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“I Know What God Does With Pain”

From the “sobering quotes” file, comes this morning’s offering from Richard Rohr:

If religion is not primarily a belonging system, but is truly a transformational system, one would need, it seems to me, a very different kind of authority. One would need the guidance and conviction of one who has actually walked a journey of transformation himself or herself. One would need the authority of a person who can say, “I know what God does with pain. I should be blaming or bitter, but because of God and grace, I am not.” Not just the authority which says, “You must believe in this and you must believe in that” when often there is no evidence that the authority has ever drunk “of the cup that I must drink” as Jesus put it.

This utterly changes the nature of all true spiritual authority. I will offer you a simple litmus test to determine whether a person has healthy or unhealthy religion. What do they do with their pain—even their daily little disappointments? Do they transform their pain or do they transmit it? People who are practiced in transforming actual life pain, like Jesus on the cross, are the only spiritual authorities worth following. They know. They can lead and teach. The rest of us just talk.

Adapted from The Authority of Those Who Have Suffered

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Then I guess most of us have “unhealthy religion.”

    I just wonder if Rohr has ever suffered. If I were suffering I would want him to stay away. A suffering person does not need someone like Rohr to judge their religion, their morality. He is like the fool pastor in A Country of Pointed Firs. He strikes me as something like a religious bully.

    I wonder if he has ever been in such pain that there could be no thought of transformation, only death. Of what use is a litmus test in those situations? Morality is not a solution for such pain.

    I am stunned by his insensitivity.

    August 26, 2009
  2. Paul Johnston #

    You remind me again, my brother, why I come here. Thank you for this.

    Ken, would it help with your understanding if you saw the “transformation/transmission” dichotomy as a process?

    What are we to do with suffering, particularly great suffering? Should the loss, the pain and the anger have their way with us forever?

    August 26, 2009
  3. When I read this quote, it makes sense to me. If we look at the life of Jesus do we see a bitter, angry person? Do we see someone that is being obedient and making sure you know how much it is costing him? I don’t see that. And this quote is a reminder that we can stand above the “natural” response to suffering and let the “upside down kingdom” become a reality in how we live our lives, suffering and all.

    A friend lost her husband to suicide and watching her go through her pain, real pain that I have never experienced, revealed to me that God is out there and he can give us the strength to deal with our pain differently than our natural response would be. She never said it was easy, she never said she wasn’t angry but she lived through the pain, and continues to do so in a way that makes you realize that God must be holding her up right now and giving to her what she needs each day just to make it through and take care of her family.

    I don’t think we have to always experience things firsthand in order to be able to stand with Rohr and agree with his statement. I think if we are wise people, we can look at others who have gone through “painful” moments and learn from them. I watched many parents before we had children and learned a lot of what I didn’t want to do as a parent and a lot of what I thought would be good to incorporate into our family. I think the same can be said for those that suffer. I think we can all think of an example of someone that has suffered and we think, “If I ever have to go through something like that, I hope I can handle it with the same endurance, patience and grace”.

    August 26, 2009
  4. Ken #

    I want to add another thought and answer Paul’s question.

    I do agree that suffering can be transformational. Many people have testified that it has been for them. And certainly the hope and faith we have as Christians, and God’s grace and mercy, often do support us in suffering.

    My objection to Rohr is that he seems to judge people who express bitterness and anger while suffering and who do not find it transformative, who do not “transform their pain.” Sometimes the pain is simply overwhelming. Transmission to others, at least others who feel empathy or love for the suffering person, and often as not to those who don’t, is inevitable. It should not be criticized as representing unhealthy religion. To do that, as Rohr appears to do, is cruel.

    (BTW, I think Hauerwas and I are in accord on this subject. His book, Naming the Silence, seems to be quite different in its view of suffering from the view of Rohr.)

    August 26, 2009
    • Thanks for expanding upon your initial comment, Ken. I certainly agree with you that at times pain and suffering can be overwhelming and the idea of it somehow being “transformational” seems absurd. To the extent that Rohr implies that “healthy religion” requires that pain be overcome, I would also disagree with him.

      I suppose everything depends upon what “transformed” pain looks like. While I do agree that people who claim to know a risen Lord who is well-acquainted with pain ought not to be bitter and blaming people, I think that wrestling with and protesting against the pain of the world can be and is a part of the transformation process. I don’t think being honest about what pain feels like (before God and others) is the same thing as transmitting a bitter and blaming approach to those around us. As I understand it, our response to pain need never minimize the nature of pain, but it ought to at least be able to properly locate it in our stories and in God’s story.

      I guess the reason the quote struck me was because of the spiritual leadership angle. As one who is charged with some kind of leadership role in Christ’s church, the question of what I do with pain seemed a pertinent one. I don’t think spiritual leaders need to be (or could ever be) perfect, but it does seem reasonable that those who follow them expect them to have some experience in some of the central realities they profess. If we preach that it is through the pain and suffering that the greatest good the world will ever know has come and will come about, how have we seen this to be true in our own lives? This at least seems like a fair (if terrifying!) question to me…

      August 27, 2009
  5. Ken #

    Yes, I think your clarification is good.

    When a person suffers from long and deep pain, it is very hard to maintain a pleasant temperament. Sometimes one’s faith helps. But the other thing that happens very often is that a person feels guilty that they have feelings of bitterness and angry. That plus feeling guilty that one is a burden to others adds to the despair associated with suffering. What a person needs in that situation are the tender mercies, those of God and of humanity.

    Many who find a kind of transformation in suffering, in identifying with the suffering of Christ. The testimony of these people is certainly helpful to others who might be inclined the same way. On the other hand, in many other cases, the expectation that one is supposed to transform or transcend the pain does not help, but instead hurts.

    This poses a paradox for pastoral leadership.

    As I think about the emphasis that I hear on suffering, including the suffering of Christ, here and other places, I realize that the liberal theology within which I heard the great narrative does not emphasize suffering, even while it emphasizes dependence on God (as Schleiermacher called it.) I imagine this has something to do with our reactions to Rohr.

    When I think about the suffering and death of Jesus, I attribute it only to the government of Palestine in the first century. I also think of it as a fulfillment of prophecies, as the gospels claim. But I think of it as incidental to, rather than central to, the gospel. (I did not even feel a slight attraction to the Mel Gibson movie.) I think of creation as central to the gospel – the kingdom of God as a new creation. In that narrative, suffering is simply bad. Hope lies not in transforming it, but in ending it. (It is like the modern secular approach to suffering, isn’t it?)

    I don’t mean to say that others should embrace this liberal theology, nor to criticize the emphasis placed on suffering in other theologies. I only mean to point to this difference and how it can affect the way we react to suffering and its remedies, on how we locate it in God’s story, on how it may be affecting our reading of Rohr.

    August 27, 2009
    • I think your reminder is a good one Ken—it is easy for those who have “transformed” their pain (however understood) to intentionally or unintentionally turn that into a burden to those who cannot do so (at least not in the same way). I’m not sure I would say that Jesus’ suffering is “incidental” to the gospel, but neither am I sure that it is as central as some make it out to be. I shudder as I recall speakers from my childhood exhorting us to live for Jesus because just think of how much he suffered for you. This was often followed by graphic descriptions of the nature of crucifixion, about how it was our specific sins that made each hammer blow of the nail necessary, etc. Talk about adding to the burden of guilt!

      (I share your lack of interest in Gibson’s movie. I have not seen it yet, nor do I intend to).

      August 27, 2009
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Hey Ryan, what is an enemy? Have you ever had any? How does a person really come to love, as Christ would have us love, someone he would otherwise call, an enemy?

    With regard to suffering, Ken you say, “Hope lies not in transforming it, but in ending it.” In your opinion Ken, does Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross better exemplify a transformation through suffering or an end to suffering?

    August 27, 2009
    • Hmm, that’s a good question. I’m not sure I’ve ever really had a bona fide enemy. I’ve certainly never had anyone threaten me or those I love or declare themselves to be opposed to me in some important way. I suppose the closest thing in my case would be those I have strong disagreements with about matters I think are important.

      I’m currently reviewing a book about how Christians interact with those whose views they do not share (Christians or non-Christians). One of the best gifts we can give to people we disagree with (our “enemies,” if you will) is the gift of listening to them, taking the time to understand their perspective (which means being able to restate it back to them to their satisfaction), and being willing to learn from them.

      I suppose in this case (an admittedly mild one when you consider the kinds of enemies Jesus was likely referring to in his context), loving my enemy means being generous and hospitable, not treating people like arguments to be won or ideologies to be conquered. That’s just one idea off the top of my head. Why do you ask? How would you answer the question?

      August 27, 2009
    • Ken #

      I guess my primary inclination has been to associate Jesus with the end of suffering, more than with the transformation of suffering. I think that has been the leaning of modernity relative to suffering, and that leaning influenced the liberal theology through which I came to understand Christianity.

      August 27, 2009
  7. Paul Johnston #

    Thanks, Ryan. Thanks, Ken.

    Ryan, I asked the question hoping it might help me better understand the reluctance to affirm Mr. Rohr’s comments. I thought that if you had ever had an enemy, someone who had purposefully brought a great deal of suffering into your life, but someone you had eventually come to not only accept and forgive but to truly love, you might see his arguement a little differently.

    I like what Naomi said with regard to an, “upside down kingdom”. Love does that, it turns things upside down. It renders all suffering redemptive. It forgives all transgressions.

    I’m not sure we can ever be merciful, joyfully, without pre-condition or regret, unless we have learned to transform suffering into something worthwhile, something useful.

    Personally speaking I am still a work in progress. By Mr. Rohr’s standard my “religion” is not fully healthy. It is a standard with which I am comfortable.

    As for your second question, I say this. A lot of what I thought my enemy was making me suffer went away when I started to treat them as a loved one.

    August 27, 2009
    • Ryan, I asked the question hoping it might help me better understand the reluctance to affirm Mr. Rohr’s comments. I thought that if you had ever had an enemy, someone who had purposefully brought a great deal of suffering into your life, but someone you had eventually come to not only accept and forgive but to truly love, you might see his arguement a little differently.

      I’m confused. I thought I was, in a qualified way, affirming Mr. Rohr’s comments.

      August 28, 2009
  8. Paul Johnston #

    I guess it all depends on how you view the qualification…lol. In hindsight I should have said “qualified reluctance” or “unqualified acceptance”.

    And I think I’m still trying to work out my understanding of suffering. Trying to come to terms with the paradox. I cannot choose suffering for myself or for any other and yet so much of what is true and loving about me, is a consequence of struggle and suffering.

    What else can I say.

    I certainly don’t want to say anything that Ken or another might deem to be dishonest, callous or cruel.

    I suspect Mr. Rohr wasn’t intending to be cruel either.

    August 28, 2009
    • Ken #

      Paul’s questions made me think further about Rohr’s view of suffering and leadership.

      Rohr appears to say that one learns to lead or becomes qualified to lead through suffering. That is not a normal view of leadership, suffering or of the work of Christ. It sounds sadistic to me. Rohr seems to imply that suffering is rewarded. While it is true that we never forget the lessons we learn while suffering, it is not true that these lessons are the stuff of which leaders or Christians are made. The lessons are at least as likely to be pathological as they are to be healthy.

      Paul’s instincts are right. With a normal psychology, no one chooses suffering or wishes for others to suffer.

      Jesus was not crucified so that we might learn how to transform pain. Father Rohr’s implication that this was the work of Christ is inconsistent with the teachings of his church, the Roman Catholic Church. While sadism and sadomasochism associated with religion has occurred over the centuries, the Church has tried to prevent it in modernity and has tried to correct the notion that suffering is rewarded. That is, in part, what Vatican II tried to do.

      August 28, 2009
  9. Larry S #

    Ken, I have more room for Rohr in this regard than you seem to. I want people in leadership who have worked through (or are working through) some pain in their own lives. In fact, in terms of the people I let into my life at a close, intimate level I want someone with ‘some mileage’ on them. Someone who has some acquaintance with personal pain.

    I think that at some level, we all have some level of pain, hurt or suffering. Some deny their pain or have unresolved ‘issues.’ In the Christian circles I’ve hung out in these folk can be rigid, sanctimonious etc. etc. They aren’t nice people to be around.

    August 28, 2009

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