Can we begin this post by asking “Where are we when it hurts?” Now you may be asking, “I thought this blog post was about where God is when it hurts?” It is, but if you want to know how other people really answer this question, all you have to do is look at where they are when others are hurting. In the world of psychology there is a theory called acute stress response, known more commonly as “fight or flight response”. The idea is that when human beings are in the presence of something terrifying, hormones are released into your body that result in either fight or flight. I believe the same is true when confronted with pain and suffering. When confronted with pain, we either fix or flee. I think everyone of us has a natural disposition towards one of these responses. Maybe you are a fixer when those around you hurt. You ask a question like, “Have you tried this?” or make the statement “Here’s how I handled this same problem”. Or maybe you are a fleer. When confronted with another person’s pain, you change the subject to something like the weather or you busy yourself serving because pain is just a little too awkward to sit still in the presence of. Now before you get defensive, I do want to acknowledge that these responses aren’t all bad. But they aren’t all good either. In our worst moments, fixers operate on the assumption that God doesn’t know what he’s doing in another person’s pain and so our goal is to fill the void. Fixers tend to doubt God’s sovereignty. Fleers on the other hand operate on the assumption that God is absent in another person’s pain, and so if God heads for the hills, so should we. Fleers tends to doubt God’s goodness. The point is that how we handle pain is a reflection of what we believe about God.
In my last blog post we looked at the connection between pain and pruning. Pain is a tool used by a God who is both sovereign and good and exercising both of those attributes for our benefit. In this post I want us to consider the idea that pain is how God brings purpose in our lives. One of the reasons that the Bible is such a compelling religious text is precisely how it portrays humanity. If you are looking for a book that portrays humanity at its best, this is not the book for you. It gives us a picture of flawed human beings with flawed plans. And yet, in the midst of all of these stories there is a common thread of God working, not in spite of suffering, but through it.
My favorite example of this principle is the story of Joseph, recorded in Genesis 37-50. Jacob had 12 sons, but he not so subtly favored Joseph above the others. This did not sit well with the other 11 brothers, especially when their father lavished him with gifts like a new robe of many colors. We are told that the brothers “hated Joseph and could not speak peacefully to him”. It didn’t help matters when Joseph announced to his entire family a dream he had the night before in which his 11 brothers would one day bow down before him. Based on what we know of Joseph, his greatest sin was perhaps a lack of sensitivity towards his brothers’ emotional stability. However, no amount of insensitivity justified what happened next.
It’s been said that bitterness is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die. In the case of Joseph’s brothers, they had enough poison for themselves and the other person. Their bitterness led them to selling their brother into slavery (after deciding that perhaps killing him was a little too harsh). Then for the next 20 years, Joseph paid the punishment for the sins of his brothers. He was enslaved unjustly, incarcerated unjustly, isolated from his family unjustly, and taken from everything he had known and loved. And all of this was set in motion by the events of chapter 37 of Genesis. What’s so interesting about this particular chapter is this is one of the few chapters in all 50 chapters of Genesis where the name of God is not mentioned once. Let that sink in. The moment when all hell broke loose for Joseph, God is seemingly nowhere to be found. We don’t hear a peep from Him.
What are we to make of this? I heard a sermon by Rev. Tim Keller on Genesis 37, in which he remarked that we shouldn’t confuse God’s hiddenness with his absence. Just because you can’t see God in your life, it doesn’t mean he isn’t there. And in fact it’s often the case that it’s precisely when God seems hidden that he is busy doing his best work in our lives. God is kind of like an iceberg. We only see the 10% above the surface, but the other 90% is all below the surface. This is exactly what happened in Joseph’s life. God used Joseph’s pain to bring to fruition a plan that was much grander than the original vision he had as a young man. After 20 years of pain and heartache, through a seemingly random set of circumstances, God put Joseph in the position to be the right hand man for the king of Egypt. A famine hit the region and Joseph was put in a position to store up enough food to not only save Egypt, but even neighboring lands who were suddenly at risk of starvation. And lo and behold, one day in walked an old man and his 11 sons who traveled from a far distance in desperate need of food. Joseph’s pain put him in precisely the place that he needed to be so that one day he would have the opportunity to graciously save his own family. His brothers did in fact bow before him, but Joseph used his position to graciously serve rather than pursue justice. And in the process he had the opportunity to save about 10,000 other refugees seeking food. What was so beautiful about this story is Joseph probably had many opportunities along the way to flee from his pain or to fix it. But he didn’t. He trusted that God was up to something. Charles Spurgeon once said, “When we can’t trace God’s hand, we must simply trust his heart”. Joseph trusted God’s heart in the midst of his pain. And he would go on to share with his brothers, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:19-20).
There is so much theological depth in Joseph’s words. The Christian worldview doesn’t require you to run from the problem of pain. In fact, it gives you both the courage to name your pain as well as those who brought said pain in your life, but it frees you from being embittered by your pain. You don’t have to swallow the poison, because you know that God uses even the really terrifying stuff in your life to accomplish a good purpose for you. To quote the words of James Stewart on the purpose of the crucifixion of Jesus, “God did not conquer in spite of the dark mystery of evil. He conquered through it”.
I don’t know what pain you are experiencing right now or what pain tomorrow will bring. What I do know is you will be tempted to fix the pain and disappointment around you, or possibly to flee from it. Perhaps it would be worth learning how to simply be present in the midst of that pain. Be present in the midst of the pain of others, because God is in the midst of doing his best work not in spite of the situation but through it.