Relentless Podcast, Episode 13: A God Who Is With You in Pain, Suffering, and Death

Suffering is a great unifier, because all of us experience it and it puts all of us on the same ground. It’s also the great divider because it forces us to choose. We cannot stay neutral when dealing with suffering. We either have to believe in God even more or we have to reject him completely. There’s no middle ground.

When asked why they don’t believe in God, a vast majority of people would reference the problem of pain. There is just too much suffering in the world for there to be a God, or at the very least for him to be good.

Our ability to endure suffering as long as it results in a beneficial outcome is evidenced in various areas of our lives. Runners subject their bodies to pain because they know the benefit of that pain is greater strength & endurance. Women endure months of pregnancy discomfort to meet a grand finale of intense physical pain for the benefit of having a child to hold and rock and raise. Students willingly endure prolonged stress and studying, beyond the years required, in order to reap the benefits provided by a degree in higher education.

These temporarily painful experiences that require additional time, sacrifice, finances, and resources are deemed worthwhile because they result in additional knowledge, perspective, and opportunities in the long run. But what do we do when the other side of our suffering isn’t quite so clear?

Part of our challenge with pain, suffering, and death is because I don’t think we fully believe in the benefits of the other side… of this experience, but also the other side of this life.

Our resistance to accepting pain’s reality as part of the human experience… is rooted in a lack of belief and confidence in what is yet to come. We have lost a theology of pain and suffering.

I’m certainly not saying that I’m going to start throwing a party every time I feel the chronic, residual pain from undergoing countless chemo and radiation treatments. Yet, there is a truth present within the Christian life that, although painful, hidden amidst the discomfort of our suffering is the surprising reality that our pain is also a gift.

Through my own experiences with suffering, I have begun to learn why pain is necessary for survival, what I can value from my experience with pain, and how I have even grown to be thankful for it. I have found remembering these 6 Gifts of Pain to be a helpful practice in perspective-building when it comes to suffering:

  1. Awareness– Pain is a smoke detector alerting us to danger; it forces us to pay attention to what’s important both personally and communally. We develop empathy through taking care of ourselves & others.
  2. Health– Because pain demands that we pay attention, it leads us into greater health- emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
  3. Humility– Suffering heightens our awareness of our mortality, and forces us to face the finite nature of our lives. We must reconcile that as independent, self-confident, and determined as we may be, so much of life is still out of our control.
  4. Wonder– Pain’s ability to stop us dead in our tracks often renders us speechless. Ultimately, it reminds us to appreciate the gift, fragility, and miracle of life.
  5. Dependance– Discomfort forces us to face our obsession with self-sufficiency and prideful refusal to accept help. It brings to light the necessity of our interdependence on one another and complete dependence on God.
  6. Gratitude– Pain makes us aware-of and grateful-for what we previously enjoyed, prior to the losses we endured at the hand of suffering. It provides a new light in which to see and appreciate all we still have presently, and may have even gained through our experience with suffering.

Jesus on the cross- dying for us, experiencing pain, and suffering, and death for us, is such a key part of the evidence of God’s affection for and presence with us. He would not have done that if he did not love us.

This leads us to Altar Stone #11: Look for evidence of God’s presence in your pain.

Sometimes, when the pain is searing and the soul feels raw, it becomes almost impossible to see anything else. Yet, the one who perseveres through suffering builds spiritual muscle that wasn’t there before. We are rendered more resilient, empathetic, determined, and faithful through an admittedly forced wrestling match. Further, we are comforted with the promise that one day pain will be no more and that we have a savior who is not a stranger to our suffering, but welcomed it willingly for the sake of our very lives.

QUESTION: What parts of your story seem perhaps too painful to revisit? What do you feel when you remember the pain of your suffering? What do you believe to be true about God because of your experience? What do you know to be true? Do they align? Ask God to reveal to you where he was present amidst your pain, and share your story with a trusted friend.

Podcast Transcript
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This Undone Life Together Podcast: Season 2 – Relentless

A God Who Is With You in Pain, Suffering, and Death
October 20, 2020

Are you aching for a love that will never leave, a presence that will push back the dark? If so, I have good news for you. God’s love is relentless even when your faith isn’t.

 

Welcome to the Relentless podcast, a 15-episode podcast designed to give you a behind-the-scenes look at the stories and the biblical history behind the pages of my new book, Relentless: The Unshakeable Presence of a God Who Never Leaves. My goal here is two-fold. First, I’m going to do whatever I can to help you feel less alone. When I was at my lowest, the loneliness in my pain and suffering almost took me under, so I want to do what I can to let you know that you are not alone in yours.

 

Most importantly, I want to help you discover solid evidence of God’s presence in your story. God is with you even if you can’t feel him and even if you can’t see him. I believe that, and I think by mining through our stories we can find evidence of him there as he leads us through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, and that’s what we’re all about.

 

Today, I’m talking about chapter 11, “A Cross: A God Who Is With You in Pain, Suffering, and Death.” This is a hard chapter. This is a hard chapter, and yet it’s absolutely essential to building a faith that can withstand anything that comes. We have to deal with the problem of pain. We have to deal with the problem of suffering.

 

I shared this quote at the very beginning of our study together. John Ortberg wrote in his book, Soul Keeping, that if you ask people who don’t believe in God why they don’t they will more often than not say, “Suffering.” If you ask people when their faith grew the most when it did so, they would answer, “Suffering.”

 

Suffering is a great unifier because all of us experience it and it puts us all on the same ground. It is also the great divider because it forces us to choose. We cannot stay neutral when dealing with suffering. We either have to believe in God even more or we have to reject him completely. There is no middle ground. So we must at least have a conversation about pain and suffering and death.

 

Hopefully, by now after reading what you have read so far in Relentless, you know I am no stranger to suffering. We all experience pain like a broken leg or an abscessed tooth or different kinds of things. I had never known how much a human body could experience in pain and suffering and still live until I went through what I went through several years ago.

 

Even now, I deal with ongoing chronic pain. Doing this podcast is extremely painful for me. I’ve recorded several (15 total), but we’re recording all of these, and it’s hard to do! There is chronic pain, but even this chronic pain doesn’t even come close to comparing what it was like in the acute phase of my pain and suffering.

 

We talk about, and I mentioned this in the beginning, that we need to talk about the problem of pain, but I think we have lost sight of the gift of pain as well. That’s hard. We don’t want to think of pain as being a gift. Yet, there are some other perspectives we need to pay attention to. To begin with, I just picked up this book called Fearfully and Wonderfully: The Marvel of Bearing God’s Image written by Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey.

 

It’s a reworking of a book Philip wrote with Dr. Paul Brand years ago. I just got it in the mail this week, and I’m looking forward to reading it front to back, but I read a few excerpts briefly because I couldn’t wait. I couldn’t stand it! I had to read it just a little bit. Dr. Paul Brand was a physician who one of his specialties was taking care of people with leprosy (leprous patients).

 

In very simplistic terms, the problem of leprosy is a lack of pain receptors. Their body is not triggering pain responses, and they’re not aware of it, so tissue dies, and the body does not work like it’s supposed to. This is what he wrote. This is just two sentences. “Pain, so often viewed as an enemy, is actually the sensation most dedicated to keeping us healthy. If I had the power to choose one gift for my leprosy patients, I would choose the gift of pain.”

 

It completely changes our perspective, doesn’t it? He also said later on in the book, “By ignoring pain, we risk forfeiting the wonderful benefits of belonging to the Body. For a living organism is only as strong as its weakest parts.” Dr. Paul Brand, with the help of Philip Yancey’s writing, casts an entirely new perspective on pain and the gift that pain really is.

 

When I was in the height of my pain, it did not feel like a gift. It was excruciating. At the same time, we do understand, at least in some measure, the gift of pain. For example, you and I, for those of us who exercise, will go out and run five or 10 miles to build up endurance for a half-marathon or a full marathon. We will subject our bodies to pain because we know the benefit of that pain is greater strength and endurance.

 

Women deliver babies, and many women have more than one child. They willingly subject themselves to the pain of pregnancy and childbirth over and over and over again because they know the benefit of pain is a child they can hold in their arms and love and raise. Those who have a higher education, those who got their Master’s or PhD, or even those who got their undergraduate degree…

 

You continued to go to school long after it was required. You subjected yourself to the pain and suffering of studying for exams and writing research papers and going to class and all of those different things. You did that intentionally and willingly because you knew the pain of studying and education was worth it for the knowledge and the perspective and the opportunities it would provide for you in the long run.

 

We could keep going on. There are many things we willingly and intentionally subject ourselves to that are not fun and are painful, and we do it because we know the benefits of it. We know the gift of it. We know what’s on the other side. Part of our challenge with pain, suffering, and death is because I don’t think we fully believe in the benefits on the other side.

 

I think we have lost some of our theology of what’s waiting for us on the other side, both on the other side of this experience but also the other side of this life and our resistance to the process at times. I’m not saying we should be happy about pain (not at all), but our resistance to accepting pain’s reality as part of the human experience, I think, is at least in part rooted in a lack of belief and confidence in what is yet to come.

 

We have lost the theology of pain and suffering. I think part of this challenge stems from our American mentality that we have been born into a life believing that we deserve the best and if we work hard enough and do enough we can get everything we want and we can have everything we want. There is no delayed satisfaction or prolonged discomfort. We have at our fingertips at any moment something that promises us “happiness.”

 

We have lost a sense of value and respect for and appreciation of the gift of pain, so today what I want to talk about is what I have learned are at least six of the gifts of pain (why pain is actually necessary for survival and what I have learned to value about my own experience with pain and how I am, in a twisted sense, somewhat thankful for it).

 

Now, that said, even right now I’m in a lot of pain, and I’m not super happy about it, so, again, I’m not talking about a trite, giddy, dancing-around-your-house, “Isn’t this so much fun? I’m so happy.” That’s not what I’m talking about. It’s not fun, but still seeing the gift of it even in the middle of the heart of it as well, there are six gifts of pain. The first one is very simply…

 

  1. Awareness. I’m going to talk about personal awareness but also communal awareness. Personally, pain has made me more aware. I’ve talked about the brain as a smoke detector letting us know when something is wrong before it gets worse. Pain is the buzzer going off on the smoke detector. It’s the beep. It’s letting us know, “There is danger here! Something is wrong here.” It forces us to pay attention to what is important.

 

For me like right now, I’m having some pain with all of the talking. I am very aware that after I finish recording I need to take care of myself. That’s what I need to do. At some point when I finish this, I will block off time for the rest of the day to care for myself. The pain is an indicator that there is something that needs attention. That’s a gift! That’s good self-awareness.

 

Another awareness that pain provides me is a communal awareness. I never understood what a toll chronic pain takes on a person until I experienced it. When I would hear from friends who have fibromyalgia or friends who have a bulging disc or friends who have diabetes and have problems with their feet, I didn’t understand how chronic pain can sometimes feel like it’s screaming in your ear. Even if it’s not an acute level of pain, a low-level chronic pain at times can feel utterly unbearable.

 

My experience with pain has helped me to have a greater communal awareness of the reality of the suffering and difficulty of the people around me. Everything from strangers to neighbors to family members to my own family to friends… It has just been an education. I understand now. It required experience for me to have empathy, but now I have empathy. I get it. That’s one of the first gifts of pain.

 

  1. Health. Because pain demands that we pay attention, it leads us toward greater health. It forces us to pay attention to our emotional wellness, our physical wellness, and our spiritual wellness. Whether the pain is any one of those three categories (emotional, physical, or spiritual), it alerts us that something needs attention, and as a result, we pay attention to it.

 

If I have a stomach ache, I bend over. I pay attention to it. I watch what I’m eating. I do something to care for it. If I stub my toe on the kitchen table and break it, pain makes me watch where I walk and then watch where I step. If I have a headache because I’ve been drinking too much coffee…

 

I don’t know if that’s possible, by the way, but so I’ve heard it is possible to drink too much coffee. If I have a headache, it makes me pay attention and go, “Do I need to add some more moderation to my life?” Pain ultimately is a gift in that it helps me to be more aware of my health.

 

  1. Humility. Pain breeds humility. Pain makes us aware of our mortality. It forces us to face the finite nature of our lives. Pain forces us to realize, as independent and self-confident and determined as we are, there are things out of our control, and it forces us to realize with humility our interdependence on each other but our absolute dependence on God.

 

That humility has been a great gift through pain. My own pain has forced me to wrestle with my prior insecurity. I still have moments of insecurity. I always will, but pain has forced me to pay attention to what really matters and not pay attention so much to all of the things that don’t matter. That humility has been a tremendous gift. I still have plenty of pride to deal with it, so don’t worry about me. I have much more work to do, but that awareness of my mortality has at least given me a better perspective than I had before.

 

  1. Wonder. I have a renewed appreciation for the wonder of life, the gift of life, the fragility of it, and the miracle of it. The fact that you and I were put together like little cells… We were put together in our mothers’ belly, and we grew over nine months into these very complex human beings with bodies that work so intricately.

 

Now that my body doesn’t work quite as perfectly as it did before, I am deeply aware of what a wonder it was that it worked so perfectly for so long! What a miracle! For 39 years until my first cancer diagnosis, I was extraordinarily healthy. I ran half-marathons. I did triathlons. I exercised all of the time. I was a pretty hard worker and got a lot done on an average day. I had a body that was incredible, and even now with a body that doesn’t fully work the way it once did, it’s still extraordinary.

 

I have a renewed wonder of the miracle of life, and it took pain and an awareness of how the body can fall apart for me to fully appreciate what a gift it is. Every day a baby is born. What an absolute miracle it is! So far, we have the gift of awareness, health, humility, and wonder. Next is…

 

  1. Dependence. I kind of hinted on this in humility, but pain has made me acutely aware of our interdependence on each other. I can be very self-sufficient and think I can do everything independently on my own. It’s not one of my best qualities. Being a hard worker is great. That’s good. It has its benefits. Being somewhat independent has its benefits, but I have long struggled to receive any kind of help or assistance. I have felt it was, wrongly so, a badge of honor to be absolutely self-sufficient.

 

I didn’t realize the gift of interdependence, of give-and-take, of reciprocity, of this communal nature of us as humans (men and women and children) all living this life side by side together. That has been a gift of pain. My pain and suffering and wrestling with death have forced me to face the fact that I can’t do it alone. I am dependent on the other people in my life at least in part, and they are dependent on me. We need each other, and we do so much better when we do life together. That has been a gift of pain.

 

  1. Gratitude. Pain has made me aware of what I had. We often don’t realize what we have or what we did have until we lose it. Pain has made me grateful for the fact that I had 40-some years of all of my taste buds. I knew what it was like to taste a piece of cake. Pain has made me aware of what a gift it was to be able to talk and speak, the gift of communication.

 

I have no guarantee that I’ll be able to speak for the rest of my life, but right now I still can, and I’m a whole lot more grateful for the ability to speak because of my constant awareness of pain and suffering and how I know it can be gone in a moment. It has made me very, very grateful. Not all of the time. There are moments I’m not very grateful for my pain. It’s not very fun.

 

I don’t want to give you any illusions that I just sit around giving thanks for all of the things. No. There are days I’m not very happy about any of this, but overall pain has given me the gift of gratitude, because I am more aware now of what I have and what I have experienced. Even the fact that I have faced cancer in my 30s and 40s, I am now more aware of how many men and women and how many children die of cancer every year, and I’m 48 years old.

 

I have lived 48 whole years. That is so much more than a lot of people get. Do you know how lucky I feel and how blessed I feel that I have been able to live 48 years of life? If I would find out that I was going to die tomorrow, the temptation is to say, “That’s not fair! I’m too young!” At the same time, and this is what pain has taught me, what a gift that I was given 48 years! Nobody is guaranteed that. I had 48 whole years. I am amazed at what I’ve been able to experience in 48 years, and I receive it as a gift, and I am filled with gratitude for that fact.

 

These six are just six examples of some of the gifts of pain (the gift of awareness, of health, of humility, of wonder, of dependence, and of gratitude) and ultimately…this is very, very true…I could add other gifts, like the gift of resilience. Pain has developed a certain measure of resilience in me.

 

In some ways, I feel weaker than I have ever felt before. In other ways, I am far stronger. Let me tell you. What I lack in physical strength God has built up in emotional strength. I have an emotional resilience and a spiritual resilience now that I never had before, and it is a result of pain.

 

I could talk about resilience and determination. I could talk about the gift of faith. Pain has built up my faith. Because I was forced to wrestle with my faith, my faith is now stronger as a result of those muscles I used in wrestling with it. All of those are gifts of pain. This is what I want you to do.

 

This is the eleventh Altar Stone. I want you to look for evidence of God’s presence in your pain. I want you to look for evidence of God’s presence in your pain, in your suffering, and even in the death you’ve endured of the people you love. I keep going back to the cross because it’s so essential. Jesus on the cross dying for us and experiencing pain and suffering for us is such a key part of the evidence of God’s affection for and presence with us.

 

He would not have done that if he didn’t love us. There is no one who would go through that kind of pain for anything less than love. Period. I keep going back to that and sitting in that place of Jesus’ pain, suffering, and death, and I realize the cross is the intersection of my pain and God’s. The cross is the intersection of my pain and suffering and God’s. It’s in that place that he is closest to us in those places of pain.

 

When I was going through some of the hardest days of my suffering, I had a little olive wood cross. Somebody sent it to me, and I can’t for the life of me remember who it was, but it was an olive wood cross just big enough to hold in my hand. I would hold that cross. It’s not because there was anything magic about that wood cross but because I wanted to remember that I had a Jesus who chose suffering for me, and if Jesus chose suffering for me, then I can endure my suffering to someday get to him and see him face to face.

 

Not that my suffering earns me a face-to-face, but I know on the other side of my pain and suffering and on the other side of death is waiting new life. That means this pain, as awful as it is, is a gift. It is a gift. It’s so very hard. There is a song that has meant a lot to me in this season. By the way, it’s on my playlist. I developed a playlist to accompany Relentless. You can go to Spotify and find the Relentless book, or you can go to my website and find this Spotify playlist. This song is on that playlist. It’s called “New Wine,” and it’s by Bethel Music. These are the lyrics of this song.

 

In the crushing

In the pressing

You are making new wine

In the soil I now surrender

You are breaking new ground

 

So I yield to you and to your careful hand

When I trust you I don’t need to understand

 

Make me your vessel

Make me an offering

Make me whatever you want me to be

I came here with nothing

But all you have given me

Jesus, make new wine out of me

 

This is why the cross matters so much, my friends. This is why the cross matters so much. Jesus was crushed and pressed and bruised and broken so when we feel crushed and pressed and bruised and broken we know we are not alone in it. Even better, when Jesus was on the cross, his last three words were, “It is finished.”

 

It is finished. It is done. It is complete. No more. We will have a certain measure of pain and suffering and death in this life. It comes with the human experience. It comes with the territory. However, Jesus has already announced, “It is finished.” That means there is coming a day when the suffering will end once and for all.

 

There will be no more pain. There will be no more death. We will never again have to fear a diagnosis or the loss of someone we love or being abandoned and left all alone. Trauma won’t even be in our vocabulary. It will be finished. It will be done. All we need to do is get from here to there to experience the real gift of Jesus himself.

 

Oh, my friends, look for God. Look for evidence of God in the presence of your pain, suffering, and death, because whether you can feel him or not he is with you. Thanks for joining me today, friends. It is so much sweeter and easier to bear doing this life together. Even better, we have a God who has promised to always love us and never leave us. “I will not leave you as orphans,” Jesus said. “I will come to you,” and I believe him. Now, that is something worth living for.

 

Are you aching for a love that will never leave, a presence that will push back the dark? If so, I have good news for you. God’s love is relentless even when your faith isn’t, and the circumstances you fear might drown your faith could become the stones giving testimony to it. Join me, and let’s find evidence of him together.