Thursday, November 19, 2009

pain (when your life is in the crapper)


I have to say, I’m really glad to be in Texas right now. Because that means I’m not in northern Virginia, which is where I lived for three years before taking this job. Now don’t get me wrong seminary was a good experience. Virginia is a great place to be. In September. But after October 15th or so – its freaking cold. And I don’t mean “wear a jacket” cold. I mean wrap your body in the skin of a dead bear cold. In other words, it’s a pretty harsh winter.

Do me a favor – raise your hand if you like the winter? Thank you, now I know who the liars in the room are. No one likes winter. People like being inside when winter comes - sitting by a warm fire, with a cup of warm coco, having their hearts warmed by the Clay Aiken Christmas album – because when they hear the word winter, that’s what comes to mind. But not me – when I hear the word winter, I think of my cold seminary dorm room, the freezing cold, ice, hypothermia, snow, dead batteries, thermal underwear, depression, recreational eating to cure my depression, and of course, the Clay Aiken Christmas album.

People say that they like the winter. But tell me this – how many people spend their working career in Miami and then retire in Minneapolis? That’s right, no one. Of course, there’s always the argument “God made winter and so it must be good.” To which I reply, did He? There’s no mention of winter in the Bible before the fall. We hear a whole lot about trees and flowers and rivers and fruit and people running around naked. But only after Genesis 3 – only after the Fall – do we read about snow and cold and of course, the Clay Aiken Christmas album. And so I don’t know where the Garden of Eden was. But I can tell you this – its not Northern Virginia in the middle of January.

Now, if you really like Winter, that’s okay. But regardless of how you feel when winter breaks into your life, we all have trouble with spiritual winter – when winter breaks into our souls.

For example, you may lose a job or lose a parent or lose your sense of purpose or get sick or move to a different city or just find yourself depressed. And all of these things, as bad as they are, aren’t what I’m talking about when I say spiritual winter. Spiritual winter is when God seems gone. When you pray and all you hear is silence. When you cry and no one wipes your tears. Spiritual winter is when God seems gone. Spiritual winter is when you feel like you’ve been forgotten, when you feel like God’s hiding, like God’s let go of you – which means that you and I, we need a way of holding on to God when it feels like God has let go of us. And so we turn to the book of Job.

Out of curiosity, how many of you have read Job? Job experienced the 2nd hardest spiritual winter in the history of humanity. The Bible describes Job as blameless, upright, and as one who feared God and turned away from evil. In other words, he’s a good guy. And he’s also a blessed man. He’s rich, has seven sons and three daughters, a lot of servants, a beautiful wife, thousands of cattle and livestock. Job is a blessed and blameless man. He’s got it all. That is, until one day …

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. 7 The LORD said to Satan, "Where have you come from?" Satan answered the LORD, "From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it." 8 The LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil." 9 Then Satan answered the LORD, "Does Job fear God for nothing? 10 Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face." 12 The LORD said to Satan, "Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!" So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD.

And if we keep reading, here’ s what happens: Job’s wealth is stolen. His servants are murdered. His livestock die. His children die. And then the kicker, Job gets sores all over his body. And so Job is covered from head to toe in open, gaping, infested, painful wounds.

In order to understand what’s happening in this book, we need to think of a play with two stages: an upper stage, and a lower stage. Because this is crucial to understanding the Book of Job. We know what’s going on in both settings, but Job doesn’t. Job only sees the lower stage – that is, what’s happening on earth. All Job knows is that he’s lost his livestock, his wealth, his servants, his children, and to some extent, his body. And his wife isn’t all too supportive …

Then his wife said to him, "Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die." 10 But he said to her, "You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?" In all this Job did not sin with his lips. Now when Job's three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, they met together to go and console and comfort him. 12 When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. 13 They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. 

Ok, and so here’s our question tonight: can Job hold on to God in the face of his suffering? Can we hold onto God in the face of ours?

Like many of us when we suffer, Job doesn’t know what to do and so the Bible tells us he goes to sit on an ash heap at the town dump. His wife’s advice – “curse God and die,” isn’t what I’d call encouraging. But thankfully, Job doesn’t listen, and notice his question: shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad? Job is struggling to understand God here. Is God really good? In chapter 1 we’re told that “Job did not sin” but now there’s a qualifier: “Job did not sin in what he said.” In his heart, Job is starting to struggle. Spiritual winter has invaded his soul. And Job cannot escape. It feels like God has let go of him and Job is starting to question God’s goodness.

Job’s friends then come to visit him and they don’t even recognize Job. And so they begin to weep and they sit with him for seven days and don’t say a word. For seven days. Not one word. Now, a brief side note:

In his letter to the Romans Paul says to “weep with those who weep.” This is a great example of what Paul meant. When spiritual winter invades the life of your friends, weep with them. Sit in silence with them. We don’t have to pretend that we know why they’re suffering. It’s okay to just be with them. Silence can be a real gift.

Well, after seven days of silence Job speaks and does anyone remember what he says? May the day of my birth be cursed. That’s the ancient way of saying I wish I had never been born. And for the next 30 chapters or so, Job expresses a level of bitterness, confusion, sorrow, and anger toward God that is staggering. Job questions God – and here is Job’s question. Why, God? Why have you forsaken me?

Well, Job’s friends tell him it’s his fault – that he’s suffering because of his sins and that he needs to repent. A little advice – don’t do that. Job’s friends were wrong. Remember, there’s an upper stage. And like Job, Job’s friends can’t see what’s happening on the upper stage. And so they have to make something up to explain what’s happening on the lower one. And the answer they came up with wasn’t very good. They should have remained silent.

But then again, Job’s question is the universal question, right? Why? Why am I suffering? We’ll come back to the question of why. But first, we need to look at two other questions. The question of what, and the question of where – what do we do with the pain? And where is God in the pain?

1. What do we do with the pain?

A couple years ago a survey was conducted that asked thousands of people what one thing had the greatest impact on their spiritual growth. The number one answer - Pain. While it’s true that pain is not a part of God’s Kingdom, that doesn’t mean that God can’t use it. That God can’t redeem pain. You see, in spiritual summer – when life is going well, when we feel God’s warmth, when school and faith and relationships are thriving – it’s really easy to think that we’re the ones in control. But spiritual winter reminds us that we’re not in control at all. Someone once said that the biggest difference between us and God is that God doesn’t think He’s us. In the presence of pain, we get very clear about not being God. It’s not that pain is good. But dependence on God, humility, prostrating ourselves as helpless before God – these things are good. These things do bring us closer to God. And depending on our heart and how we respond, pain can make us dependent. Pain can humble us. More so than anything else, pain can bring us to our knees before God. And that’s why pain can have such an amazing impact on our spiritual growth.

And so when it comes to the question of what – what do we do with our pain – my first answer is trust. Trust that God can use it for good. It’s like Paul says, “in the end all things work for the good of those who love God.” “All things” includes our pain – whether it is physical, emotional or spiritual.

But second, when it comes to our pain there’s something else we’re supposed to do: we’re supposed to complain to God. Or to use a fancy theological word, we’re supposed to lament. Consider the following psalm: “Wake up, O Lord! Why are you sleeping? Wake up! Stop rejecting us! Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? How long, O Lord, How long?”

I don’t know who wrote this psalm, but I do know this – they’re in a whole lot of pain. And this is their prayer – “wake up. Please do something. This sucks. I feel like you’ve rejected me.” There’s a name for honest prayers like this – they’re called prayers of lament. And the Bible is full of them. And while all religions of the world prayed to God, no other religion – except that of the people of Israel – prayed these prayers of complaint, of lament, of raw honesty. And the reason they prayed these prayers was because they trusted in God’s love enough to be honest, and because they expected God to do something about their pain. And so when it comes to your pain, be honest with God. Don’t indulge in self-pity but genuinely open yourself up to God – because when you do that, what you’re really asking God to do is to created the kind of condition in your heart that will make resting in His presence possible again. Pray raw prayers of honesty. Trust me – God can take.

2. Where is God in the pain? (In other words, what is God’s answer to our complaint?)

At the end of the book, God answers Job in a storm. Out of the storm, God answers Job’s complaint. And what’s interesting, and to some people frustrating, God never answers Job’s question of why. Job never learns about that upper stage. The upper stage will always be a mystery to Job, and to us. God never tells Job why. In fact, God doesn’t even answer any of Job’s questions – in fact, He does the opposite. God starts questioning Job!

Now, why does God do this? Well, on the one hand, God is reminding Job that he has a finite mind and a limited point of view – that some things he just can’t understand because he’s human. In other words, God humbles Job. But that’s actually not the main point behind God’s questions.

And so to remind everyone, we’re at the end of the book. Job is in a lot of pain. He’s spent the last 30 chapters lamenting – Job has been questioning God. And now its God’s turn to question Job. What do you think God asks? Because time is limited, I’ll give one an example:

“Who waters a desert with no one in it, to satisfy a desolate wasteland and make it sprout with grass?”

And so let’s say you’re Job, and you’re like “God, this sucks, why am I suffering?” Instead of answering your question, God decides to ask in return – “who sends rain to the dessert?” What? At first glance, that’s a really weird answer. But not for people in Job’s day. You see the reader in Job’s day knew that life depended on rain. Water = life. No water = death. And because of that, no one would ever waste water. And so imagine God appearing to Job and saying, “I would. I waste water all the time. I have no problem sending rain to a desert where no one lives.” And so here’s our question – what does this say about God?

That he is uncontrollably generous. That the way he loves is irrational. That he is good for no reason at all. That he gives even when it makes no sense. That he is uncontrollably generous. You see, the point behind God’s questions is to answer the question Job is really wrestling with – is God good? And God’s answer is simple – I AM. I AM uncontrollably generous. I AM irrational in how I love. I AM good for no reason at all.

The reason suffering is difficult is because we don’t see the upper stage. Like Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “we know only in part.” But we do know a lot more than Job did. And what we do know is wonderful and should give us a lot of hope. I mentioned earlier that in the history of the world, Job experienced the 2nd hardest spiritual winter. The heart of our Christian faith lies in the belief that Jesus experienced the hardest spiritual winter in the history of the world. That the Son of God actually left the upper stage to dwell with us on the lower one. That Job’s question – my God, my God why have you forsaken me – became Jesus’ cry on the cross. That in a way that is so mysterious and beautiful and strange that we can’t fully comprehend, that God – who is uncontrollably generous – became human in Jesus of Nazareth to deal with spiritual winter forever. And so when it comes to the question of where – where is God in our pain? I point you to Jesus on the cross and say – “with us.” That’s where …

I know we all have the question – why? Why the suffering, why the pain? It’s a good question. In fact, we talked a little bit about the question of why when we looked at Genesis 3 earlier this semester. The only problem with the question of why is this – there’s an upper stage we just don’t see.

But here’s the deeper question. Is God really good? Is God really good?

At times, it may feel like God’s let go of us. But know this – he hasn’t. He can’t. He loves us too much. He’s sacrificed too much. He is much too good to ever let us go.

And so as you go about your lives, please know, there will be tough times. Spiritual winter will come. But when it does, just remember that God became human to experience the worst spiritual winter could do to any one man. That he rose from the dead to defeat it forever. That in the meantime, God can use our pain for good. That he loves us enough to hear and answer of prayers of lament. That God can be expected to do something about our pain. That in Jesus, God has done something about our pain. And that because of what God has done in Jesus, spiritual winter will one day come to an end forever.


M.L. Fernandez said...

Thanks, John. Great perspective. Keep em coming!

Anonymous said...

Yeah. It's still 60 degrees today. End of November in northern Virginia. You are welcomed to come see for yourself :-) Miss you!

KAM said...

Omega? More like God graciously sending rain into the desert that is The Episcopal Student Center.

A good word, my friend.