It is a warm June morning as I hurriedly comb Keziah’s hair.
Keziah is my bright and beautiful five-year-old daughter. We have to leave for school in a few minutes. Keziah sits on the stairs and I sit a little further up. I attack the tangles like an explorer carving his way through the Amazon rainforest. Suddenly, she bursts into tears. ‘Daddy, you are hurting me!’ she cries.
For me, this is the last straw. I begin to sob. Her tears are quickly forgotten as she looks up into my face, puts her hand in mine and asks, ‘What’s the matter, Daddy?’ I probably shouldn’t have said it so bluntly, but I couldn’t help myself. ‘I just want Mummy back. I want her to be well.’
Blokes don’t cry
I grew up in a working-class family in Birmingham in the 1960s. I had always been taught that real blokes don’t cry. Yet there I was, sitting on the stairs sobbing like a baby in front of my daughter. Never before had I experienced such pain.
However, looking back and without being glib and simplistic, Edrie’s illness and disability have given us a deeper insight into our relationship with God and aided us in our ministry to other people. You can talk about pain with some credibility when people see that you have walked their road. Over the years, we have become convinced of two things.
1. Pain is intense and universal
Firstly, we have come to recognise the sheer magnitude and awful intensity of pain in the world. We are surrounded by pain, and the only condition for suffering it is to live long enough to experience it. Suffering is one of the most consistent themes of the Bible. We live in a fallen, broken, bleeding world.
I once prepared a series of sermons on suffering. What struck me most was the fact that suffering is actually an underlying assumption throughout the Bible. If you pinch out the first two chapters of Genesis and the last two chapters of Revelation, suffering and pain is the common theme of everything in between. The human race comes from a pain-free zone where everything was ‘very good’ (Genesis 1.31). And God’s people are heading for a pain-free zone where the curse of sin and all its consequences will be gone forever, and all things will be made new (Revelation 21.5).
However, we’re not there yet. We live in the middle of the book, a place marked by tears and death (Revelation 21.4). Any Christian teaching that wants to take us away from that experience of pain and settle us into a kind of pre-heaven bliss is unbalanced and unhelpful and, frankly, downright wrong.
The Bible is an honest book. It knows all about frustration and bereavement, about childlessness and depression. It tells us that we suffer because we are human, and because we are Christians. Sometimes, we suffer because we are stupid and do sinful things. Sometimes, it’s because we are faithful and do righteous things. Sometimes, there seems to be no cause at all. Jesus knew all about pain. He is ‘a man of suffering, and familiar with pain’ (Isaiah 53.3). He grew up under the stigma of illegitimacy and was branded as insane by the leaders of his people. In real human flesh, he experienced hunger and thirst, weariness and frustration.
His own family rejected him, and the crowds eventually turned against him. After being betrayed by a friend and deserted by all his companions, there was an unfair trial and he was tortured to death. Crucifixion had been invented by cruel people, and was just about the most painful and shameful way to die. Worst of all, Christ tasted the ultimate loneliness of divine desertion as, on the cross, he who knew no sin became a sin offering for people like us (2 Corinthians 5.21). He experienced physical, psychological and spiritual pain more than anyone who has ever lived.
Any cheap and tawdry theology that teaches us that it is possible to escape pain in this world has to contend with the overwhelming testimony of the Bible. We live in the middle of the book.
Pastoral ministry for over 30 years has confirmed this first conviction. As I look out at the congregation on a Sunday morning, I know I am preaching to people who have suffered, who are suffering or who are about to suffer. For some, it is a struggle even to be at church in the first place. For many people, it’s the daily struggle with the effects of the chronic physical pain that colours their whole existence. Just getting through the day is a battle.
However, there are other forms of pain just as devastating in their effects. I think of the young couple who have been told that they can never have kids of their own. They leave the Mother’s Day service with tears in their eyes. Or I consider the bereaved wife who has been so brave for so long, helping her husband battle terminal cancer. Now that the battle is over, she cannot see any reason to get out of bed in the mornings. ‘I feel as if I have a lump of love and nowhere to put it’, she cries. As life unfolds, we lose the people who have loved us and made our lives bearable.
Life is a tough journey. And Christians don’t always tell the truth. When you ask them how they are doing, they will airily reply, ‘Just great’, but you know their lives are falling apart. Somehow, we think that if we admit we are struggling, we are letting the side down.
2. Choose to overcome pain
Secondly, it is possible to win in the middle of the book. I hold this second conviction just as firmly as the first. The world is full of pain, but it is also full of people who triumph in the midst of their pain.
I have met so many Christians who have left me amazed at their courage and fortitude and their desire to bring glory to God through the agony they have suffered. I have seen it in my wonderfully brave and incredibly courageous wife. Edrie’s story is not one of bitterness and defeat, but one of faith and triumph.
The ‘middle of the book’ is also full of people who triumphed in adversity, indeed in multiple adversities. Think of Job’s patience, Ruth’s persistence or Joseph’s faithfulness. Think of Mary’s love, Paul’s faith or Stephen’s hope. Most of all, think of the triumph of the ‘Man of sorrows’ who refused to turn from the pathway of pain that his Father had called him to walk along, and who transformed it into the way of salvation.
When pain becomes intense, we are driven to cast ourselves on God as our only source of comfort. Elisabeth Elliot was the widow of Jim Elliot, a missionary who died a martyr’s death on a beach in South America. She expressed an experience common to all Christians: ‘I am not a theologian or a scholar, but I am very aware that pain is necessary to all of us. In my own life, I think I can honestly say that out of the deepest pain has come the strongest conviction of the presence of God and of the love of God’.
How can this be so? Of course, as Elisabeth Elliot says, you do not need to be a theologian or a scholar to make such a statement, but its truth is based on firm theological convictions.
Over the last 20 years, as Edrie and I have walked with pain, weeping and laughing together, I have reflected on the Bible’s insights. Suffering has caused us to read God’s Word in a new way. It is not that we discovered things that we did not know before; it is that we recognised that the Bible was written to encourage people like us who were often experiencing the ravages of pain. So the Bible is about suffering, but is also about overcoming it. In our darkest times, these biblical convictions sustained Edrie and me. The strength we needed to persevere and prevail over pain flowed from our knowledge of the truth. And it was the truth that set us free — free to see pain as part of the tapestry of life that a sovereign and all-wise God was weaving for us.
This article is an edited extract from Paul Mallard’s new book, Invest Your Suffering (IVP, ISBN 978 1 783 590 063, £8.99), and is printed with permission.
Paul is Director of Training and Development for the Midlands Gospel Partnership.
This article was first published in the December 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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