I have been almost overwhelmed in recent weeks at seeing the amount of suffering that has resulted from the many natural disasters which have been happening. So many people affected, and such total devastation. It has been heartbreaking, but inspiring to hear so many who have been able to say, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” What faith! I am not sure I could handle it so well, but I hope I could.
Many years ago my husband and I attended a Conference on The Meaning of Pain for the Christian Physician. It was sponsored by the Christian Medical Society of Ontario, to which my husband belonged. The principal speaker was Dr. Paul Brand, who at that time was working on the development of a prosthesis which would eventually be able to function almost as well as a real hand. Just recently that vision has finally become an amazing reality. As a missionary-surgeon, Dr. Brand had spent much of his life among lepers, and because of his work there he knew acutely the consequences of being able to feel no pain.
One of the things I remember from those lectures was the fact that lepers do not lose their limbs from the initial effects of leprosy itself; they lose their limbs because leprosy causes loss of sensation. As a secondary result, they cannot feel pain, and so when they injure themselves, they don’t feel it. They burn themselves, or step on a rusty nail, and don’t feel it. Their wounds and broken bones are ignored. Their injuries become infected, and they still can’t feel it – and eventually their hands or feet become gangrenous or develop other terrible complications which require amputation or other crippling solutions. Among other things, Dr. Brand pointed us to the fact that even pain has its positive uses.
I have been uncertain about the role of pain and suffering in the life of believers almost since I became a Christian. Others have sometimes flung the question in my face of “How can a loving God allow suffering?” I have been hard pressed to know how to respond. There is no simple answer. Television reports of the pain and suffering in the lives of those who have been affected by the natural disasters are hard to watch. The bewilderment and pain on the faces of those looking for lost loved ones, or one single thing still intact from their home makes me wonder why I have been spared, and yet other good people, believers and non-believers together, have had to go through it. It seems like senseless pain, just arbitrary suffering – and yet I have been told all my life that nothing that happens is by chance; that God controls or allows everything that happens in order to work out his eternal plan. It is hard to reconcile.
One thing I know: I know the character of God. Because God is good, He can never be the initiator of wickedness. He sometimes allows things that are unpleasant in our lives, but He never sends evil. He may allow certain things to remind us that He is still sovereign, and that all the plans of men and governments and kings and rulers are impotent against His will. The world ridicules Him and ignores Him and glories in man’s wisdom, but He is still in control. “The Lord foils the plans of the nations; He thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever.” (Psalm 33:10-11)
He is giving us all a long leash, but ultimately He will bring things to His planned conclusion. The world is corrupt and humans are corrupt, and the end result is that bad stuff happens, and I still wish I didn’t have to go through it. So, what could be the Godly purposes of allowing pain and suffering in the lives of believers? As the years have gone by, and I have experienced many disciplines and trials, I have found that, ironically, suffering may actually be the vehicle which takes us toward many blessings. Just as the enemy thought that the Cross was his triumph over God, God knew that the Cross was actually the thing that would ultimately triumph over the enemy. The enemy is always looking for ways to cause us to doubt God’s love. Satan may think he is winning because he is causing us suffering, but God is always able to turn that suffering into learning and growth ~ into something redemptive.
Our loving Father may be allowing pain or suffering or loss in order to get our attention. He might be allowing trials in order to build maturity (read the book of James). He might allow it in order to teach us obedience, or to teach us to trust. He might be pruning our lives in order to increase our potential for His service by changing our attitudes. He might be teaching us dependence on Him because this will ultimately strengthen our faith. He might be using the discipline of pain to purify us, or to allow us the privilege of demonstrating His sustaining power to the world. He might be teaching us character and endurance. These are only some of the reasons why God might allow disciplines and trials in our lives. He may not be as much concerned with the physical circumstances of our lives as He is with our response. He may be more concerned with our relationship to Him than with the temporal things that surround us.
My own natural response to pain over much of the course of my life has been to try to deny it. I would go into stoic mode, and refuse to feel my pain; just keep putting one foot in front of the other. I told myself that if I don’t allow myself to feel it, I can get through it. That is how I have managed in the past to get through periods of time that I felt were too hard to experience otherwise. Gradually I learned that this is not the best way to handle it, and I have learned to go through my pain, to feel it instead of retreating into stoicism. It is not easy, but it is the healthiest solution. I am now aware of the danger of what happens when you ignore your pain and make yourself go numb. Sometimes it is very difficult, after the problem is over, to be able to come back to life and resume feeling. The numbness becomes the norm, and life becomes flat, without any highs or lows to keep us human. Bottled up feelings churn away inside, and we end up like Dr. Brand’s lepers, with corruption and decay setting in and making us very sick, indeed. Somehow we have to come to terms with our fear and anger and feelings of hopelessness, and learn how to find trust and hope in the Lord.
This is why it is such a blessing to remember that no matter what happens, we don’t have to go through it alone. Believers have the presence of the Holy Spirit within us to keep us in constant communication with the Father. We have the promise of perfect justice and hope of eternal life in front of us. We have the sure knowledge of God’s love for us, in spite of circumstances, because we know the character of God. We know that nothing is able to separate us from the love of God and that what happens to us now is just a tiny blip in the light of eternity. It doesn’t make our present pain easier, but it gives us hope enough to get through the trials of life and come out stronger.