C.S. Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain, seeming to narrow his investigation to a single entity – “the” problem. It’s an excellent book that addresses the philosophical issue of suffering with a keen theological eye mixed with practical pastoral encouragement.
But I find that the experience of suffering or, more specifically, the handling of physical pain, entails a combination of many different problems, not just a singular difficulty.
One week ago I underwent surgery to repair a hernia. Actually it was a double hernia, to be precise. In keeping with my lifelong pattern of going down the road less traveled, my body did not allow for the “typical” approach – a laparoscopic surgery with a shorter, less painful recovery period. No, I needed the more invasive procedure complete with scars not worth describing. Thus, I find myself experiencing numerous problems associated with pain.
The Lament Psalms have offered me great encouragement many times when it comes to handling suffering. They model how we can cry out to the Lord, ask for deliverance, enlist help from positive self-talk, and recall to mind God’s character, help in the past, and ways he has worked on behalf of others. They cover a wide range of lament-inducing circumstances – persecution, discouragement, depression, feelings of alienation from God, etc.
But physical pain offers unique challenges. It is not mentioned often in the Lament Psalms. Psalms 69:1-6 is a rare exception, including pain in its list of causes for lament. Psalms 69:29 says, “I am in pain and distress: May your salvation, O God, protect me.”
One could be tempted to think that all we really need to do is recall certain truths or remind ourselves of certain theological concepts and all emotional struggles would vanish.
Counselor and author Edward T. Welch, of the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation, writing about handling fear says this about simply reminding ourselves of fear-countering cognitive thoughts: “This might help, but it rests on the premise that fear submits to logic, which is a dubious assumption. In reality, fears are rarely logical.” (Running Scared, page 23).
I find that there are at least five problems associated with pain. Processing them individually has been helpful for me as I wait for the pain from surgery to subside and some sense of normality to return.
• There’s the problem of fear: With physical pain comes the temptation to believe that it will never go away or it’s the sign of other problems or the harbinger of even worse things to come. Constant prayer for comfort, strength, and the peace that passes all understanding needs to counter this problem.
• There’s the problem of total dependence: When you experience surgery, your body stops performing certain functions that used to just happen. Taking deep breaths, moving without additional pain, and the continuing performance of certain “bodily functions” now take on a level of challenge that used to be reserved for things like mountain climbing or major athletic feats. It’s humbling, to say the least. It involves prayer for things you’ve always taken for granted, which underlines the reality that we have always been totally dependent upon God for every breath, every heartbeat, and every bodily fluid that needs to flow properly.
• There’s the problem of “not-rightness”: I don’t know how else to put it. But every ache and every pain is a reminder that we live in a fallen world with broken bodies that will someday die – and that was never the way it was supposed to be. While you can understand all this, and it’s easy to find this doctrine heavily supported in scripture, it does not minimize the “groaning” component that never should feel normal or acceptable.
• There’s the problem of mental-perseverance: Much of the physical battle takes on the flavor of the mental battle. We must talk to ourselves far more than merely listen to ourselves. Now is the time to converse internally as doggedly as the Psalmists who said, “Why so downcast, Oh my soul?” and other introspective interaction. But it gets tiring and mere mention of these truths does not guarantee full receptivity.
• And, in the darkest moments, there is the problem of despair: With physical pain come attacks from our adversary. He would have us think, “This is never going to get better, God doesn’t care, I must have done something to deserve this,” and dozens of other condemning lies from the pit. Thus, the need for deep reflection on the truth of the gospel, diligent concentration on the power of God’s word, and relentless meditation upon the goodness of God’s care for his people – especially before the times of pain.
C. S. Lewis’ book and others are helpful for wrestling with the theological and philosophical puzzles associated with suffering. But don’t think that mere reading of books will provide the full equipment for all the problems of pain. The issue is far more complex than that. Indeed, life itself is richer, more complex, and, sadly, more painful than we expect. But our God is greater, more compassionate, and more powerful than we suspect.
Our family concludes our Thanksgiving meal every year by sharing what we’re thankful for. I look forward to that moment all year long. We relive great moments, echo our notes of thanks, and nod our heads in agreement. And we smile.
Each year, it seems, the experience grows richer. And thus it should. The Biblical notion of giving thanks digs deeper than merely making a list. It is worth reflecting on the Hebrew word yadah, often translated “give thanks,” to see all that God has in mind for us. There’s more to it than we might think.
The Hebrew language reveals an inseparable link between giving thanks and offering praise. Indeed, the two terms are often paired through parallelism in the Psalms. Thus the two phrases in the opening of Psalms 92 are more similar than our English ears might hear: “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High.”
The root of the word means “to acknowledge or confess” and can be equally employed for confession of sin, offering of thanks, and lifting of praise. When you yadah, you acknowledge both the giver and the gift. In fact, the focus is more on the generosity, grace, and abundance of the source than on the joy, pleasure, or gratitude of the recipient. Still, the term encompasses both sides of the exchange.
Hebrew scholar Claus Westermann says, “In the Old Testament… there is as yet no verb that means only ‘to thank.’ Hodah, [a form of yadah] which is usually translated as ‘to thank,’ is not used in the Old Testament a single time for an expression of thanks between men. Thus it is clear from the start that this hodah cannot be equated with our ‘to thank,’ which can be directed equally to God and to man…. The expression of thanks to God is included in praise, it is a way of praising.”
And so our listing of what we’re thankful for should find its way to more than mere list making. It should point and lift our hearts to the Giver behind the gifts. We should exalt, bless, glorify, honor, adore, pay tribute to, revere, and magnify the God who chooses to pour out blessing upon blessing.
I have often quoted C.S. Lewis who distinguishes between gratitude and adoration. Enlisting the help of a rare word, coruscations (which means something like flashes of light), Lewis writes in Letters to Malcolm:
“Gratitude exclaims, very properly, ‘How good of God to give me this.’ Adoration says, “What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!’ One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.”
His distinction is helpful but only if, once the difference is understood, we reunite gratitude and praise in their Biblical union. They feed off one another in ways that make us increasingly grateful and doxological with each breath. Surely, our minds and whole beings should run “back up the sunbeam to the sun.”
I am sometimes told, when discussing how to present the gospel to a non-believer or how to formulate a sermon or Bible study, to make sure to, “Keep it simple.” Sometimes the admonition is “to keep the cookies on the lower shelf.”
If the promoter of simplicity elaborates, he’ll tell me that, if we “make things complicated,” people may get confused, reject our message, get lost in unimportant issues, not remember what we said, or fail to benefit from the Bible’s teaching, the gospel’s power, or the truth’s beauty.
But what if “keeping it simple” is really distorting the message? What if our message isn’t really simple? What if the gospel is complex, rich, multifaceted, nuanced, far-reaching, and touching upon an infinite number of other aspects of life? What if the Bible isn’t really a simple book after all? What if God’s word points us to its inspirer – the God who is beyond comprehension, beyond finding out, beyond our finite reasoning, and beyond all we can pull together?
What if “keeping it complicated” really did justice to the subject matter and “making it simple” misrepresents it? What if we can’t “keep” it simple because it never was simple to begin with? What if we’re not “making” it complicated but reflecting the truth as it really is?
Have I made this argument complicated? Good.
I certainly see the need to find ways to state things concisely and easily. Sometimes, you only have a few minutes to articulate what you believe to a sincere inquirer. In those instances, a short booklet or a diagram drawn on a small napkin is the best vehicle for telling people the message of salvation.
But it’s one thing to draw that diagram or read that booklet and say, “This is one way for me to express my faith in a concise way. There’s obviously more but this is a helpful introduction.” It’s another thing to say, “There. That’s all there is to it.”
I have often pondered the best-selling book title, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Apparently, given its popularity, a lot of people think it’s the only book they need to read. But I remain unconvinced. All I really need to know? Really? I have found that the dramas of life, the complexities of marriage, the trials of disease, the confusion of evil, the pain of death, the ever-evolving challenges of parenthood, not to mention the wonder of beauty, the joy of music, the blessing of laughter, and all the delights of worship to be just a few of the things my kindergarten teacher left out of the syllabus.
Do I think the lessons I learned in kindergarten were helpful, foundational, crucial, and building blocks upon which to learn many of the lessons that would follow? Absolutely. Am I thankful for kindergarten? Remarkably.
But am I glad there was also a first grade and a second grade and every other learning experience I’ve encountered since kindergarten? Increasingly so.
If I reflect on this tendency to “keep it simple” vs. “keep it complicated” from a missional perspective, I would have to say, “keeping it simple” hasn’t served the church all that well – at least, not lately. Our world is complex and people know it. In fact, people love it. They reject (rightly, I believe) simplistic answers to complex questions because those answers haven’t worked. Formulas haven’t helped them make relationships work. Short explanations haven’t helped them grapple with long problems. And the people who insist, “it’s really quite simple” seem to be out of touch with reality.
More and more people wonder about the complexities of life and want to explore them. They long to see how seemingly unrelated topics intersect. They are not surprised by mysteries that keep unfolding, revealing more and more levels of wonder. They like movies like Inception.
Maybe we should try to “keep it complicated” because God’s word and his gospel are complicated – not in the “confusing” sense of complicated but in the rich and beautiful and intellectually fulfilling and aesthetically pleasing and awe-inspiring ways. I think it’s worth the experiment – both for the deepening of our faith and the challenging of our friends’ searches.
These blog posts center around the notion of “integration.” When I call myself an integrationist, I mean that I look for wholeness and seamlessness in all of life. One area where compartmentalizing (the opposite of integration) has hurt the church is the isolation of evangelism. Outreach has often been seen as a separate or unusual “program” in the church rather than a core component of its existence.
The recent coining of the word missional to urge churches and other ministries to pursue a more outward face shows the need for weaving evangelism into the regular life of a church or ministry rather than viewing it as an appendage.
One idea I would like to propose is the weaving of evangelism into the small group structure of a church or ministry. Small group emphasis is nothing new and something to be appreciated and emphasized. It is within the small circle of close-knit brothers and sisters that spiritual growth, supportive prayer, and rigorous Bible study can and does occur.
Why not have these very groups also serve as the encouragement and strengthening sources for personal evangelism?
Here’s how it can work:
In any small group, one person will serve as an “evangelism advocate.” (It is best if this person were not someone with the gift of evangelism. Those people tend to make all the non-evangelists in the group just feel guilty). The evangelism advocate is the one who makes sure that personal evangelism by all the individual members does not get ignored. They make sure, when people share prayer requests, that intercession for witnessing gets included. They also check up on what people shared in previous gatherings.
So, for example, the evangelism advocate could say things like this:
“Fred, you mentioned last time that you were hoping to bring up the topic of spiritual things with your co-worker Jack. How’d that go?”
“Doris, you asked us to pray that you’d get up the nerve to give your sister a copy of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God. Any news?”
“Joe, you asked us to pray for your time with your next-door neighbor on that fishing trip. What did you find out about his level of spiritual hunger?”
“Sue, we prayed last time, that your ongoing conversation with your boss could turn to spiritual topics. How should we pray tonight?”
The result could be that people would see their evangelistic efforts are part and parcel of their spiritual well-being as much as their Bible reading, prayer lives, resisting temptation, and all other components that often get discussed in small group. They would also see that evangelism is a process that needs ongoing tending and, often, some prodding.
I think it’s worth a try.
Randy Newman has been with the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1980 and currently serves with Faculty Commons, their ministry to university professors. Randy is a Jewish Believer in Jesus and is the former editor of The Messiah-On-Campus Bulletin. He is the author of numerous articles and books including Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did and Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well.
Randy Newman has been with the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1980 and currently serves with Faculty Commons, their ministry to university professors. He ministers on campuses and elsewhere in our nation's capital to students, professors and policy shapers. He is an honors graduate from Temple University and has a Masters of Divinity degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he is also engaged in doctoral studies. Randy is a Jewish Believer in Jesus and is the former editor of The Messiah-On-Campus Bulletin. He is the author of numerous articles and the books Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did and Corner Conversations: Engaging Dialogues about God and Life, both published by Kregel Publications, and Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well, forthcoming from Crossway.
To find out more, visit his blog, Integration Points.