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What Do We Do With Pain?

I was thinking about the conversation taking place around my previous post as I continued to get acquainted with William Willimon this morning. The conversation is around the proper Christian approach to suffering.  How should we suffer?  How should we view it?  Is it an unwelcome intruder into the very essence of reality?  The divinely appointed means through which Christians demonstrate their allegiance to Jesus?  A strategy for effective Christian leadership?  I think most of us who have been touched by the Suffering Servant have some sense that suffering ought to somehow be different for us even if we’re not sure what that looks like.  I don’t know many people who actually desire or welcome pain but I think we intuitively sense that Jesus somehow changes how we look at (or ought to look at) suffering even if we aren’t always very good at articulating how.

Back to Willimon.  In a chapter about pastoral care, he tells the story of a couple who received the news that their brand new baby boy had been born with Down’s Syndrome and a respiratory condition that would make life complicated and difficult for both the child and his parents.  The doctor’s recommendation was to “let nature take its course”—in other words, to let the boy die.  “You must understand,” the doctor said, “that studies show that parents who keep these children have a high incidence of marital distress and separation.  Is it fair for you to bring this sort of suffering upon your other two children?”

Suffering, as the doctor understood it, was simply to be avoided at all costs.  It was an unqualified negative.  The parents’ reaction was different.  They saw suffering as something to learn and grow through together as a family.  They didn’t say that God had orchestrated the suffering of their son, but they were convinced that God could bring good out of it—both for the family and for the baby.  They didn’t see suffering as something good but they did interpret it differently than their doctor.

The doctor turned to Willimon (the couple’s pastor at the time) and pleaded with him to “talk some reason into the couple.”  Here’s what Willimon has to say:

For me, it was a vivid depiction of the way in which the church, at its best, is in the business of teaching a different language from that of the world.  The church, through its stories, worship, and life together, teaches a different language whereby words like “suffering,” words that are unredeemably negative in our society, change their substance.  Here was a couple who had listened to a peculiar story, namely the life and death of Jesus Christ, in which suffering could be reasonably redemptive.

It strikes me that this teaching and embodying of a “different language” is what the church—or, to borrow (if not embrace) the language of Richard Rohr from the quote in the previous post, “healthy religion”—ought to be about.  We do not change the nature or experience of suffering.  We do not turn it into something it is not.  Suffering doesn’t magically become good because Jesus suffered.  We do not screw up our wills and try to pray or talk ourselves into liking or desiring it in some kind of a weird misguided martyr complex.

What we do, instead, is allow our experience of the pain of the world to find its place in the story narrated by Scripture.  We do not accept the “language” of a secular narrative of suffering which sees it primarily as something to either ignore, pretend doesn’t exist, or flee from.  Rather, we look at it squarely and resolutely, acknowledging its reality along with what it does to us and those we love, and we do our best to bring whatever good we can out of it.  We are not overly triumphant about it (Jesus has won the victory and so can you!) but neither do we give in to despair and resignation because we know that there is more of the story to come.

Perhaps, at the end of it all, the truth conveyed by Rohr’s quote—the truth that Christians in general, and Christian leaders in particular, are charged with representing to the world—is simply this: suffering does not have the last word in God’s story and it need not have the last word in yours and mine either.  And perhaps the longer we tell and live this story—the more we follow the God who knows what to do with pain—the more we will become the kind of people who suffer well along the way.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. When considered against the timeline of eternity, which is how God sees it, the pain we know here will appear as less than a speck of dust. Paul said, by the Holy Spirit, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that is to be revealed to us”. Rom 8:18 This from a man who knew something of suffering.

    Now, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt in the now. And hurt deeply at times. Even to the point of despair. To say otherwise is to fabricate a fantasy. But Jesus has given us the means, through the Word and His Spirit within us, to process through it and come into a heart understanding of how He sees it. Which is ultimately, a process that leads us to look into His face, where everything else, including the pain, fades away in comparison.

    August 28, 2009
  2. Ken #

    I only remember reading one book that Willimon authored, with Hauerwas, Resident Aliens. I think your analysis and conclusion here is consistent with that of Hauerwas and Willimon. Neither they nor you nor I believe that suffering has the last word, and that hope is part of Jesus’ first century proclamation that the kingdom of God was at hand and the message of the prophets going all the way back to Moses.

    In spite of that, I do not agree with the decision the parents made, nor with Willimon’s reaction to it. I would have made the opposite decision. In addition, I think that there is more to the modern secular narrative than seeing suffering “as something to either ignore, pretend doesn’t exist, or flee from. ” I think the secular response is, as much as the Christian response (exemplified by Hauerwas and Willimon,) to “look at it squarely and resolutely, acknowledging its reality along with what it does to us and those we love, and we do our best to bring whatever good we can out of it. ” The secular response that Willimon cited represents a different ethic from the secular response cited. Willimon’s response, like that of Hauerwas, is based on an ethic of virtues, whereas the secular response cited is based on a utilitarian ethic. The utilitarian ethic is found in Christianity too. Neither the secular nor the Christian utilitarian ethic is as limited in dimensions or compassion as in Willimon’s example. It too can be seen as an unwillingness to give suffering the last word.

    I do think that Christianity, and Judaism, and probably other faiths as well, help us to suffer well, or, rather, cope with suffering. But sometimes, no matter how seriously one approaches faith, it is not enough, and suffering wins, at least for now.

    I wonder to what extent viewing the church as a community of resident aliens, as Hauerwas and Willimon (and you?) do, and as I do not, is why we would make different decisions in the example Willimon provided.

    August 28, 2009
    • I wonder to what extent viewing the church as a community of resident aliens, as Hauerwas and Willimon (and you?) do, and as I do not, is why we would make different decisions in the example Willimon provided.

      I’ve not read Resident Aliens, although from what I know about the book I can imagine myself resonating with aspects of it (although, perhaps not the whole package). I think that the church certainly plays a unique and preservative role in the broader culture, but I also think the gospel responds to generic human needs and that the church takes its place at the table like everyone else. At first glance, I’m not sure how our agreement/disagreement about the church’s role in society would impact our approach to the situation Willimon describes.

      Re: your disagreement with the parents’ decision, who do you think ought to have the ability to decide what someone can do with pain? I’ve read accounts of adults with disabilities who deeply resent the idea that someone would presume to decide for them how much suffering was acceptable or contributed/detracted from a “good” life or a life worth preserving/living.

      August 29, 2009
      • Ken #

        The ethic of Hauerwas and Willimon is wrapped up in their view of the church as in the world, but separate from and different from the world. It is just something I am wondering about having come from a different background.

        Re: last paragraph in this response. In an free society in which the individual has the rights to make such decisions, then the answer can only be the individual. I don’t think it is possible to justify the opposite decision to the one the parents made within their ethical paradigm, nor within the one of individual rights. So much depends on the frame or narrative through which we see the world and God and ourselves, as Willimon and Hauerwas observe.

        Re: Paul’s question. I don’t think that Christians who apply utilitarian ethics believe it is right to take innocent life, or right to “take it” at all. I also don’t think they want to kill their children, or to stand by and let them die as the doctor proposed in Willimon’s example. Few people apply only one ethical frame in our society. I think in Willimon’s example a person who makes the decision to decline medical services, as the doctor had suggested, sees that decision as a humane and merciful decision, but one that is made in agony, which is all a parent can feel in such circumstances. In Willimon’s community of resident aliens, that decision is not an option. To make that decision would rip apart their world, their reality. It would plunge them into darkness.

        August 29, 2009
      • In an free society in which the individual has the rights to make such decisions, then the answer can only be the individual.

        Yes, but which individual? Obviously not the individual who will suffer (in this case the baby boy). So then it will always (must always?) be some individuals deciding on behalf of other individuals about suffering, lives worth living (both from the perspective of the one who will suffer and those close to him/her), etc. And in this context, Michael’s point becomes especially poignant: we have no shared communal vision of the good life sufficient to bear the weight of suffering. A strictly utilitarian approach may prevent some suffering but it also closes doors through which some of the truly beautiful things in this world may emerge.

        I think in Willimon’s example a person who makes the decision to decline medical services, as the doctor had suggested, sees that decision as a humane and merciful decision, but one that is made in agony, which is all a parent can feel in such circumstances. In Willimon’s community of resident aliens, that decision is not an option. To make that decision would rip apart their world, their reality. It would plunge them into darkness.

        I think that this kind of decision would (or ought to) rip apart and plunge into darkness anyone‘s world, regardless of whether they saw themselves as resident aliens or not. How could it not?

        August 29, 2009
      • Ken #

        Re: individual rights ethic. I only meant to confirm what I thought your were implying. I was thinking that the parent could not take this right away from the individual who is now a child, but I agree with you that this system does not work in this case because the child cannot make the decision.

        Re: ripping world apart. I agree that it would rip anyone’s world apart, if we are referring to the agony associated with the situation and the decision. When I used that expression above I did not mean to refer to that agony, but rather to the world or reality that influenced the decision that the parents made in Willimon’s example. Conversely, a decision to perform the medical services that would save the child’s life would rip apart the world or reality of one whose ethic was utilitarian. It would seem very unreasonable and inhumane, as it did to the doctor.

        Ultimately, I think since few people in the modern west live in a Willimon community or are pure utilitarians, I think that the decisive factor would not be either of these ethics, but rather the feelings that a parent has for children and their family.

        I think the conclusion of Hauerwas and Willimon and other communitarians overstates a consequence of modern western pluralism. I am referring to the conclusion that you summarized as: “we have no shared communal vision of the good life sufficient to bear the weight of suffering. A strictly utilitarian approach may prevent some suffering but it also closes doors through which some of the truly beautiful things in this world may emerge.” We do have shared communal visions of a good life. Most people do bear the weight of suffering. No one applies a strictly utilitarian approach – we each seem to draw from several. Utilitarianism is a concern for consequences and its aim is goodness, or beautiful things.

        Ultimately my impression is that Hauerwas and Willimon are chiefly perturbed by the freedom they call individualism. In constructing their argument against it they offer a view of modern life that is limited. They fight a straw man. I find their work illuminating, within the limits of that fight. They offer a utopian view.

        August 30, 2009
      • Thanks for clarifying. I think you are right, in practice our ethical deliberations rarely draw from one and only one source—especially in cases as complicated as the one Willimon describes. I remain convinced that strict utilitarianism in an inadequate approach, that its horizon is too short. Its aim may be “goodness or beautiful things,” but there are kinds of goodness and beauty that seem to emerge out of some of the darkest places—places that a strictly utilitarian approach would block entry to. Does suffering always lead to beauty and goodness? Obviously not. But I think one of the peculiar hopes of a people who follow a crucified Lord is that no suffering is too black to block out light from emerging.

        August 31, 2009
  3. Paul Johnston #

    A beautifully written post, Ryan. There is more than just knowledge here. There is understanding. There is truth. Thank you.

    Ken, it might be fair to view the phrase, “something to ignore,pretend doesn’t exist or flee from” as it pertains to the secular response, as incomplete but I can’t imagine a Christian form of utilitarianism that would support the taking of an innocent human life.

    Are you saying that? Or am I reading you incorrectly?

    August 28, 2009
  4. It seems that part of the challenge with diagnosing these situations is we can only see the doctor’s comments as being altruistic. Certainly it often is. But if Foucault and some of the other Continental philosophers are right that big chunks of our medical system function as another layer of social control, then there are alternative explanations.

    Perhaps some desires to “relieve suffering” are really a disguised unwillingness to modify the society we’ve created so that the mentally handicapped might not suffer as much at our hands, and/or a reluctance to admit we no longer have a shared vision of the good life sufficient to bear the weight of the suffering we all go through, diseased or not.

    Then the couple’s decision to show hospitality to a stranger who doesn’t meet the criteria of medicine or wider society is not just transformative, but courageous defiance, too.

    August 28, 2009
    • Good points Michael. I especially agree with you that

      we no longer have a shared vision of the good life sufficient to bear the weight of the suffering we all go through, diseased or not.

      Perhaps this is simply one of the realities of pluralism, and there is no going back. It seems to me, however, that we can always decide what we will do with the social reality we are given. We can either look for and acknowledge the deep human need present in all of us and continue to dialogue about where our visions overlap, where we can learn, grow, etc; or we can interpret the competing visions of “the good life” as pointing that none of them are true and radically shrink the horizons within which we think about questions like truth, good/evil, and suffering. It seems to me that the latter is a popular choice in the modern west and, as you say, it has serious implications for the resources we have available to deal with suffering.

      August 29, 2009
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Forgive the incoherence but I wanted to share a couple of other observations regarding this subject.

    …”For though in the sight of men they were punished,
    their hope is full of immortality.
    Having been disciplined a little,
    they will receive great good,
    because God tested them and found them worthy of Himself.”…

    (Wis.3:4-5)

    …”and when Jesus new for certain
    only drowning men could see Him
    he said all men shall be sailors then
    until the sea shall free them.”…

    Leonard Cohen

    August 29, 2009
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Thanks for the response, Ken. I think I view the Willimon example differently than you. It seems to me, and I’m open to being way wrong here, that you are comparing both options, the “Christian” and the “secular” apart from one another. Measuring each one seperately against the fact of the babies condition. If so, I can understand how you can conclude that the “secular” response is humane and justifiable, and in your particular case, the preferred option.

    I wonder though, if you were to compare the two options against one another, as to which is the more humane response, if your choice changes?

    August 29, 2009
  7. Ken #

    When I talk to people about decisions like this one, I rarely hear anyone express anything that is not humane, regardless of which decision they make.

    August 30, 2009

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