Ponderings: Pain in Perspective

We have a number of people in our friendship network who are undergoing great suffering.  They are doing so despite the prayers of many people.  Some are very sick.  Others are unemployed.  Still others are going through divorce.  All are in pain.

When I see people going through times like this, and when I face suffering of my own, I feel like yelling out to God, “Enough is enough!”  There is no relief in being compared to Job!  Thanks for nothing.

That’s how I feel, and how others I know feel.  We must never deny our feelings, because they are part of the way God made us.  It is no sin to “feel” forsaken.  It is no sin to ask “why” when you are hurting.

But I don’t know any Christian who lives solely by feeling.  We live by faith.  Into this picture we must factor these remarkable words of St. Paul—“I don’t think there’s any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times” (Romans 8:18, The Message).  When Paul wrote these words, he was not describing some namby-pamby discomfort; he was thinking of intense and prolonged suffering.  This is no “La La Land” passage.

Paul is telling us that if we could catch even a “glimpse” of heaven—that is, see our suffering against the backdrop of eternity—we would see our pain in perspective.  And we would say, as he did, “there’s no comparison.”  Perspective does not reduce the pain one bit.  It does not change the diagnosis.  It does not shorten the dying or recovery process.  But it “measures” it in relation to something other than itself.

The great danger is not that we fail to understand suffering.  No one ever can completely understand it.  The great danger is that we isolate it as if it were all that is going on—that we make it out to be 100% of what’s happening in and around us.   

I’ve struggled over the years to illustrate this.  The best I can do is an analogy with television.  As you read these words, you might say, “There’s no television where I am.”  But that’s not true.  Every television channel is coming through your room right now.  But you do not have the equipment in yourself to see or hear it.  If you have a television set nearby, all you have to do is switch it on, and immediately you will have television right where you are. 

Similarly, we may feel that “God is not where I am”—nowhere to be found.  But that’s not true.  Our damaged receptors describe our feelings, but they do not define everything that’s going on.  Instead of trusting our nerve endings, our brains, and our diagnoses, we need to turn to our souls where we can recall and receive “signals” that do not come to us from these other sources.  “Lo, I am with you always” is a message that comes through your soul, not your senses.

Max Lucado has written that we must “never interpret our numbness as God’s absence” (In the Eye of the Storm).  We must never equate our confusion with God’s abandonment.  We may not be able to receive the signals, but that does not mean they no longer exist.  In the moments when our televisions are broken, we must remember that the television station is still broadcasting.  That’s the perspective which enabled Paul to say in the midst of great suffering, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us”  (Romans 8:18)

Go ahead and cry your eyes out.  Go ahead and ask your hardest questions.  Go ahead and shake your fist.  Go ahead and say, “I don’t get it!”  That’s what hurting people do, and God never tells us to deny how we feel.  And when you have done that, take a journey into your soul and remember that God is still with you and still has eternity in mind for you.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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9 Responses to Ponderings: Pain in Perspective

  1. Great illustration using the reality of TV signals. Sometimes the pain is so bad we can’t tune in. Could this be what was going on with Jesus when he cried from the cross said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

  2. Cindy Burke says:

    Thank you so much for this post, Steve. It comes at a time when I feel as though I am drowning in questions and pain.

  3. Karen Greenawalt says:

    Thanks Steve! I needed that today. My sweet daughter lost a friend to suicide today. ‘How does a 15 year old deal with that?’ I keep asking myself. Thank you for reminding me. Blessings to you and Jeannie!

  4. Jim Bradshaw says:

    Hello Steve:

    Yes, let your feelings inform you, but not form you! Praise God that suffering is temporary! There is healing, and there is relief, though for this too often impatient soul, not soon enough. But, his Presence, oh for the antenna to get through the disturbance and to tune in! Joy is eternal! Ay, there’s the rub in formation… from pain to joy, from fear to faith! Thank you Steve for allowing God to use you in the Spirit “impacting soul” formation.

  5. Robyn Perkins says:

    Thank you Steve! This means a lot to me!

  6. Well said. The Psalmist said He would walk with us THROUGH the valley of the shadow of death, not AROUND it.

  7. M Ling says:

    Amen and Amen!

  8. Brother Steve,
    It is easy to feel disconnected while the bricks of life are fallen down all around you. It is also easy to fall into the trap the world would have us believe that a loving God would not allow this to happen to us. I find it very encouraging to read in Mark 9:23, Jesus is a little indignant when he says, “If you can?” and even more encouraging when the father wisely pleads with Him to ask, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

    Jesus knows we are desperate and full of doubt when we are hurting. It is ok. My question to the men I teach is, “where do you run when you hurt or are in trouble?” My answer to that is, “right up into the lap of Jesus.” He is always there, always loving us.

    I know this because I have experienced it throughout my entire life. I will sing His praises all my life.

    God bless.

  9. Rachel Hollingsworth says:

    Thank you, Steve. This post is especially meaningful to me.

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