Sunday, April 1, 2012

Purpose in the Pain

Sometimes people express amazement at the fact that I birthed 2 of my 3 children naturally, that is, with no medical intervention to manage the pain. I have had people shake their heads, smile, and look at me in wonder. Why? I guess because I chose that kind of pain when alternatives were available to me. I honestly don't think of it that way. It wasn't butterflies and pixie dust, trust me. But I would not trade the experience I had for anything. Perhaps there was some naiveté in my decision. (But, then again, I did do it a second time!) Really, I was compelled by several factors. At the top of the list was a belief that the full experience, the way it was intended to happen naturally, would be manageable because there was purpose in the pain.

On the night of Jesus' betrayal and arrest, he spent a long time talking with his disciples. You can read the conversation, which is really more of a monologue, in John chapters 14-17. As a follower of Jesus, when I read these words, I blissfully sit in the beauty and truth of it all. His choicest, kindest, most encouraging words were saved for this night. When he could have rightfully been the one in need of encouragement (he was going to be tortured the next day!) he poured out beautiful words which he knew his friends would need to fall back on in the days and years ahead. Speaking of the difficulties that were about to come upon them, of which they were sheepishly ignorant, Jesus said,

Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. (John 16:20-22 NIV)

He means to encourage his disciples with this great truth: the present pain has purpose and will be turned to joy one day. Not only would Jesus' friends find themselves holed up in their homes, confused and shaken, after his violent murder, but Jesus' friends through the ages have and will find themselves in the most painful, confusing, doubt-inducing situations. Sometimes we are sad. Sometimes we are angry. Sometimes it feels intolerable to live one more day in a world so broken by death and decay. Jesus says, "Hold on. Now is your time of grief. But that is not the end of the story. I will see you again. You will experience endless and unspeakable joy."

I can't help but think that Jesus encouraged himself with this truth in the garden of Gethsemene. While asking his father if there was possibly another way, Jesus experienced anguish. This is not a different, less acute kind of anguish or sorrow than we feel. Remember, Isaiah paints Jesus as the "man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." John Eldridge, in his book Beautiful Outlaw writes:

We who worship Jesus Christ hold fast to the belief that he was God. “Very God of very God,” as the Nicene Creed states. The heroic actions and miraculous powers of Jesus’ life attest to it. So, when we read what we would call the more human moments, we feel that Jesus was sort of . . . cheating. With a nod and a wink we know that what’s really happening is that Einstein has dropped in to take the first-grade math quiz. Mozart is playing a measure in the kindergarten song flute choir. After all, we’re talking about Jesus here. The guy walked on water, raised Lazarus from the dead. He never broke a sweat, right? But then, what do you make of that terrible sweat in Gethsemane?

Deeply distressed. Overwhelmed with sorrow. Anguished.

This doesn’t sound like somebody cheating to me. He begs his Father, with tears, that this awful cup might be taken from him. Please, let there be some other way. He doesn’t want to do it. Sweat like blood pouring from his tormented brow. He pleads with his Father, and then he pleads a second time, and then a third. Does this sound like Einstein adding two and two?

How, in his humanity, could he bear it? How could he endure being alone, forsaken by his friends, betrayed, unjustly accused, lied about, mocked, humiliated, made a spectacle, physically tortured in the worst way, and the pinnacle (a suffering, bless God, we will never know because he did) his father turning from him and pouring out justice on him, the sin-bearer. How could Jesus endure it? The answer is in Hebrews 12:2. Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, for the joy set before him, endured the cross. The key to the ability to endure suffering? Faith. Holding onto to the God who has a purpose in it. There is a day of joy to come.

When my children come to me in all their drama, as their world is ending over something like a video game freezing up or a favorite snack absent from the pantry, I help them through the moment and fix what I can. But my parental perspective keeps me unflustered. The world will only end once, and it's not going to be today. (And I'm pretty sure it won't end over video games or snacks!) If I try to explain how silly their anxiety seems, it is only hurtful to them. I just love them through it and know they will grow up. Perhaps later the world will end over pimples or fender-benders. From my parental perspective, I know they will not only survive but probably mature through some hardship. So it is with our heavenly Father. He sees what we can't see. Someday we will understand.

Paul got it right: I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. (Romans 8:18 NIV) If we could consistently hold on to this hope, how differently we would live! In his book A Reason For God, Tim Keller has a chapter called "How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?" he writes:

I think we need something more than knowing God is with us in our difficulties. We also need hope that our suffering is "not in vain." The Biblical view of things is resurrection-- not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had but a restoration of the life you always wanted. This means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired but will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even infinitely more glorious world than if there had never been the need for bravery, endurance, sacrifice, or salvation.

The Easter season sets a table for us to taste again, not only fun treats like chocolate eggs and Peeps, but the noble themes of sacrifice, suffering, and glorious resurrection. Any joy or hope we encounter from savoring our Savior is merely a tiny foretaste of the deeper joy to come. With a belief that there is purpose in the pain, perhaps a settled perseverance can calm our lives.

The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.... We ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we are saved... 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. (Romans 8:18, 21-24, 28 NIV)