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.