The buzz surrounding the Oscars has already begun to fade. Super Tuesday is now regular Wednesday. No matter how sizzling any topic might be at the moment, nothing has more enduring relevance than personal pain. We always want to talk about it.
Christian publishing says so.
A significant percentage of new books every year deal with how to process suffering. The titles are original, but many seem to retread the same verses and sometimes the same logic. We don’t mind. Pain is the most terribly experiential fact of human existence. Everyone wants to know how to survive it. We never get tired of hunting for scraps of encouragement. Personally, I need all I can get.
God has a book called Job. It’s a perennial favorite, but doesn’t offer easy answers. At least not the kind that fit in shoeboxes. You have to spend meditative time in the narrative to strike oil anywhere in it.
Job 1:12 is downright chilling: “And the Lord said to Satan, ‘Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.’ So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.” It doesn’t look good for Job. In fact, the devil inflicted on that poor man the very things most of us spend our lives trying to avoid.
In one day, he experienced complete financial loss. He endured a so-called “act of God” that killed all his children. Later, the final blow came with the devastating loss of his health, which the Bible describes as “loathsome sores.” As an additional piece of garnish to his crowded plate, he found out what it was like to be kicked when you are down, a lesson which his wife and friends provided.
Under these circumstances the temptation becomes severe to begin thinking of God as an adversary (actually, the word “Satan” means “adversary”). We want to get angry with Him. What good is faith? We toy with the idea of consigning it to the junk heap along with bent hula-hoops, broken blenders, and all the other things that don’t work.
Flawed interpretations of the event make matters worse. Job saw himself a victim of purposeless divine brutality, singled out and beaten to a pulp for no good reason. His wife believed him to be hopeless and urged him to get it all over with—“Curse God and die,” she said (2:9). Job’s friends assumed he was being punished for some hidden evil. Even the devil was operating under a wrong impression, assuming that God had allowed Job’s sufferings only as part of some sadistic chess match.
And then it’s over. Satan disappears at the end of chapter 2, having thrown everything in his arsenal at Job. His team loses, and so he quietly leaves the narrative humiliated and without concession speech. Job still stands. But it’s not actually over. Otherwise, the book would not have continued for another forty chapters.
God was not in this drama to win a wager with the devil, although that was what the devil signed up for. God wasn’t looking for bragging rights.
He was in it for Job’s sake.
Yes, at this point everyone else is done with the poor man. Even he himself concedes complete, irredeemable ruin. Where they are all finished, however, God has just begun.
You see, pain works. Its immediate result is focus and attention. Job was effectively stopped in his tracks. His daily multitude of concerns ground to a halt. His interests stopped. His dreams stopped. Job’s world stopped turning. All lesser priorities ceased.
Nothing seemed to exist anymore except him, his pain, and the silhouette of the One who loomed over it all. And now all he can think of is seeking, searching, wondering what God is doing and why. This good man is no longer focused on the smaller good things of life. As if traveling around a corkscrew, He will begin an ever-deepening trip into the big questions. And at the bottom of the pit, he will unexpectedly find something he had always known about and taught, but never personally visited.
While watching this happen, we begin to hesitantly conclude that maybe pain is not something we simply survive. It’s functional.
In 2004, Hurricane Charley swept through Florida. At the time, it was the second most destructive Hurricane on record. Among the things trashed in the wake of its 100 mile-per-hour-plus winds, were numerous signs and billboards.
But one billboard survived. The wind had peeled back its surface layer advertisement, revealing an earlier message underneath.
“When the sun rose the next morning on Sand Lake Road in Orlando the words on the billboard clearly read:
‘We need to talk.
Pain is a billboard.
God will stop at nothing to get our attention.
There is probably no thought in the world more unsettling and yet more encouraging.
1 Quote from Jared Smith, Lake Forest, Il.
Main photo credit: Aracell Arroyo