Pain, Comfort, and Hope

My theology of pain is deepening.

When I consider pain in relation to theology, my mind often runs to James 1:2-4. There, James calls Christians to “count it all joy” when tests of faith arise, for such tests produce steadfastness leading to maturity. Closely related to James’s words there are Paul’s words in Romans 5:3-5, where Paul traces the process from suffering to endurance to character to hope. In short, God works all things for good, even difficult things (Romans 8:28).

Until recently, my understanding of this process has been somewhat simplistic. Pain arises, faith is tested, and we respond, either passing the test and growing in maturity or failing the test and remaining where we are. In theory, the process shouldn’t take too long.

But what do we do when the season doesn’t end? What happens when uncertainty or sadness or pain last longer than anticipated? What might God be doing in extended periods of difficulty?

I don’t claim to hold every answer to such questions. The answers may well vary based on the specifics of each situation. But I think I’m starting to see a piece of God’s purpose for ongoing seasons of difficulty and discomfort. I think God, in part, uses such times to redirect our hopes.

I’ve noticed, for example, that distress drives me to seek comfort somewhere, often in a person or a place or a thing that makes me feel safe. At times, however, God removes such sources of comfort from my life and, in their absence, leaves me with only my pain and with himself. Then, and perhaps only then, I begin to understand the sufficiency of his grace, his provision, his comfort. By removing my earthly securities, he reveals my over-reliance on them, disciplining me as he leads me to rest in him alone. He lovingly tests my faith to show my faith’s weakness. Then he begins to strengthen it. But the process takes time. As James highlights steadfastness, so Paul highlights endurance, both emphasizing the ongoing nature of the lessons.

It isn’t just that God knows what is best and has a better plan for us than any we can conceive, though those statements are true; it’s that God himself is best. When the Lord’s work includes the death of a dream, the loss of a hope, or the absence of a security, his goal isn’t merely to shift our gaze from a good earthly thing to a better earthly thing; his goal is to get us to shift our gaze to himself. He is the best thing, the source of every good and perfect gift (James 1:16-17), the God of all comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3). Our needs and our desires ultimately find their true fulfillment in him. And our hearts may not learn this lesson quickly. So he makes us wait, working through the suffering and the waiting to produce character and hope. “And hope,” Paul writes, “does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

C. S. Lewis wrote of the way the Lord uses pain to show us our weakness as well as to show us the insufficiency of any earthly thing to satisfy us (see his books The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed). Furthermore, because God is good, he will not stop until his work is finished. Though painful, the work will result in healing. Though extended, the suffering will be proven worthwhile. Through the testing of our faith, the Lord makes us more like Christ and draws us closer to himself, doing us a greater good by far than if he simply granted our wishes or met our demands. His is a work of love, deeper and truer than we may presently understand. So hope in him. Trust in him. And find comfort in him.

Wait for the LORD;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the LORD!

Psalm 27:14

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Unsplash

The Winter Cry

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Lost within the witch’s woods,
The darkened woods, the wicked woods,
Lost within the witch’s woods
Where few shall follow after.
Somber are the witch’s woods,
The vilest woods, corrupted woods.
Somber are the witch’s woods.
I fear the sound of laughter.

Save me from the witch’s woods,
The stony woods, the dying woods.
Save me from the witch’s woods
And all who follow after.
Set me free to Aslan’s woods,
To living woods and thriving woods.
Set me free to Aslan’s woods,
And change these woods hereafter.


Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

Wants

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We want but are not satisfied in gain,
And so we gain new wants to add to old.
This futile journey is an old refrain
Of wants too weak to trust the Story told.
“Our hearts are restless till they rest in thee,”
The saint once wrote, and still his words resound.
They ring from Africa across the sea,
True both on foreign and familiar ground.
For we were wrought to reckon with our ends,
To know the purpose t’ward which passion points:
Temp’ral desires call for that which transcends;
What leads to life divides marrow and joints.
O LORD, align our wanting with your will,
And turn our hearts to you and so fulfill.


Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

The quoted line above refers to a line from Augustine’s Confessions.

The Ache for Hope

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My friend Atley and I watched Brightburn on Saturday (warning: spoilers ahead). We both enjoyed the movie, but we noticed that the movie left us feeling a bit gross. Granted, that’s not uncommon for horror movies, especially in an age when the horror genre seems to lean heavily on gratuitous violence or sexual content to capture attention. I typically don’t enjoy (or view) such movies. But Brightburn was different. While Atley and I pointed to a few instances of unnecessary gore in the movie, Brightburn left us uncomfortable not because of what it included but because of what it lacked.

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The Christian and Social Media: Christ-Like Etiquette

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James encourages Christians to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). A brief scroll through the average believer’s social media feed may suggest that we as Christ followers struggle to apply James’s teaching. We can be quick to anger when we read something disagreeable, quick to speak our mind on the matter, and slow to truly hear any alternate or opposing position. Our passions appear to be very much at war within the body (James 4:1), and the casualties of war extend beyond the church to the lost world watching us fight.

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The Psychology of Demons

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I watched The Exorcist in high school. While I watched movies often in those days, especially action/adventure movies and comedies, I hadn’t yet explored much in the realm of horror. The movie left an impression on me that remains to this day, though not because the movie itself scared me. No, I remember The Exorcist because, around the viewing of the film, I was told stories of real life events that inspired parts of the story. The story of The Exorcist forced me to recognize the reality of spiritual warfare, the existence of actual demons. The film reminded me that we face a very real, very evil enemy.

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The Present: Reflections on Instructions from Screwtape

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In chapter fifteen of The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape writes to Wormwood that humans must be made to look to the future and must be kept from any focus upon eternity or upon the present. Screwtape, a wiser, older demon than Wormwood, explains that “nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead” (1). By keeping humans focused on the future they will be kept away from the designs of the Enemy, who desires humans to focus upon the present, upon eternity, upon himself, and upon their present work.

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On My Use of the First Person

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I remember finding a used copy of A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis in a back room of a house-turned-flea-market in Natchitoches, Louisiana while I was in college. The price was less than two dollars, I think. I was beginning to venture into the world of Christian thought, and my hunger for truth was strong and wild. Lewis’ name rang a bell in my mind, recalling memories of his Narnia stories. A Grief Observed, if memory serves me well, was my first taste of his nonfiction. I hadn’t a clue what that short book would do to me.

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Influences

And thank you, Mister Lewis.
As I above your pages blink,
Your words encourage me to think,
To follow you right to the brink
Where truth can pierce right through us.
Yes, thank you, Mister Lewis.

And thank you, Mister Tolkien,
For he who finds you on these shelves
Will soon encounter orcs and elves.
Still my imagination delves
Into your stories so keen.
Yes, thank you, Mister Tolkien.

And thank you, Edgar Allan,
For books that bear the mark of Poe,
Though oft macabre, still serve to show
A master’s mixture: beauty, woe.
I feel the raven’s talon.
Yes, thank you, Edgar Allan.

And thank you, Mister Shakespeare.
Iambic pentameter tells
Your tales, and each with grandeur swells.
Of deaths and weddings, blood and bells,
You speak, and I lend my ear.
Yes, thank you, Mister Shakespeare.