Saturday, November 13, 2010

Reactions to Pain

Title: Reactions to Pain
Date: 12 Nov 2010
Written by: Conrade Yap

His wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9)

MAIN POINT: For people in pain, meaning eludes them. Meaninglessness engulfs them. During such times, sin and temptation is on the prowl to mislead. They are like cracks in the well of faith that leaks away hope. Such hope-killers seek to destroy one’s faith by sowing seeds of doubt. Let our presence re-fill sufferers with hope; the Holy Spirit with Everlasting hope.

Within the past 24 months, I have known at least three fathers who have buried their child. One of them just buried their daughter who died at the age of 41. Another one cries out in anguish:

Sons bury their fathers; not the other way round!

I feel a small part of their pain. As a father, I cannot even dare to imagine going through what these men are going through. It is perfectly understandable, for any father if they can, to do a swap; their own life for the child. This week I cry with one father. It is heart-breaking. It is gut-wrenching. It is pain and suffering at its most intense level. At that moment, life seems meaningless. Physical pain on the outside is nothing, compared to the vexing spirit inside. At some point, one experiences emotional numbness.

I ask one mother how she manages to cope with sleep and rest. She tells me: “With lots of sleeping pills.” I ask the father how he is coping. He says: “Not well.

The Psalmist weeps:

“My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, 'Where is your God?” (Ps 42:3)

There are varying responses that the world suggests. I shall list four of them, all of which are inadequate in itself.

1) The Atheist Approach

For people who do not believe in the existence of God, they will simply say that pain and suffering is only proof of that there is no God. In fact, people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, who vigorously speak out against Christianity, will use the first 2 chapters of Job to attack the meaning of God. Hitchens says in his book “God is Not Great,” directs 4 accusations against religion. Firstly, he says religion misrepresents the origins of man and the world we have. Secondly, he accuses God of egotism. Thirdly, he lambasts the Bible of repression such as sexual denial, and finally calls the Bible a book on ‘wishful thinking.’ Seeing how Job suffers, atheists will explain it all away by saying that if there really is a God, God is certainly not that ‘great.’

Unfortunately, even if atheists can convince us that because of evil, God doesn’t exist, what about the good in this world? How do we explain that? Instead of 4 accusations, are there 4 similar affirmations of the virtues of living?

The atheist approach is often a lopsided approach. It is also judgmental and arrogant to claim that its belief is superior to any beliefs in God. It saws away the branch that any hope sits upon and offer in place of hope, an attack on biblical hope. It attacks much but assures little. This approach limps.

2) The Fatalist Approach
There are various ways this has been practiced. Harold Kushner’s bestseller “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” suggests a form of theology that God is powerless against good and suffering. He suggests instead that man forgives God!

. . to forgive the world for not being perfect, to forgive God for not making a better world, to reach out to the people around us, and to go on living despite it all.” (Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, NY: Quill, 2001, p147)

Another fatalist approach is a type of Buddhist approach. In its Four Noble Truth claims, Buddha says that all of life is suffering.

What is the noble truth of suffering? Birth is suffering, aging is suffering and sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering.” (Buddha)

Thus, the end goal of Buddhism is nirvana, a state of nothingness. At this state, suffering is no longer meaningful, life is meaningless. Nothing matters anymore when one is in a state of permanent tranquility.

The fatalist approach certainly digs its own grave. If life is indeed meaningless, their approach is in itself meaningless and hope is clearly missing. The fatalist approach hobbles in hopelessness.

3) The Blamer Approach

This is the approach taken by the wife of Job. Curiously unnamed, she instigates her husband Job, to ‘curse God and die.’ She has already blamed God in her heart for her misery and loss of her children. After seeing how Job himself also suffered, she may be thinking to herself,

Enough is enough! I’ve had it with God. What’s the point of believing and worshiping a God who allows such suffering to fall on my family? I’ll curse God and die. But wait, I’ll get my husband to do the same. Ok, Job. You too. Curse God and die.

Some of us may be thinking that Job’s wife is only human. Norman C Habel understands such a reaction, and writes that such a response is “realistic, honest, unequivocal.”

She is moved, it would seem, by a genuine sympathy for her husband; her honesty stands in sharp contrast to that of the three friends who are later rebuked by God; she is only rebuked by Job.” (Norman C Habel, Job, AT: John Knox Press,1981, p24)

The problem with Job’s wife approach is that it is judgmental. It accuses and blames God for everything. It places herself as the God of God. She rules over God by claiming that God is only ‘God’ when good things happen. God becomes Someone to be cursed upon when bad things happen. In the ‘Blamer Approach,’ the idea of a Sovereign God only partially exists. There is a deeper problem. If God is not Sovereign over ALL, how can we say that God is God?

4) Job’s Approach
Up to the end of chapter 2, Job has the approval of God, that Job is a righteous man and did not sin. Scriptures record Job’s response.

“He replied, ‘You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.” (Job 2:10)

This is a profound statement. Job understands that unless God is over ALL THINGS, God is not God. His view of God is far more superior than the previous three approaches above. Unfortunately, cracks are beginning to appear in his faith-fortified wall of hope.

After chapter 3, Job caves in to his wife’s influence. Job curses his birth, his own life. He indirectly gives in to the influence of his wife, and blames God, albeit indirectly.

How should we approach pain and suffering? If all of the above are not good choices, what responses are most appropriate for people in states of hopelessness and despair? Is God non-existent as claimed by atheists? Is God powerless as claimed by Harold Kushner? Is God a imaginary entity as claimed by fatalists? Or suffering and life’s pain an opportunity to blame God when things go horribly wrong?

Let me suggest three ways.
a) Not Answers but Laments
Many things in life are not problems to be solved but journeys to go through. The Danish philosopher says it very well.

Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” (Soren Kierkegaard)

When a child falls on the ground and gets hurt, do we start analyzing the whole situation? Or do we do the most loving thing: To hug them, and assure them we are there to comfort them in their pain?

b) Not Answers for God but Questions from God
In times of pain and suffering, the last thing one needs is a model answer. Answers may tickle the head, but they seldom comfort hearts. Can a good answer take away pain? Perhaps, trials and troubles are opportunities for God to question us, about our faith, our resilience and where our true hopes lie. During the recent financial turmoil, I read about rich billionaires taking their own lives when their fortunes collapse. A German billionaire, Adolf Merckle throws himself in front of a coming train when his powerful financial interests went into trouble.

When we seek answers, we tend to look for a final chapter or a lasting solution. We behave as if we are the ones demanding to be appeased. Unfortunately, we forget that we are actually not the ones in control. Only God is. When God chooses to withhold certain answers, should we not accept His choice?

Let God’s questions of us, teach us about life, that we are not in control. God is, even though we do not know how.

c) Not answers but accompaniment
This is the single most important approach that we can take to aid people in pain. We need to become less paranoid over explanation of the trouble. We need to be more sensitive to walking with and to accompany those in pain with our presence. Philip Yancey says it very well.

“Today, if I had to answer the question ‘Where is God when it hurts?’ in a single sentence, I would make that sentence another question: ‘Where is the Church when it hurts?’ We form the front line of God’s response to the suffering world.” (Philip Yancey, Where Is God When It Hurts?, MI: Zondervan, 1990, p243)

This week, I had the privilege of watching how my Church walked with this dear family as they bury their daughter, sister and friend. When the emergency was triggered, the church was there. When the parents wailed, the church is there. When the doctors delivered the bad news, people from the church were there. When the family called to express their heartaches, the church was there. When the life support systems were shut, the church was there. Toward the last hours of the girl’s final breath, the church was there, praying, singing, giving thanks, and loving. From the memorial to the interment, to the final burial rites, the church was there grieving with them. This week I learned. When in pain, answers may seem important but being able to lament is more important. Answers may be directed of God, but perhaps we need to be open to questions from God. The presence of answers is nothing in comparison with the presence of people and the church. Lest we forget, when we suffer, God is there with us. Whether we realize it or not is besides the point. God knows truly and fully well. May our presence re-fill sufferers with hope. Then we will learn NOT to curse God and die, but our hearts will praise God and live.

Thought: People in pain do not need answers. They need love, understanding and your presence. Learn to suffer with them by being present with them. You may be the greatest gift they can have at that time.


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