Count It All Joy

Perhaps one of C.S. Lewis’ most famous lines, featured in the loosely biographical film Shadowlands, was this:

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world. ~ The Problem of Pain

As Dan mentioned in his previous post, pain is something many Christians nowadays do not know how to deal with. It does not figure into the superficial narrative of life on offer in many churches and Christian ministries. But the Bible’s teaching on pain is anything but superficial. Some of its earliest words speak to it:

The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” ~ Gen 3:13-19

Countless Psalms also express the reality of pain. For example:

O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me? Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless. Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me. They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together. You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness. ~ Psalm 88:14-18

And, fulfilling this difficult theme, our Lord also promised that we would suffer pain like he did:

Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. ~ Luk 14:27

It is an unavoidable fact of reality, and of the Bible, that God has ordained our lives to include pain. Whether we will experience it, especially as Christians, is not an open question. Why we experience it, and what we can do about it, are the real questions all Christians are forced to struggle with at one point or another in their lives.

The answer to the first question is twofold (at least), I believe. Firstly, we experience pain as punishment for the sin of our first parents, and for our own sins. I don’t think we can ignore this aspect of the Bible’s teaching. This is never meant to imply that every single evil that befalls us must be a punishment for a specific sin; this is in fact explicitly denied. But the presence of pain in the world, and in our lives, is not something God intended in the created world; it has come about because God has ordained we suffer it, and he ordained we suffer it because of the hell we have brought upon this earth in our distrust of him. But this is not the only reason we suffer pain. As Christians, pain, while a kind of punishment, takes on an almost salvific power. This is the truth that Lewis was expressing, and it is the truth that James teaches when he tells us:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. ~ Jas 1:2-4

Pain can have two opposite results on people. One is that they can receive pain and get bitter about it. They can hold on to it tightly, poke and prod at it, wallow in it, and ultimately drown their souls in it. The other possible result is what James says: if, instead of becoming bitter, they rejoice in the goodness of God in spite of their pain, they are in turn shaped by that pain to become better people, people more full of love for God and for God’s images. This happens because pain ultimately forces again the question Adam and Eve faced at the beginning: will you trust in God’s goodness? If you suppress the knowledge of God’s goodness like Adam and Eve, you choose again to inhabit hell on earth, and if you persist, hell forever. But if you acknowledge the inescapable reality of God’s goodness, you will understand that it suffices to bring strength and comfort and hope sufficient to eventually overcome any pain. If you let it, pain can be God’s surgeon-knife, eliminating the tumors of your distrust in him, and making you into what Irenaeus said was the glory of God: “a human being fully alive”.