When Your Pain Goes On and On

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Jeremiah 15:18

What would you say to a friend who was suffering from pain that had no foreseeable end? Or perhaps you’re someone in that very predicament. Is there any hope for you?

“Why is my pain unceasing?” That’s what the prophet Jeremiah wanted to know. That’s what he asked God. “Why,” he went on, “is my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” He was a man feeling acutely an anguish that went on and on. “Why, Lord,” he cried out, “why won’t the agony stop?”

WHY PAIN?

C. S. Lewis once wrote a book entitled The Problem of Pain. He calls it “God’s megaphone,” his way of getting our attention. It shatters our illusions that all is well with us and that we can know lasting happiness apart from him. Lewis points out how pain can sometimes have blessed effects on people. He has seen great beauty of spirit in some who were great sufferers. If the world with all its pain is “a vale of soul-making,” Lewis concludes that “it seems on the whole to be doing its work.”

That was Lewis the philosopher, the lay theologian. Much later in his life, he wrote about pain quite differently – now as a suffering human being. Married comparatively late in life, he found an undreamed-of happiness with his beloved, but then had to stand by helplessly while she died a lingering, painful death with cancer. He called that book A Grief Observed. It raised a question like Jeremiah’s, “Why is the pain unceasing? Why won’t the wound heal?”

Dr. Paul Brand has written extensively in our generation about the “why” of pain. He is a surgeon whose specialty is reconstructing damaged human hands. Most of his professional life has been dedicated to working with sufferers from leprosy, or what is today called Hansen’s Disease. It numbs the capacity of a sufferer’s feet and hands and face to feel pain. As a result, patients often damage their limbs and facial features without even realizing it.

If a normal person twists an ankle, the shooting pain will keep him from putting weight on it for a while. But if he has Hansen’s Disease, he will probably go on using that injured ankle until it is permanently damaged. Or he may apply such pressure in trying to turn the key in a rusty lock that he cuts his finger to the bone. He may rinse his face with water so hot it will eventually blind him. In each case, he is without the priceless warning signals of pain.

Dr. Brand, after watching hundreds of such casualties, extols the gift of pain. God has built into our lives a marvelous warning system that can alert us to a host of dangers. It makes possible for us a whole range of activities that would be almost certainly destructive to us if we couldn’t feel discomfort. And the fact that pain really “hurts,” in a way that we can’t turn off at will, makes the warning system reliable. What’s more, a nervous system sensitive to pain makes possible for us and protects for us a host of experiences that are pleasurable.

THE GIFT NOBODY WANTS

But pain remains what someone has called “the gift nobody wants,” at least in large doses, or over long periods of time. Jeremiah and a host of other suffering people like him are not questioning the value of pain, nor doubting that it has some good effects, not even wishing that there were no such thing. They simply protest that excruciating pain, especially when it rages incessantly, makes all such considerations seem worthless. “Yeah, tell me about it,” they fume; “tell me how good it is for me when it hurts so bad I can’t stand it!”

All of us can see reasons for pain, and theoretically imagine positive results. But when pain has done its warning work, when we’ve had more than enough lessons and legacies from it, why must it keep up, run on out of control? What possible value can there be in a torment that consumes us and drives us mad? That’s the question we’re looking at now: why won’t it cease?

Some of you have endured extreme, prolonged physical suffering. You know what it does to people. One of my close friends bore that to a degree that seemed to me incredible. For a dozen years, he lived the majority of his hours, both day and night struggling with a pain which, as Brian Sternberg once put it, “oscillates from ridiculously high to excruciating.” It’s miraculous to me that my friend kept his sanity and his faith.

Some of you know continuing pain of another kind. It’s something about your appearance that never fails to humiliate you around others. It’s a personality quirk you wish you didn’t have or a limitation that galls you. It’s the alienation you have from someone, which try as you will, you can’t overcome. Or perhaps it is the suffering of a loved one – an anguish you can’t seem to relieve. The ache of it never completely leaves you. You can hardly imagine what life would be like if you didn’t have to bear that pain.

For Jeremiah, it had to do with his prophetic calling. He had been summoned by God to bring a message to the people of Jerusalem, a frightful word of approaching doom. That was difficult enough, but when people refused to hear him out and laughed him to scorn, the pain became more intense. When the so-called religious leaders of his time called him a false prophet and even a traitor, it twisted the knife in his soul even more. And when for all his trouble he was exposed to constant abuse and had to live in terror of a violent death, it was just too much for a man to endure.

The agony was that God wouldn’t let him stop. He had to keep on sounding forth a message that brought upon him more waves of vicious hatred. He was heartbroken at the way Jerusalem seemed to be going on heedlessly to its doom, bent on destroying him in the process. What good could there possibly be in all this misery and frustration? Why must the anguish of it drag on interminably? “Lord, why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?”

He complains, “I did what you told me to do, and you’ve seen the hellishness of what has happened. Isn’t that enough? Why is the torture stretched out?”

NO ANSWER

How did God answer Jeremiah’s question? If you read on in Jeremiah 15, beginning at verse 19, you’ll come upon a “thus says the Lord.” God speaks in response to the prophet’s cry. But when you read what the Lord says, you wonder if he heard the question. At least he didn’t answer it. Jeremiah didn’t learn why he had to go on suffering. He didn’t learn who was responsible for the pain, who was to blame. He didn’t find out what God was trying to say to him through it all or what it was intended to accomplish in his life. There wasn’t a word about why.

The patriarch Job had much the same experience. He asked a barrage of questions of God as to why a series of heartbreaking calamities had come upon him. But he never found out why. God met him. God spoke to him. Job found out how pretentious he had been to ask those questions and how great the Creator is. But God never said, “This is why your suffering had to go on and on.” He never addressed that question at all.

And I dare say that if you have been asking God, “Why is my pain unceasing?” you haven’t gotten any explanation from him either.

I surely haven’t. In our family, we have had a deep, persistent sorrow that has gone on now in one way or another for 40 years. We’ve wondered about it, searched our hearts, and lain awake many nights struggling with the question why it had to be this way. But we’ve never gotten an answer to that. God has spoken to us deeply, wonderfully, but he’s never let us in on why the pain continues. We’re as much in the dark about that as we were 40 years ago.

Do you know what I’ve concluded from that? We don’t know why in particular instances pain goes on unabated. And God is apparently not of a mind to tell us. So even though that question keeps bubbling up almost irresistibly for us, I decided long ago to stop pursuing it. I remember that God didn’t tell Job or Jeremiah why. He didn’t even tell his own Son why when Jesus was in the midst of awful suffering. He’s probably not going to tell me. And if he won’t, I’m not going to try to figure out why on my own, nor am I going to take seriously someone else’s theories about that.

I cringe whenever I meet with amateur interpreters of providence, people who claim to know just why disasters have overtaken other people. These interpreters imply, as Job’s “comforters” did, that if the suffering ones will just do a little self-searching and a little honest confession, they can figure out why. I don’t believe it.

We know that suffering exists in the world because we’re a flawed race. We’re survivors from the wreck of a golden ship that went down at the dawn of history. There is suffering because of sin, that’s true – the Bible teaches it. But that a particular sorrow which goes on and on is the result of a particular sin – the Lord never taught us that.

On numerous occasions, he emphatically denied such a teaching. The man born blind wasn’t that way because his parents had sinned or because he had rebelled in some pre-existent state. The tower in Siloam didn’t fall on a group of bystanders because they were the most flagrantly wicked people around. So don’t torment yourself looking for explanations when tragedies fall on you and keep you pinned down. And please don’t push other people into that weary, fruitless search, either.

THE PROMISE

Here was God’s answer to Jeremiah: “If you return, I will restore you, and you shall stand before me” (Jer. 15:19). How about that? “If you return to me, Jeremiah, if you seek me with all your heart, you can know my restoring power and you can live in my presence.” What is more, God goes on, “If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth.” In other words, “If you will proclaim the message I give you, it will be just as though I were speaking. You will be genuinely identified with me.”

Further, God told him he didn’t need to worry about his enemies: “They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you” (Jer. 15:20). Then comes the best word of all: “for I am with you to save you and deliver you, says the Lord.”

Did you hear that, friends? No matter what you have to go through as the Lord’s servant, he’ll be there. He hasn’t forgotten you. He won’t abandon you. You’ll never really be alone. That’s what the risen Jesus said to his disciples when they had all kinds of unanswered questions: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20).

Because of Jesus Christ, friends, that word of promise takes on new depth and power. This is not a Creator shouting distantly from the heavens. This is Immanuel, “God with us.” This is the one who came to share our humanity, to bear our sins and carry our sorrows. This is the one who knows what it is to be human. This is the one who can struggle and be tempted, who can feel hunger and pain, who can bleed and die, and who can weep at the grave of a friend. He can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities because he has been there. When he says, “I am with you,” it means that he’s involved, that he’s sharing the pain that goes on and on. That does for us what no explanations or painkillers could ever do. “In all our afflictions, he is afflicted.”

But not forever! Though your pain may seem to be unceasing, it really isn’t. It will be ended, perhaps very soon. “I am with you to save you and deliver you.” God will one day wipe away all the tears. There will be no more sorrow or crying or pain. “Many are the afflictions of the righteous;” says the Psalmist, “but the Lord delivers him out of them all” (Ps. 34:19).

Let God’s word to Jeremiah be a message to you. In the midst of the pain and questioning, turn to the Lord with all your heart. Commit your life to Jesus Christ if you’ve never done that. Concentrate on doing what he calls you to do in spite of the consequences, and lean hard on his word, the answer that’s better than a thousand reasons: “I am with you.”