(Part 4 of a 6-part series looking for answers to the question, if God is both good and all-powerful, how can he allow us to suffer?)
18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
(Pray - our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory You are about to reveal in us through the power of your word.)
So far in this series we have looked at the question, “why?” Why does suffering exist at all? Where does it come from? What causes our suffering?
We’ve recognized that pain and suffering can serve the purposes of diagnosis, treatment, and even the prevention of future pain. We also briefly touched on the fact that our pain can be put to use to glorify God.
We then looked at the identifiable source of what I call roughly 90% of all the suffering in the world, which is human free will. We traced the lion’s share of our suffering back to either our own sins, the sins of others, or sins of our ancestors. In other words, I can bring suffering on myself by the choices I make, others can bring suffering on me by the choices they make, and my parents, grandparents, and even earlier ancestors can bring suffering on me today by the choices they made long ago in the past. We also acknowledged that some suffering can be the result of no directly evil intent. Even the most simple, seemingly innocent, choices we make have consequences that reach far into the future – for example, my choice to have an extra cup of coffee before leaving for work might mean that I miss a car accident that would have left me paralyzed. The consequences of our free will are impossible to know, and it is safe to say that most – perhaps even more than 90% – suffering in the world can be traced to the ever-broadening ripple effects of human free will. Yet without free will, we would not be able to love, neither God nor each other nor anything else. And so for the sake of giving us the freedom to love, God also gave us the freedom to rebel and to harm one another. We cannot have it both ways – either we must be puppets who cannot love, or we must be free agents who are able to choose love or hate. God blessed us with freedom, and we are responsible for what we do with that freedom.
But then there is that remaining suffering – what I call the roughly 10% – that is not so easy to account for. Things like tornadoes, earthquakes, and cancer. These kinds of suffering are not so easy to attribute to human free will. We broke the remaining suffering down into three basic categories: suffering that is still the result of human free will, but goes so far back that we cannot neatly map it, but can only place it in the category of original sin. In other words, it stands to reason that if we find ourselves born and living on a broad path that leads to destruction, someone far far back in our lineage must have gotten on such a path. That’s all the doctrine of original sin is. In that sense, original sin is a catch all concept that offers a plausible explanation for much of the 10%, even though we cannot know for certain which choices caused which genetic mutation, for example. But we are beginning to learn that our choices and our lifestyle can permanently alter our genes and our children’s genes in unexpected ways.
Another part of the 10% of suffering that is difficult to explain is suffering caused by nature. Natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions and tornadoes are the result of nature taking her course, and creation fulfilling it’s design. While the suffering these events bring are deeply painful and quite real, it is not particularly satisfying to point out that there is likely no ill-will or malicious intent at work. Nature is simply being nature, and it is in constant motion. We cannot blame the wind for being the wind, or tectonic plates for doing what they were designed to do in order to preserve life on our planet. It is certainly calloused, but one could even say that human free will is partly to blame when people choose to build their houses at the base of a volcano, or near a fault line, or on the sand. Nevertheless, nature’s fury is the cause of plenty of suffering, and we are left with only a few options: either a) God is powerless to intervene, or b) He simply does not care, or finally, c) that he is capable of intervening, and does indeed care, but has good reasons not to intervene. As unsatisfying as option c is, because we may never know His reasons, it is reasonable and logical.
Finally, after the sources of original sin and nature are exhausted, we come to the remaining 1% or less of suffering that can only be attributed to the hand of God. This is the most difficult cause of suffering to accept, because we believe that God is compassionate and powerful, and we therefore leap to the false conclusion that a compassionate and powerful God would never cause His children to suffer. But that assumption is not accurate. We can think of many times when a good and loving parent will not only allow their child to suffer, but will even inflict suffering in order to help them grow and mature. Taking away privileges like video games or screen time, or requiring them to do chores when they want to go out with friends, these are not acts of hatred, but of love, because they teach a child to be responsible for themselves and contribute to their community. We must remember that pain, though unpleasant at first, can also serve the purposes of diagnosis, treatment, and prevention, but also to accomplish the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God for his creation.
And so that concludes the first half of this series on the problem of pain: responses, if not answers, to the question, “why suffering?” There is so much more to say, but we must move on to the more important question.
Why or What For?
When all is said and done, when every possible source of pain is explored, after every tear has been shed until there are no more tears, there is some suffering, even if only a very tiny portion of it, that we will never be able to satisfactorily grasp “why” it exists. And even if we do have a handful of reasonable, rational reasons why some particular suffering has reared its ugly head in our lives, chances are that those answers will not bring us much in the way of relief or healing. In the end, asking “why” suffering happens becomes an intellectual exercise, a chew toy that cannot be digested. There is nothing wrong with asking “why” – we are all driven to do it out of human curiosity.I think the Lord has designed us so that asking “why” is an important first step in the healing process, even if we never quite land on a good answer.
But at some point we must move beyond probing our wounds to healing them. It is the next step, the part that comes after the questioning “why” that has the most significance. After we have asked “why” until we have exhausted ourselves, we must then begin to ask, “now what?” How can we begin to heal? How can we put this pain to work? How can we redeem even this painful thorn in the flesh and turn it into something good?
It has been said that God never wastes a hurt. But we, in our humanity, often do just that – allow our hurts to go to waste. Pain and suffering, like a manure pile, have tremendous potential to bring roses to flourish that would not have bloomed otherwise. But, like fertilizer, it must be applied properly, and not left in a stinking heap hidden in a corner.
And so today we will talk briefly about the healing process that we all must work our way through when it comes to our own suffering and pain. The process is neither fast nor easy. Recovery takes time – sometimes it takes a lifetime.
I am sad to report that there is no clear, neat, and tidy formula for dealing with pain. Every wound is as different as each one of us and the lives we have lived. Some of us have seemingly endless capacity to heal quickly, while some of us barely had the bandwidth to get out of bed this morning. Some of us started off on good, healthy footing when pain came knocking, while others felt like we were going down for the third time just before that rogue wave hit.
What I am going to share is not a complete or exhaustive set of instructions – nothing like that exists. The following advice is certainly not a custom prescription for dealing with your particular experience of pain. Instead, these are general principles for dealing with pain.
As an aside, if you want to explore options that are custom-tailored for your situation, I’d like to make myself available as your pastor to talk it over and pray with you. We can start the process over a cup of coffee or on the phone. My contact info is in the bulletin and on the church website. It’s not only my job, but it is what I am called to do, and what I enjoy doing. Don’t be afraid to text or call.
Now then, let’s begin: healing from pain takes courage, consistency, and community.
If you’re following in your bulletin, again that is courage, consistency, and community.
Courage means being brave enough to admit that something is wrong, and that we need help. I realize that it may sound hypocritical coming from a man who refuses to go to the doctor even if he can barely walk. But no healing can begin unless we acknowledge that wounds exist. You would be surprised at how few of us will admit or even realize that we are wounded. And so we stuff the pain until it festers like a dirty sore, and causes us to lash out like an angry animal to everyone around us when we least expect it.
For some, it boils down to sheer stubborn pride: we know we are wounded, but we are too arrogant to admit we need help. Some of us, however, cannot admit that we are wounded because we are unaware of it because we have hidden it for so long. It is very easy to hide an unhealed wound under the bandages of a well-ordered life. But eventually all pain comes to the surface in sometimes unexpected and unwelcome ways. It is very difficult to have the courage to peel back the bandages and uncover that wound so that it may be dealt with. But courage is what it takes to seek help.
Whether it is out of stubborn, willful pride or simply because we are unaware of our wounds, the truth is that each of us has some sort of unresolved pain lurking beneath the surface. Mark my words, every grumpy, ornery, unpredictable, angry person is really a wounded child of God who has not dealt with their deepest life’s hurts.
Before healing can begin, we must have the courage to come clean before God and ourselves, and admit that our wounds are real, and run deeper than we can deal with on our own.
Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (Matthew 9:12)
In addition to courage, healing requires consistency. Another word for consistency is discipline, and that includes spiritual disciplines. We have to keep at the healing process every day in order for it to really work. We know this principle is true when it comes to medicine. For a diabetic, constant attention must be given to blood sugar and insulin levels. No break can be taken,there is no day off permitted. Managing diabetes takes the consistency of a daily routine.
Healing from our wounds also requires the consistency and discipline of a daily routine. Like strength training, it takes repetition and practice to develop the muscles needed to cope with and manage the pain and trauma we have experienced in life. Some of the daily routines we need to consistently commit to include more front-of-mind cognitive practices like reading, studying or journaling. This is what Paul calls being “transformed by the renewing of our minds” in Romans 12:2 – where we consciously reject and replace old ways of thinking about ourselves and our pain with new patterns of thinking based on forgiveness, acceptance, and love.
But our consistent routine must not be limited only to rational, cognitive and intellectual practices. We also need to give attention to practices that touch even deeper parts of our existence: practices like prayer, meditation, and worship.
More and more, researchers and practitioners are recognizing that the back-of-the-house parts of our brains – the parts where trauma is physically stored like the energy in a tightly wound spring – need to be carefully released and healed just as much as the front-of-the-house.
It may sound strange at first, but God wired us as spiritual beings in physical bodies. We carry our trauma – sometimes for generations – in our bodies and our nervous systems. More and more research is proving the power that the psalmist discovered a long time ago when they declared: “I remembered you, God, and I groaned; I meditated, and my spirit grew faint.” (Ps 77:3) and “Within your temple, O God, we meditate on your unfailing love.” (Ps 48:9).
There is tremendous healing power in the daily disciplines of prayer, meditation, and worship.
More recent studies are proving true what the faithful have known for centuries: that there is tremendous power in praying in the Spirit. The “groaning” of prayers that cannot be put into words is directly related to a burgeoning field of practice in trauma-informed care where the soothing practices of deep breathing and humming – and even group singing! – are proving they have incredible healing power.
Try this with me: let’s just hum for a moment in worship together. Without words… groaning in the Spirit, if you will. Take a deep breath through your nose, and then slowly let it out. As you breathe, focus your thoughts on God, and listen to Him as He tells you that you are loved. meditate on this simple scripture, “God is love.” He loves you…. As you continue to breathe deep breaths, try to become aware of any tension in your face muscles, your neck, your shoulders, and any tightness in your chest. Ease that tension as you remember again that God is love. Breathe. Imagine the Lord extending his hand to take yours. Now, as we exhale together, hum. Like this. Don’t be afraid. Groan in the spirit. Feel those deep vibrations as they resonate in your chest and your heart…. continue to meditate on this simple scripture, “God is love.” Let’s continue this discipline for a minute or two. “God is love.”
How do you feel? I’m not exactly asking “what do you think” at this moment, but more “how do you feel”?
This type of spiritual exercise, which has been practiced by Christian believers for centuries under brand names such as “meditating on God’s word”, or “prayer”, or “chant”, and, yes, “groaning in the Spirit,” is tremendously therapeutic for dealing with trauma, suffering, and pain. It is funny to me that modern psychology, for all of its arrogant self-assuredness, is only just now beginning to acknowledge the power of such simple, elemental disciplines that people of faith have known about and practiced for millennia.
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27)
But that exercise leads me to the third principle of healing: in addition to courage and consistency, healing also requires community.
The same researchers studying the power of humming and rocking for the treatment of PTSD have also discovered that group singing and humming amplifies the effect. They have learned that when we sing together in groups, our blood pressure decreases, our anxiety levels go down, and our heart rates even begin to synchronize with each other.
I have said this many times before, but there are absolutely no lone rangers in God’s kingdom. We were not made to go through life in isolation. Just the opposite is true: we were designed at every level to thrive in community with one another.
One of the most disappointing flaws of Western culture is our insistence that we are strongest when we are independent. In truth we are never more vulnerable than when we are alone. Look at the way lions hunt. Do they strike at the center of the herd, or at the stragglers who wander alone? 1 Peter 5:8 says the devil prowls like a roaring lion, seeking to devour one of us. If he can persuade even one of us to live in isolation, he’s as good as got you.
No one is weaker or more vulnerable than someone who is alone. On the flip side, those who stand together stand the strongest.
It is a well documented phenomenon that giant redwood trees have impossibly shallow roots. They only go down perhaps 6 to 8 feet, yet their trunks can reach a hundred feet into the sky. The secret of redwood survival is that they grow in groves. Redwood trees cannot grow tall alone, because a single redwood has roots that are too shallow to keep it from toppling in even a modest wind. But redwoods that grow together in a grove share a complex, interconnected, intertwined root system that makes them virtually impossible to knock over.
This is how God wired us: to heal in community. If you want to burn out fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. One of the key elements required to truly heal from trauma, pain, and suffering, is to simply belong in a community. Again, this is something God’s people have understood from the beginning.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews said:
“let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:22-25)
You may have old wounds or be enduring a fresh bout of pain, and you may have a long journey of healing ahead, but I want you to know that no matter what your prescribed path may be, courage, consistency, and community are each a key part of God’s healing design.
In just a few short weeks we will gather here again at Easter to remember the cross and celebrate the resurrection: a reminder that as His wounds touch our wounds, Jesus brings ultimate healing and recovery for our suffering. Today as we feast at the Lord’s table, may we be reminded that it is only through Christ’s own wounds that we are healed.
We are here to encourage and support each other, and point one another to the sustaining grace of Jesus all along the way. I cannot promise that God will show Himself when you want or how you want, but I can promise you that he will be there where and when and how He needs to be.
Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie, authors of Good Enough: 40ish Devotionals for a Life of Imperfection, offer this prayer which speaks to those times when lGod seems absent and healing out of reach. Let this be our sending prayer today.
A Prayer for When God Seems Absent
Oh God, comfortable would we be if You gave us formulas and answered prayers and realized hope. But You call us beyond comfort.
But God, life upends us. We face divorce or miscarriages, financial struggles or job insecurity, and the people we love are tossed about by disease or loneliness or homelessness or addiction.
We are afraid. We don’t have adequate answers. And sometimes we can’t find You.
Or, we can’t find the person we hoped You would be.
May we learn to trust that You aren’t asleep on the job. That You haven’t forgotten us. That You are as near to us as our very breath. Give us the courage to press on. To suffer with hope that You have overcome the world.
May again and again we be awed by Your presence. That even when we feel like we’ve hit rock bottom, may we recognize we have fallen into Your arms because there is no place so deep or so dark or so scary that Your presence cannot reach.
In the name of the One who can still the seas with mere words, amen.