A theological exploration of pain

Where Is God When It Hurts? - Philip Yancey

Disappointment with God seemed to have covered a lot of ground that this book ended up covering and I noted that at the beginning of the other book Yancey had made a comment that he had decided to write Disappointment with God to tackle the issue of, for want of a better word, bad luck in general beyond the issue of physical pain. However as I was reading this book I began to realise that you cannot actually separate the two, and whether it be physical pain (or disability, such as somebody losing the use of their arms and legs; or chronic pain, such as somebody with cancer suffers) or emotional pain, such as the loss of a job, a wife, or general defamation of character, the principles are the same, and that is the question of 'if God is a good God, why is it that my life basically sucks?'.

One thing that came out of this book is that people who ask that question and run around trying to elicit pity because of the short straw that apparently they have drawn generally suffer from defeatism and are very self focused. I can say that because I have been there and I have behaved like that (and still do in some cases). The problem is that one of the ways we tackle people like that is by giving them a metaphorical slap across the face and telling them to wake up and smell the coffee, however that does not always work, and the people that we do this too end up resenting us more for doing that (and I know that because, once again, I was one of those people).

This book does not seek to solve the problem of pain and suffering (just in the same way that Disappointment with God does not seek to solve it either) however what it does do is that it explores the world in which we live and tries to create a context for us to understand where we currently stand. First of all we must remember that we are living in a fallen world, one that has rebelled against God's rule, and in doing so is facing the consequences. I am not saying that we are individually being punished, but rather that we as a race have chosen to live our lives separate from God, and as such we are facing the consequences of that decision. Secondly, this state of being is only temporary, and while in our minds the seventy odd years that we have to live in this world may seem like an eternity, we need to keep our minds focused on the ultimate goal ahead, which in many ways we are looking at only through a lens of faith because we cannot actually see the exact nature of that goal, but can only go by what has been revealed to us in our limited understanding of the multiverse as a whole.

The other context that Yancey defines an understanding of pain. Many of us do not realise this but pain is a warning system that tells us that something is wrong. For instance if we put our hand too close to a flame we get a sensation that tells us that this is bad. If we step on glass and cut our foot, we get pain to tell us that something is wrong and we must do something about it. Take away that pain and we are in a lot of trouble. In fact Yancey goes and visits a leper colony to explore what it is like to live in a world without pain, and the results are not pretty. If we do not experience pain then we do not know that we have stepped on that piece of glass, and the wound goes untreated, becomes infected, and we end up losing our entire leg.

The second aspect is what one can call 'the fine line between pleasure and pain'. In many cases what at one point is pain can at another point be incredibly pleasurable. For instance stroking a bed of nails could cause pain, however stroking the fur of a cat could be quite pleasurable (if it does not turn around and attack you that is). What Yancey is showing us here is that the pain receptors also act as pleasure receptors and to remove the pain receptors (such as is the case with lepers) means that we also lose the ability to experience pleasure. The other aspect is the saying 'no pain no gain' or 'that which does not kill me only makes me stronger'. It is the mantra of many a sporting team, where to reach the ultimate goal of victory (whether it be that one game, or it be the championships) one must go through immense amounts of pain, such as exhaustion, injuries, and general wear and tear. While I do have some issues with the modern nature of competitive sport, the actual concept of sport, and of struggling through the match to achieve that goal of victory (or even for some people, simply finishing the race – winning the race is never going to be a possibility) is a noble goal. The thing is to reach that point, that joy, that ecstasy, of completing the race, one must push oneself through barriers of pain to get there.

Yancey also spends some time looking at people who have had a rather nasty turn in their life (both of them being quadraplegics, and both of them developing the condition where they have nobody to blame but themselves). Now, what Yancey shows us is that they could have spent their time wallowing in their misery, kicking and blaming themselves (or others) for their misfortune, or hiding away in nursing homes waiting to die. However they have not done that, but rather, and while it is an immense struggle to do so, they have said that they are in this condition, and wallowing in self pity is not going to do anything about it. Now, I am sure we could think of hundreds of people spend their time wallowing in self pity, and we could simply write off these other two as feel good stories that one would expect to come out of Reader's Digest (does that still exist?) however there is a lot that these people can tell us, and there is a lot that we can learn from them. To simply write them off as your average Reader's Digest feel good story (or motivational story) is to push you into the realm of the self-pity seeker.

There is one person that I can actually tell you about in that situation, and that is my brother. When he was born he was born weeks premature in the car on the way to the hospital. When my parents finally got to the hospital he was put in the oxygen tent and the doctors stuffed up the oxygen settings resulting in him suffering irreparable brain damage. Now my parents could have sued the doctors for negligence, but they didn't (which surprises me, but that was their choice, a choice that I would have made differently because of my understanding of the legal and compensation system). Instead they simply accepted the fact that one of their children was going to be special, and got on with their life. I must admit that it wasn't easy, for me at least, since being the oldest, and normal (if there is such a thing as normal) I was basically left to my own devices and required to make my own way in the world where most of the attention fell on to my brother and my sister. However if you were to meet my brother, while there is an understanding that he is different, there is also the fact that be basically doesn't care. He is who he is and he accepts who he is, and he goes through life as such. You rarely see him complain (unless of course he is pushed to his limits, and I must admit that there are people out there that will complain at the drop of a hat, and my brother is not one of them). He knows that there will be no cure for his condition, and he knows that he is stuck with it for life, so instead of wallowing in self pity, he simply gets up and enjoys the life that has been given to him.

In the end I guess that that is the basic moral of this book, and that is that yes, there is pain and suffering in this world, and yes, we are going to be affected by it, and yes, life is unfair, however God also understands this, and if we look at the incarnation of Jesus Christ we can see him going through all of the same experiences that we have gone through. Was God ever paralysed? Yes, as he hung on that cross. Was God ever mocked and ridiculed? Yes, as he hung on that cross. Was God ever deserted by his friends? Ever cut down by so called experts? Ever rejected by his family? The answers to all those questions is yes, so while it seems at times that God is distant, it is still the case that he can empathise with us because he has been through all of that as well.

Source: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/820737325