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

God’s Grandeur Considered

As Hopkins saw, your grandeur does not pale,
Does not diminish though we sin and stain
Ourselves and earth. We work in pride and pain.
And through it all, your purposes prevail.
How can it be that we, so foul and frail,
Do not exhaust your grace? For grass and grain
And goodness still persist. You give us rain
And wrap us in provision. Though we fail
To follow, you forgive and give us love,
Your character conveyed in ev’ry sign
And ev’ry word, a freshness undefiled.
Decay, despair, and death touch not the dove
Who brings in darkness brightness so divine
And choicest comforts for the fearful child.


This poem was inspired by Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “God’s Grandeur,” drawing on some of his themes and imagery and asking some further questions.

Photo by Tyssul Patel on Unsplash

Worship to Write

patrick-fore-381200-unsplash

Most writing, if not all writing, points to something. A writer works to communicate information, to tell a story, to convey an emotion, or to evoke a response. And while some words stand out as magnificent or beautiful in and of themselves, words possess meanings and point beyond the symbols on a page to ideas, to reality, to truth. Even grammar, the dread of many, serves that end, enhancing and clarifying a writer’s work. Writing, then, acts as an arrow that points beyond itself to something else. We who write don’t want our readers to stop at the wording or formatting on the page; we want them to be led onward to something further up and further in, as Lewis might say.

Christians who write face a challenge, however. The great subject of our writing, even with the reality of his revelation in view, remains ultimately ineffable. His mighty acts in creation are as outskirts and whispers of his power (Job 26:14), and his thoughts and ways are far higher than our own (Isaiah 55:8-9). Our greatest efforts at description fall far short of the fullness of his beauty and holiness and love. We can speak truthfully about God, yet we can never exhaust the words that could be written of him. Scripture thus aptly speaks of the fear of the LORD, the natural response to a proper view of God in his glory. And while God has revealed himself perfectly in Christ, he invites us into an inexhaustible pursuit of knowing him better. God is higher, greater, holier, more lovely, more beautiful, and more glorious than the heights of our understanding can perceive or describe.

Writing, then, becomes an act of worship, done for the glory of God in the name of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17). We who know God in Christ have tasted and seen the goodness of the LORD and have been changed. We are new creations, ambassadors pursuing the reconciliation of sinners and the Savior (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). We are living sacrifices seeking deeper intimacy with the LORD. And while we may never be able to fully capture the beauty or the glory of God with our writing, we nevertheless point to God with our words, working in such a way that whether we produce poetry or prose, fantasy or nonfiction, our writing reflects life in the LORD and invites readers to look to him. We point to him who is beyond us and yet with us, for he offers life and love and peace for needy souls.

True, our writing may fall short of this goal. We can speak coldly of the all-consuming fire, waxing eloquent about his ways or arguing passionately for right doctrine without love for the Word we’re describing. We can articulate the ways he is transcendent and immanent without considering the implications of those truths for our lives. We can write about him in ways that draw more attention to ourselves than to him. And we can assume mastery of theology, presumptuously writing of God as if we have him fully understood. In short, we can write arrogantly rather than humbly, forgetting our place and forgetting our fear.

While I struggle to live this out, I want every aspect of the writing process to be an act of worship. I want to strive for excellence in my writing because I work as unto the Lord. I want to testify to Christ in my writing because he is the way, the truth, and the life we all desperately need. I want to be attentive to the Spirit in my writing because he knows my heart as well as the hearts of my readers best. I want to glorify the Father in my writing because he is worthy of all I have to offer. Above all, I want to be faithful to the LORD in my writing, pointing to him with every word and mark on the page.


Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash