshakeable truth of our belovedness.

By His wounds, we are healed.

Let us take the bread. And now the cup.

Let us pray.

Father of love, father of truth, father of hope and renewal and peace of mind … we come to your altar now, and lay ourselves at your feet as an offering. Make us new, Father. Show us our wounds so that we can bring them to you.  Forgive us for spreading woundedness to others by self-medicating and hiding behind our pain.  Forgive us for the sins of our past, as we strive to start off a brand new day for your glory.

We are yours. You are ours. May we bring honor to you with the new life that you give us today.

In the name of Jesus who heals all our wounds we pray, Amen.

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