Monday, July 25, 2011

On Pain and Loss

I have lived a comfortable life. Some people who have lived a more comfortable life than mine would disagree with me, but there are many, many more who would say that up to this minute my life has been and continues to be pretty cushy compared to theirs. These might question my ability to comment on Pain and Loss. Nonetheless, this past year I have experienced more pain and more loss than I ever have before, and I have to wonder about it. So this is me, wondering out loud.

Very clearly, the hand of God is in this pain and loss. I'm not blaming him, as he is not the source, but I do wonder about him, because he is letting it get past him and into my world. In my head I know he has his reasons, and in my head I trust him. But my heart is having trouble with pain and loss.

How long?

It has been about a year now of one thing after another, after another. I have stopped expecting that nothing more can surely happen, because so far it surely does. It's like having a whole tree-full of snow dump down your neck, and you are standing there in shock thinking, is it done? And no, another lot comes tumbling down on you. You get numbed pretty quickly, and wonder if you will ever thaw out.

You may think I have read every C.S. Lewis book written, but I haven't, and I just finished for the first time The Problem of Pain. It isn't what I expected, and it is a little strange with its theistic evolution and animal heaven. But I liked this:
    My own experience is something like this: I am progressing along the path of life in my ordinary contentedly fallen and godless condition, absorbed in a merry meeting with my friends for the morrow or a bit of work that tickles my vanity today, a holiday or a new book, when suddenly a stab of abdominal pain that threatens serious disease, or a headline in the newspapers that threatens us all with destruction, sends this whole pack of cards tumbling down. At first I am overwhelmed, and all my little happinesses look like broken toys. Then, slowly and reluctantly, bit by bit, I try to bring myself into the frame of mind that I should be in at all times. I remind myself that all these toys were never intended to possess my heart, that my true good is in another world and my only real treasure is Christ. And perhaps, by God's grace, I succeed, and for a day or two become a creature consciously dependent on God and drawing its strength from the right sources. But the moment the threat is withdrawn, my whole nature leaps back to the toys: I am even anxious, God forgive me, to banish from my mind the only thing that supported me under the threat because it is now associated with the misery of those few days. Thus the terrible necessity of tribulation is only too clear. God has had me for but forty-eight hours and then only by dint of taking everything else away from me. Let Him but sheathe that sword for a moment and I behave like a puppy when the hated bath is over – I shake myself dry as I can and race off to reacquire my comfortable dirtiness, if not in the nearest manure heap, at least in the nearest flower bed. And that is why tribulations cannot cease until God either sees us remade or sees that our remaking is now hopeless.
The fact that pain and loss have been for me an anomaly up until a year ago is not a normal state of being for mankind in this fallen world. This is. The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy. Treasure is destroyed by moth and rust. People we love die, or worse, betray us. Mosquitoes bite, climate change happens. Temptations are relentless in their pursuit. There is always one more demon to wrest from our soul.

It is not because God enjoys this game like some sadistic child, or that he is powerless to stop it. He could stop it, and now. But he loves us too much to leave us comfortable with our complacency, our pride, our lust, our self-focus. And so he lets things slip by him that he could arrest with no effort, to keep us needful, watchful, diligent, attentive to him.

Is this effort at too high a cost? A few days ago, a madman in Norway shot and killed more than 60 young adults at a political summer camp, many of whom would have become leaders in their nation. Why did God not stop him? Allow a traffic accident on the way or make a tree fall on him? It seems like such a high physical and social cost for the sake of the possible spiritual redemption of some of the survivors. How can God justify this kind of price?

I have no idea.

But I can return to what I do know, about his nature and character, about what he has clearly revealed to us about himself. All of it tells me that I can trust him. Even when I wonder about him, plead with him, scream at him, down deep I know that he is utterly reliable, fair to the point of fearful, unfathomably holy and righteous. Despite my fears that nothing will ever change, that trouble will be unrelenting, part of me continues to hope in his lovingkindness, the truth that he does not treat me as my sins deserve, that he is "merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love." According to many places in the Scriptures, I have access to everything necessary to navigate rough waters and make it to the end of life full of joy and contentment.

But God has not included happiness in the tool kit. The American Dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is not only overrated; it has robbed us of the ability to cope with death, limitations and the certainty of loss. In our expensive and wasteful attempts at comfort and ease, we make things much harder for the rest of the world, but we ultimately make it harder on ourselves. Our ways of dealing with pain and loss are often thoroughly messed up.

Here is what God offers us. The same God who allows pain and loss to slip by him to reach us has suffered more than any of us could ever imagine. That act, fixed in time, in which his Son obediently hung on a cross and bore our guilt and shame and his Father's wrath, has reached down into the chaos of our world, and has rescued, redeemed, forgiven, filled and gifted us. Paul puts it best:
    And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

    What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

    “For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
    we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

    No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Keep this in mind: When he says that nothing can separate us from his love, he does not mean simply how God feels about us; it is about his constant and tenacious activity to ensure what is best for us and his kingdom, his glory. Trouble is like snow falling from a tree down our neck; the love of God is an avalanche, irresistible and unrelenting.

"Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed." Thank you, Peter. May our hearts be surprised at nothing, and trust him in everything.

1 comment:

Lynnea said...

Really good Jim! Even though you are experiencing the opposite side of the story than I am right now, I found this insightful and helpful.