When pain is too much to bear, how can we find relief?
There’s “sad,” and then there are those times when sorrow seeps down into your soul and collects there into an aching pool of grief. You sleep. You wake up. And for a minute it’s better. Then the drip... drip of pain begins again. After thirty-two years with rheumatoid arthritis I would rather spend a day in significant physical pain than a day in significant emotional pain, although sometimes the two are inextricably linked. When we find ourselves in that kind of pain, how might we find relief?
If you believe that the Universe has randomly arranged itself and there is no ultimate goal of history or relationships or our own lives, then neither is there any comfort in the ultimate sense. If life is a cosmic lottery then you have simply drawn a losing ticket and there’s nothing to be done about it. In the face of such bleakness, when sorrows come it’s understandable that so many self-medicate themselves into addiction or spend most non-working hours in some kind of escapist diversion. I wonder if this view of life could ever have gained credibility in any times but these, so rich in resources and options for entertainment and diversion.
If you believe in the Eastern view of things then you might seek relief in the conviction that all suffering, indeed all pain and everything attached to this world is illusion. What is needed is more detachment from this world and its sorrows, more enlightenment and becoming one with the impersonal life force that has created all things. Become less of your individual self and more of the One.
However, if you believe in a personal God then a very different kind of comfort is possible. When I am hurting, when the pool of grief and loss grows deeper until I feel that I am drowning, then the thing that I long for most is the loving presence of another person.
When I was sad this week I called my friend and shared my sorrow. The empathy in her voice soothed me. Her loving presence, even on the phone, cheered me. She has known deep sorrow as well and she really understands me. Her tangible love and prayers for me comfort me.
In the same way, God longs to comfort us because he longs for relationship with us. The reason we long for the presence and touch of another person when we are hurting is because it is the image of a personal God in them that is able to comfort us. Love desires personality. The wit, the courage, the honesty, the tenderness of another person that comforts and delights us points us to the personality of our Creator. The Bible says that “God is near the broken hearted.” God’s presence, especially in our pain, is real. And it is not the presence of one who is remote emotionally.
In the person of the Son God knows what it is like to suffer. And when we are suffering, that matters.
One of my friends lost her daughter. When her daughter was five she battled cancer and after a long ordeal God miraculously healed her. But then, when she was a pre-
teen she was repeatedly molested by a trusted friend of the family. Just when it seemed the family was finally moving beyond the pain of that betrayal, her daughter, at age sixteen, was killed in a car wreck. I can hardly get my head and heart around my friend’s pain. Yet when I try to encourage her she tells me that my words do indeed soothe her. “When you speak to me I really listen and receive it,” my friend tells me, “because I know you have suffered too with years of rheumatoid arthritis.”
“I have come to give you life.” “I will never leave you or forsake you.” “I will work all your suffering together for your good.” Jesus does not simply offer us pretty words of comfort. He knows what it is to be abandoned and betrayed by his closest friends. For his family to misunderstand him to the extent that they plan an intervention. Jesus knows what it is like to be homeless, tired, thirsty, hungry. He knows what it’s like to stay up all night, sick at heart, sorrowful, even to the point of death. He knows what it’s like to be tortured and die a slow, excruciating death. He knows what it means to become sin—selfishness, greed, lust, murderous anger, pride, jealousy and the rest. So when he comes near the brokenhearted he can deeply, truly empathize. More than that, he can bear our griefs and carry our sorrows. “Cast all your care upon me,” he invites us, “because I care for you.”
When we are aching God can comfort us. He can heal that which is broken. He may not always change our circumstances, but he can change us. If we give up our claim to our right to ourselves, he will fill us with his life and his joy. When we can thank him for the life we live, the air we breathe and the songs we sing then there is hope beyond imagining. Because…not only can he comfort with his presence and deep empathy, he can, through the power that raised Jesus from the dead, do more than we can possibly imagine to restore us to life. We needn’t give up our individuality. We remain very much ourselves yet more fully alive. We don’t retreat from this world but find the power to live and love joyfully with hearts of thanksgiving, fully engaged with the people and happenings around us.
At least, after thirty-two years this month of rheumatoid arthritis, that has been my experience. Father, I love you. I thank you for all the pain and all the good you have accomplished through it, mainly, giving me yourself.