We also learn by hearing the struggles of people who are still in the pit, describe the nightmares they’re living through, and tell us how on earth they’re continuing to worship God despite it making no sense at all. I learn as much, if not more, from these gnarled saints. Their struggles teach, and you don’t have to be out of the other side of your struggles to have learned wisdom. You see, treasure lives at the bottom of the pit, and like the inverse of Plato’s cave, those who have suffered much and still love the Lord can teach the rest of us how to live. Which shouldn’t surprise us, the Christian life is one of death and resurrection, after all.
When Christians suffer, when we experience pain, it often gives rise to doubt. We begin to wonder if it’s meant to be like this. One of the most quoted reasons to disbelieve in God is what’s usually called ‘the problem of evil.’ For most of us though it’s not the existence of conspicuous evil that’s the problem, it’s the pain in our lives and the lives of those we love. There’s a reason that C. S. Lewis formulated the challenge as The Problem of Pain.
Why does it make us doubt? I’m sure there are as many variations as there are sufferers, but broadly because if we truly believe that we are the beloved children of the most high God it raises some questions when, as best we can tell, he could improve our lot but hasn’t done so.
These questions are then painfully pressed on in many churches Sunday by Sunday as we preach a Christian life that sounds remarkably pain-free—this is certainly true in my charismatic tradition, but I’ve seen it much more broadly across evangelicalism in the UK. We preach what amounts to a prosperity gospel, where Christians are promised nice middle-classed lives.
Some readers might want to object that they haven’t heard this sort of preaching in their church, and thank the Lord if that’s the case, but for clarity I don’t mean that this is explicitly taught in the sermon, though that can happen. It’s often preached through the stories we share, through those we platform and those we don’t, through the questions our preaching does and doesn’t address, through the words of the songs we pick to sing, through so-called vulnerability that sufferers see right through, and through the reactions to those who are in acute pain.
We speak like the grand plan is that we’re all free from pain right now. Which, dear friends, it is not. You can quote Psalm 27 all you like but that isn’t what it means. There will be no more pain after the resurrection of the dead (Revelation 21), and that is a promise worth gripping to until your hands bleed. One day every ounce of existential dread, every lash of life’s cruel calumny, and every private howl you flung into the uncaring heavens, will melt in the face of the Lord Jesus as he smiles and embraces you, his little brother or sister.
And when I say it will melt, I don’t mean that as a nice verb to describe ‘going away.’ When the eyes of Jesus the consuming fire (Hebrews 12) look upon you tenderly, they will look on the root of Hell that has afflicted you with the force of a thousand suns and it will die.
One day our pain will go. But not yet. We aren’t promised that. In fact, the Bible tells us that our pain still has work to do—for suffering produces character (Romans 5). But even that can be a weight to bear, we are not responsible for ensuring we have achieved anyone’s definition of ‘adequate growth’ through our trials than the Lord’s.
Pain is required for growth. Ask any athlete. We immediately might have questions about how that death or that vile sting will cause us to grow, and it’s important to face them. They do not have clear and simple answers. Our struggles teach us.
I think I could be misread here. We often hear stories of challenge in our churches, and invariably they are told once those challenges are over, the people involved aren’t feeling the rawest edge of the pain, and it all sounds a bit neat and tidy.