When Pain Forms Us
When a doctor steps into the room and tells you, 'I'm sorry ... it's malignant," you have heard words that are about the hardest for anyone to hear. They are words that pack an emotional wallop, and can shatter your sense of wholeness in an instant!
I've heard those words three times. The first time was in 1972. I had just begun a new pastorate; I was a 34-year-old father of three young sons, and I assumed I had a lifetime of ministry before me. It felt like my whole future fell apart. The doctor told me it was lymphoma and therefore radiation therapy would be necessary. The second time I heard those words was 1984. More serious surgeries and more radiation therapy became necessary. In 1990, I heard them for the third time. More surgery . more radiation. It was lymphoma each time, though different types. Each time I felt devastated and each time it felt like my future had been wrenched away. Thirty-three years have passed since I first heard those awful words, and fifteen years since the last time. Today, I'm cancer-free. So God has given me plenty of opportunity to reflect. Such experiences plunge us far beyond the trivialities of everyday life. And those reflections take on new dimensions when you are a caregiver/pastor yourself.
Nearly everyone who hears the "malignancy" word goes through a variety of emotional responses—from shock and denial, to deep emotion and anger, to fright and depression—before finally arriving at the point of acceptance. It's one thing to help parishioners move through those stages; it's something else entirely to be there yourself. I've had plenty of time to arrive at that point and in the process I've gained some holistic, healthy perspectives on life and living as a wonderful gift of God. I've struggled with how to integrate my faith with my life-shattering experiences.
In the process I've become rather impatient with glib and superficial answers to the hard times in life and the complex struggles of faith. Glib answers don't satisfy. only deep trust does. My sense of deep trust is shaped and formed by seven insights that have been forged through such experiences.
1. Disease is an invading enemy
All our lives we are busy warding off such invaders. We get fevers, tonsillitis, and chicken pox as children. We "catch" the flu, get toothaches, and break bones in adolescence. As adults, aches and pains of all sorts become our companions. Sometimes we experience the dreaded enemies of potentially terminal diseases or events—cancer, heart attacks and strokes. We see friends die. Every day we live we are involved in warding off this enemy in one way or another. These are not merely natural occurrences in the process of living, they represent daily combat. When we face an enemy, we fight, attack, and call in every force to aid us in the fight. So I went to doctors, laid under machines too complex for me to understand, underwent surgeries that were frightening, and took drugs that were powerful, all as part of the "combat" of life. This disease was an enemy trying to invade!
2. This is a fallen world, and at times it's not a safe place
I had preached sermons on Genesis 3 and I had taught all those truths about the fall into sin, the corruption of this world, and I had embraced it all with my mind. Now I had to embrace it experientially and integrate it into my faith-life. When you are told you have a malignant tumor, your theology is thrust into the realm of cold facts and frightening experiences. It's a world where things happen that are different than God envisioned in the beginning. It makes this world seem like a very dangerous place.
3. We are fragile persons
I was thirty-four when my first diagnosis came and most of us at that age feel anything but fragile. We assume we are strong, invincible, and have a lifetime ahead to conquer the world (or at least pastor a church!). But my whole sense of identity changed. I had to admit that this body, which could jog, could also get tumors. The pastor who felt strong enough to lead others, could suddenly need them deeply. The one who could pray for others could also cry out to God in pain and fear. The one who could preach from a pulpit could also lie between the sheets of a hospital bed. At thirty-four I sat in a hospital room in Chicago, stared out the window, and mouthed the words "I could die from this"—words I had never before uttered in my life! I felt very fragile.
4. God is our friend and will never become our adversary
Did I ask some of the hard questions that such experiences wring out of the suffering soul? Yes, I did. Did I question my previously held concept of God? Certainly. Did my theology seem to have as many holes in it as Swiss cheese? I wondered . until God made it clear to me from the promises of his Word and the testimony of his Spirit that he cannot become my adversary. He had adopted me through Jesus Christ and would forever hold me in his hand. Week after week when I had pronounced his benediction on the gathered congregation he had also extended it to me, and I knew that I carried the benediction with me to the hospital, into surgery and into radiation therapy. I knew that he stood with me, arm around my shoulder, tears in his eyes like mine, reassuring me that he would be my friend forever and walk with me through whatever pain this world can give. Bought by his Son, he surely wouldn't abandon me.
5. We don't have to understand God to trust Him
This was perhaps the hardest lesson to learn and the deepest insight to arrive at. We all want to understand what God does and why He does it. It seems so much easier to trust him if we can know the "why" and the "wherefore" of things. And that's especially true for those of us who are pastors and theologians. It's assumed that we have the answers in life. Whatever questions people raise, we're supposed to be able to answer and explain. And now I couldn't! Could I still trust? Even if I never understood? And then I read one of those precious gems that Lew Smedes wrote (How Can It Be All Right When Everything Is All Wrong?). He says the best believing, deep believing, is believing against the grain! When everything else seems to shout "No," we affirm "Yes!" It put my trust on a new level. I don't trust God because I understand all he does. I trust him because of who he is and the unshakeable promises he has given me in his Word and confirmed through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It's easier now for me to live with mysteries. It's easier to say "I don't know" and keep on trusting.
6. We have belief and unbelief side-by-side in our heart
By the Spirit's power, I can believe. But in my own personal weaknesses, I can also doubt. Always. Both. I came to feel very much at home with the father of the demon-possessed boy in Mark 9 who said, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" (v. 24) It was an admission on his part that he had both, side-by-side in his heart. I do, too. Admitting that explained a lot of things I was feeling. I knew then why I needed to retain my spiritual disciplines of prayer, worship, and feeding my spirit with God's Word. It explained why I needed the encouragement of family, friends and church. We were all involved in this process of aiming to diminish the "unbelief" and build up the "belief." The success of my journey depended on this process of starving one and feeding the other.
7. We can become very comfortable with deep emotion
The pain of life often opens up our previously locked-in emotions. Those of us who find it easier to laugh than cry, easier to sing praise than cry laments, or don't dare raise our hard arguments with God, find that suffering often makes us more real. And then we begin to notice how the whole range of human emotion is expressed in Scripture, especially the Psalms. We find it's OK to cry and to feel sad. We don't have to pretend we are always "up." Being "down" is not a sign of weak faith! We achieve greater internal honesty. But at the same time it makes our laughs better, our praise deeper, and our thrill at the deep privileges of life richer than ever. When we allow ourselves to wrestle with the pain, we also allow ourselves to soar with the blessings! Suffering is formative. It forms our view of life and our self. It also makes us aware of and alive to the beauty and benefit of meaningful relationships. And, best of all, it has an important role in forming our faith.