The scriptures referred to are Job 23:1-9, 16-17, Psalm 22:1-15, Hebrews 4:12-16, and Mark 10:17-31.
There are people who do not feel pain. Congenital Insensitivity to Pain, or CIP, is not, however, a superpower but an extremely dangerous condition. It is common for such people to die in childhood because they sustain injuries and contract illnesses that they don't notice and which go untreated. The ability to feel pain is essential for survival.
Pain can be an important symptom. As a nurse I was taught to ask patients to describe their pain. Was it sharp or dull, acute or an ache, burning or stabbing? Where did you feel the pain? Did it radiate or was it localized? Did something trigger it? Was there something that made it better or worse? How long did it last? And, of course, how would you rate it on a scale of 1 to 10, with one being almost nothing and 10 excruciating? Pain can tell a person in the healing arts a lot about what's wrong with you.
That said, nobody really likes pain. We want it to go away. And if there is an underlying cause we want that fixed or cured. But sometimes you can't make it go away. Especially if the pain is emotional or psychological. Like, say, if you lost something or someone important to you. Such as Job. He loses his children, his livestock, his servants, his wealth and his health. Last Sunday we read about how he broke out in some painful running sores. Today's reading is midway through this drama in verse and while not cursing God, Job is mad at him. He wants to talk with him. In the last 4 chapters God does speak to Job though he doesn't give him reasons for his suffering. Instead God asks Job questions he can't answer, questions about creation. The implied answer is “If you can't understand how these things work, there is no way I can explain why bad things happen to good people.” But Job is satisfied that God speaks to him. And God is more pleased with Job and his questions than with the 3 men who are certain that God is permitting these things to happen because Job must have sinned to deserve it. God doesn't want people lying or misrepresenting the facts in an effort to vindicate him or justify his actions. In fact, God tells the 3 “comforters” to make up with Job if they want God to forgive them.
It's odd that one of the ways that militant atheists attack theism is by pointing out that there is suffering in the world, as if the Bible did not mention that aspect of reality. In fact, scripture meets the objection head on. Yes, bad stuff can happen to people who don't deserve it. This happens despite the fact that, generally speaking, those who obey God tend to do better in life than those who don't, the way a person who obeys human laws does better than the one who breaks them. But not all suffering is self-inflicted. Sometimes there are area-wide disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis, and sometimes people get buffeted by personal disasters, like accidents, diseases and deaths. The Bible not only acknowledges this but wrestles with it. Numerous psalms, like today's, are pleas from an innocent person undergoing great suffering. Small wonder that from the cross Jesus utters the same words as the opening verse of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And the psalm eerily describes sufferings so much like Jesus' that we read it on Passion Sunday and Good Friday. The psalmist feels that God is distant and unresponsive. Those around him mock and despise him. Meanwhile his body is racked with pain and thirst. Yet he looks to God's faithfulness in the past and, though our lectionary reading cuts off at verse 15, the psalm eventually ends on a note of hope. Things may be bad at present but they will not stay that way. The psalmist looks forward to God's rescue which he will declare to the nation. “For he did not despise or detest the suffering of the oppressed; he did not ignore him; when he cried out to him, he responded.” (Psalm 22:24) Every gospel ends not with the death of Jesus but with the announcement that he is risen. And as we said, even Job eventually gets a response from God and everything he lost is replaced.
But nowhere does the Bible give a simple formula as to why people suffer things they did not bring on themselves. As we said, at the end of the book of Job God doesn't give an answer. He just multiplies the imponderables with questions of how the world works. It's as if God is saying there is no answer that humans can understand. Even with all our scientific knowledge we still don't understand why some people who don't smoke or drink or abuse drugs or eat too much get cancer or heart disease or dementia. Maybe we will someday, though cognitive scientists point out that our brains may never be able to comprehend everything we uncover. Our brains were designed to help us survive; the fact that we know as much as we do about quarks and quasars and quantum foam is remarkable for creatures who only finally embraced the germ theory of disease in the 1890s. But it is no guarantee that we will not come up against parts of reality that will ultimately prove to be indecipherable to the 3 pound organ that resides between our ears. So why do we assume that we will be able to unravel all spiritual truths?
Perhaps the answer is not one that can be put into words. Blue is apparently the last color most cultures come up with a word for. And scientists have shown very primitive tribes without a name for blue an array of color swatches on that end of the spectrum and those tribes cannot even see the difference between green and blue. Deaf people in Nicaragua who grew up in little rural villages and who had to create their own gestures to communicate with their families were only recently sent to schools for the deaf to learn sign language. And when asked, they could not explain the way they thought before they had language with which to express their thought processes. If you don't have the proper language for something, you can't think clearly about it. I wonder if people like Ezekiel or the John who wrote Revelation were trying to convey in words things that were indescribable. Language has its limits.
And when it comes to suffering, would it really comfort you to have a cold, precise, logically provable reason why your loved one had to die or that your cancer was inevitable? Plate tectonics goes a long way towards explaining earthquakes and tsunamis but does that take away the pain of the lives lost? Explanations can only go so far in giving comfort. They don't do much to give suffering meaning.
There is a kernel of comfort in shared suffering. It is good to know you are not alone, that there are others facing the same pain and bewilderment and grief and rage and questions you are. As our passage in Hebrews points out, “...we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Every spring we try to imagine the suffering Jesus underwent. But few of us have been flogged until our backs were ribbons of flesh. Few have been marched through crowds of jeering onlookers or stripped naked in a public place or had 9-inch nails driven through our wrists and ankles or were hoisted up on rough wood to hang in the sun until we die of shock and suffocation. But that does mean that Jesus understands not only physical pain but the other kinds of suffering we undergo. Like humiliation, embarrassment, and harassment. Like betrayal, abandonment by friends and social isolation. Like anxiety, depression and the horror of facing your own death. In the old translation of the Apostles Creed, it said of Jesus “he descended into hell.” If hell is the worst torment, both physical and emotional, which you can experience, then, yeah, Jesus was in hell. And he knows intimately whatever hell you are going through.
Say what you will about his allowing us to suffer, but in Jesus we see that God is willing to take his own medicine. He asks of us nothing that he has not subjected himself to. The rich man in our gospel cannot give up his wealth to save himself but Jesus gave up infinitely more to save us. We are like children who will not give up our germ-ridden toys to get better, not realizing that the Great Physician has given up everything to come up with a cure for us.
In the Princess Bride, the Dread Pirate Roberts says, “Life is pain....Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.” I will not go that far but pain is an inescapable part of life. And sometimes it is an inescapable part of getting better. Dressing changes can be painful. As a candystriper I remember how everyday I had to help remove the dressings and clean off the ointments that covered the body of a young man with burns over most of his torso and arms. We then stuck him in a whirlpool bath that would remove what we couldn't including dead skin, leaving him pink and tender. It was excruciating for him but it had to be done to protect him from infection. There were days when the work I did in rehab after my accident had me in tears. But I did what I had to. As a nurse, I had seen too many patients refuse to do the painful physical therapy that would put them back on their feet. I was not going to be one of them. If pain was the gateway to health I was willing to go through it.
It helps if our pain has meaning. Parents who lose their children will often get involved in or even start groups or organizations to help other parents in the same situation or to spare them from the same loss. Most of the programs that help newly released inmates adjust to life outside and avoid going back to jail and prison were created by people who have been incarcerated in the past. Alcoholics Anonymous was begun by two alcoholics and is maintained by alcoholics. If you ask me the reason we have such horrible healthcare in this country is that the vast majority of the people we elect to government are relatively healthy and have good healthcare and are unable to empathize with those who don't. Any time a government official takes a special interest in a disease or disorder it is because they or someone they love has that problem. The same is true of celebrities and philanthropists. They rarely help those who suffer if they don't know suffering themselves.
God knows our suffering. He knows our pain. He used the horrific suffering of Jesus to save us from locking ourselves into neverending suffering. We are often our own worst enemies. We may not be able to avoid disasters from without but we can avoid trapping ourselves in disasters from within. Jesus can save us from hells of our own making.
But that requires change and change can hurt. Change can mean loss. We may have to give up the ways we used to live and the ways we thought of ourselves. To become a new person means leaving the old one behind. Just this week the 55 year old science fiction show Doctor Who underwent a tremendous change. The Doctor is an alien time traveler who, when mortally wounded, has the ability to regenerate a new body and new personality. Thus the role can be played by any actor and the Doctor can be grumpy or goofy or a straightforward hero. But until now the actors could only be white males. Now, for the first time, the Doctor has become a woman. Many fans were upset or even outraged although the fact that this was a possibility was broached back in the 1980s. And last Sunday we saw a new Doctor, just as smart and wise and just and compassionate as her predecessors, explain to her bewildered human companions what this radical change is like. When asked if it hurts, she says, “You have no idea!...There's this moment, when you're sure you're about to die, and then...you're born. It's terrifying. Right now, I'm a stranger to myself. There's echoes of who I was and a sort of call towards who I am. And I have to hold my nerve and trust all these new instincts and shape myself towards them.” And with this in mind, when she faces the villain of the episode, an alien who hunts and kills humans, unlike most heroes, she doesn't want to destroy him. Instead she graciously offers him a new start if only he will take it. Because, she says, “we're all capable of the most incredible change. We can evolve while still staying true to who we are. We can honor who we've been and choose who we want to be next.”
Paul said, “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation, the old has passed away and the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) As Jesus died, so our old self must die so that we can have new life, his life. (Colossians 3:3-4) As Paul put it, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)
We all have to die. We can die alone or as part of something bigger. We can die without hope of ever existing again or we can die “with hope of Easter joy.” We can suffer for no reason or we can give meaning to our suffering by helping others. In a world where the rich and powerful whine about how unfair their life is, we can show how a truly unfair situation can be transcended through the help and power of a person who gave up the advantages of divinity to live and die as one of us and who in so doing changed his status from victim to victor over evil and death.
Pain tells you that something is wrong. It tells you that you need healing. Jesus is our doctor. He makes people better. He doesn't promise us that the process will be painless, however; only that it will be worth it. And that we will not have to go through it alone.