Where is God when it hurts? When my marriage isn’t what I expected? When my dream job isn’t so dreamy? When parenting fills me with more anxiety than joy? When yet another date turns into another dud? When the church doesn’t live up to what I had envisioned? Where is God when the life I wanted does not match the life I’ve been given?
This will be the first of three blog posts I’m going to write over the next month addressing the problem of pain and disappointment. I’m writing in part because of conversations that have been brought to the surface by folks at Midtown Community Church. But this is a universal problem. It’s been said that the problem of pain has driven more thoughtful people away from organized religion than any other difficulty. At a minimum, it’s in the midst of pain and disappointment when we are most likely to question if God even cares.
Before I tackle this question, let me just say that I see two common ditches that we as American Christians are liable to fall into when it comes the problem of pain. First, we handle our pain very superficially before God. In fact, I believe the history of our country predisposes us to having an incredibly shallow theology of suffering. A lot more can be said on this, but if you spend any time with Christians in other countries, pain/suffering is not nearly the theological quandary for them as it is for us Americans. This leads to the second ditch, which is the American privilege of avoidance. Avoidance of pain is not an American concept, but I do believe we have perfected it. Americans have greater access to the proverbial “eject” button than almost any other culture. If your marriage is difficult, we can press eject more easily than any previous generation (and we do). If work isn’t working, we can change jobs more easily than any previous generation (and we do). And when we experience disappointment in the church, we can go to another church down the street (and we do). To put this in perspective, I’d challenge you to do a biblical study of how many examples there are in the New Testament of Christians changing churches, changing jobs, changing spouses. Obviously the realities of the 1st century world in which the New Testament was written were much more restrictive than our 21st century world, but it doesn’t change the fact that when God spoke even into the 1st century context, he nonetheless resisted the notion of giving people eject buttons that were increasingly acceptable within the culture (see Jesus in Matthew 19:3-9). This isn’t to say there aren’t cases when it may be the right thing to hit the eject button. I’ve had dear friends make such prayerful moves in regards to jobs, churches, and marriage. And I’ve counseled people to do just that on occasion in each of the above examples. Changes, which in our American culture are considered the norm, may not be as consistent with God’s design or purpose for His people as we might think. The reality is that we live in a world that tells us when we aren’t happy, the answer is to press eject. But this is all based on the faulty assumption that when we experience pain and disappointment, it is a sign that something is wrong in the economy of God’s kingdom.
C.S. Lewis famously said, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” The problem is we don’t know how to attend to our pain. Too often we are running away right as God picks up the megaphone to say something. And if you bounce around often enough, you may miss God’s voice altogether. So what does God have to say in our pain? Plenty. All but four chapters in the entire Bible deal with the reality of pain and disappointment. But for this post, I’ll give you one purpose God has for us in pain.
Pain is God’s tool for pruning us. Jesus talks about pruning in John 15 when he says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” Pruning sounds easy enough. It’s clipping a few branches here and a few branches there. But it is a different story when you are the one being pruned. It’s even more difficult when God is cutting a branch that felt like it was a root to you. Simply put, pruning is a painful act. You cannot prune without inflicting pain upon the object that you are pruning. But when Jesus talks about pruning in John 15:2, he says, “every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” This verse suggests that God intentionally brings pain into our lives, but he brings pain for a good purpose, that we might be more fruitful. A number of years ago a friend, whose wife was battling cancer, shared this quote with me by Charles Spurgeon on the concept of pruning. He writes, “There are times when, without any anger in his heart, but with designs of love toward them, God treats his children, outwardly, as if he were an enemy to them. See the gardener going up to that beautiful tree. He takes out a sharp knife, feels its edge to be sure that it is keen, and then he begins pruning it here, gashing it there, and making it to bleed in another place, as if he were going to cut it all to pieces. Yet all that is not because he has any anger against the tree, but, on the contrary, because he greatly values it, and wishes it to bring forth more fruit than it has ever done. Do not think that God’s sharpest knife means death to his loved ones; it means more life, and richer, fuller life.”
Because we have a shallow theology for pain and easy access to the eject button as American Christians, we run away while God is often doing his best work in our lives. This isn’t to suggest that we should therefore go out searching for pain to inflict upon ourselves, but when pain and disappointment comes to us (and it will), let us attend to it rather than give into the cultural milieu of our age that says we should run. Otherwise, we may risk missing something really beautiful that God is doing in us. Let us lean into the words of Jesus in John 15, that perhaps God is behind the pain. The world says that the answer is to run to another garden, but we are better served by trusting the hands of the gardener. God prunes those whom He loves.