As a member of Christ’s body, what do you do when it is your turn to suffer?
I can only answer for myself, but usually, I am blindsided by suffering. Stunned. Suffering knocks off my spiritual “game face” and leaves me scrambling to figure out what just happened. It’s as if someone abruptly threw me in a body of water that I didn’t even know was there, and so I have to first spend some precious seconds figuring out what is going on, where I am, and which end is up. There is blind panic and immense disorientation and flailing, and when I finally haul my soaking, drowning self to shore, I spend a good amount of time heaving onto the sand while wondering what happened to all those things I was carrying with me when I was tossed into the sea. And then, faith bobs to the surface (thank God–it floats!), and love pops back up, as well. But so much else–so many hopes and dreams, so many plans for the future, even so many cares and concerns–sit heavy on the bottom of the sea, never to be seen again.
And as I lay, gasping, on my back, still trying to get my head around what just happened, I am faced with two very different temptations. One is to never get up, to just curl up into a ball and stay on that shoreline, mourning what I lost. That’s a real temptation, but only for a little while.
The other temptation is to get up, dry off, and pretend that being thrown into the sea wasn’t such a big deal. After all, I’m a Christian, right? No matter what happens on earth, I have a hope and future, right? And I have faith that everything is going to be made right in the end, and faith in an all-powerful God…right? Well, if I have faith, then why should I mourn? After all, this life is just a breath, and soon I will be in front of God and everything is going to be made new and whole. And when I face God, I will be able to say that my faith stayed strong throughout my life, that it kept me from “mourning as the world mourns.” I will be able to say that I never waivered, that I soldiered through this life, and that, because of my faith,
The only thing is…that’s not true.
Everything wasn’t beautiful, and sometimes it hurt a lot.
And that “everything was beautiful” line is certainly not from the Bible; it’s from Slaughterhouse-5, a book that is very different from the Bible. But the one thing Slaughterhouse-5 has in common with the Bible is that they both explore just how much life can hurt sometimes.
And then I realize that the temptation toward that second reaction is just that…a temptation. It is a temptation to sidestep the path that God has let me walk. It’s a temptation to try to avoid the pain, when really, what I should do is to embrace the pain, just as much as I embrace the joy and the peace and the love. To embrace is not to wallow, but simply to accept that this is my life right now, and to see how God is going to get me through it.
That is very important. I must remember how it feels. I must remember how God got me through it.
It is important because as a member of the body of Christ, my pain is not my own, to wallow or ignore as I see fit. No, I have to walk the paths of pain God gives me because after (or even during) the experience, I know that God will use that pain to help others. I know this first of all, because Paul told me as much when he said this to the Corinthians: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” But I also know it from experience. See, since I’ve had a few instances of deep pain, I now know about the unspoken “pain directory” that is a part of body of Christ. It’s not a directory that is written down anywhere, but it is ever-present in the hearts of the other members of the body. Simply put, when a member of the body suffers, the rest of the body does two things: they comfort them as best they can, and they file their pain away for later. For example, when my brother died, my name was filed away in the church’s pain directory under:
- death of a sibling
- mental illness
And since then, others who are experiencing this kind of pain either know that they can come to me, or are even directed to me by someone else. It’s not that I have all the answers; it’s just that I’ve been there. And when people are suffering, they want someone who has been there. And I really, really want to comfort those people. Usually, it happens just by listening and empathizing. But sometimes I am able to tell them something, give them some morsel of hope that God has given me, and it helps them. And that’s what I think Paul was talking about in his letter to the Corinthians.
Going through these experiences has taught me how important it is to experience and even embrace pain. I can’t help anyone if I’m too busy pretending that everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. And I can’t help them if I’m too wrapped up in my own suffering to see past myself (although that is an inevitable phase of pain, and sometimes it lasts longer than others). Instead, my understanding of the directory of pain spurs me on to really study my pain, to feel it as thoroughly as I can, to pour out all my hurt and my questions and my anger to God…and to see where that leads me.
It always leads me somewhere.
And often it leads me to a place that is truly beautiful…even though it does hurt.