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

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A Lament

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I cannot find the words to share my grief.
I sit instead in silence, and I mourn
Those dreams that were conceived but never born.
I pray for rest, for respite, for relief.
Remind me of the gospel’s grand motif:
Light for the lost and hope for the forlorn.
This all is grace, the flower and the thorn.
Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief.
I am a broken soul haunted by fears
With naught to offer but these feeble prayers
For hope and help to trust you through the tears.
With glory soon revealed, no pain compares,
So I cling now to you, the God who hears.
O Father, comfort me in these affairs.


Photo by TOMOKO UJI on Unsplash

Sadness

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My throat grows tight as speech begins to falter.
I work in words but fight to share them now.
Why do things have to change?
My heart burns as I call to mind the Psalter.
Another break is teaching me to bow.
It strikes me now as strange:
Saved twenty years, and still I fear the altar.
I play the victim though I made the vow.
My feelings rearrange.
Grant me the faith to trust your hand to alter
What I desired and planned, and show me how
To praise in the exchange.


Photo by Artem Maltsev on Unsplash

Through the Cold

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Cold, crisp air, bright lights, fresh holly
Mingle joy and melancholy.
In this season, saints are jolly
And still cold.

Friendly faces full of laughter
Offer hope. But what comes after?
Garnished rooftops hide a rafter
Bare and cold.

All the best of man’s adorning
May well hide a heart in mourning.
Sorrow rarely gives forewarning
Of its cold.

But this chapter of the story
Is, for him, known territory.
This is still the road to glory,
Long and cold.

Christmas came and comes each season,
A reminder of the reason
Hope endures in spite of treason,
Through the cold.


Photo by Simon Matzinger on Unsplash