One of the “untouchables” of the ancient world is on his knees in front of Jesus. Then he’s face down in the dirt. The man has leprosy, a disease that not only disfigures the sufferer but perhaps even worse, it isolates him from his community and even his own family and friends.
You can only wonder how long this broken man has watched his children grow up from afar or how long he’s lumbered through life shouting “Unclean!” to keep every other soul at a safe distance. How long has it been since he has known the feel of another person’s skin against his own? No wonder he is on his knees, then flat on his face before the Lord. It’s a good place to be.
You can almost hear the gasp of the crowd at what Jesus does in response. It wouldn’t seem worth mentioning if you didn’t understand the horrific effects of leprosy, the terror of the disease, and the dreadful withdrawal of human contact. But all three gospels that carry this scene detail the spontaneous reaching of Jesus’ hand.
He touched the leper.
Why? The gospels only answer that Jesus was “filled with compassion.”
Where is God when it hurts? Hurting right along with us. And in the Word of kindness and peace, crossing the gap from living God to dying sinner, is where God is found.
Please read Mark 1:40-45.
The disease of leprosy is an interesting place to begin a chapter about the problem of pain. (I’m indebted to Philip Yancey’s example in his thoughtful treatment on suffering, Where Is God When It Hurts?) Though the term leprosy has been used to describe a variety of skin diseases, in its most horrifying form, leprosy is associated with gross physical disfigurements—the loss of fingers, toes, eyes, noses, and so on. Dr. Paul Brand is the man who discovered that this type of leprosy doesn’t actually destroy human tissue at all. All it does is remove the sensation of pain. He observed the damage leprosy patients do to themselves because they lack the warning signals that a healthy pain network in the human body provides. They live in a “painless hell.” A boy reaches into a fire for a potato or turns a stuck key in a lock so hard his hands bleed. A man keeps walking on a broken foot or is unaware of dangerous infections in his body. A woman doesn’t blink out the irritations in her eye, and so it goes. One can actually come to praise the living God for pain, that is, for the marvelous design of our bodies in which physical pain alerts us to problems, forcing us to pay attention and take care of them. Pain helps keep us healthy and alive.
Yet who can argue with the fact that pain sometimes rages out of control in our world, far beyond the boundaries of its healthy, biological function? When it does and when we have to watch helplessly, we can hardly avoid the question: How can a God of infinite love and effortless power fail to act?
Where to begin? Yancey observed, “The opposite of disappointment with God is disappointment without God.” Suffering remains a problem no matter what philosophy you hold. In fact, Ravi Zecharias suggests answering the question, “Where is God when it hurts?” with, “Where is atheism when it hurts?” Atheism is that which steals away all hope and every worthwhile reason to endure. Without God, we would not only have to live with pain but with something far worse, meaningless pain. Denying God because of pain doesn’t make pain go away. All that would go away then is the hope that pain can have a purpose, that it can lead to powerful good, that it’s never for nothing, that it can be redeemed in the end.
It is the Christian faith that properly names the cause of pain. I’ve already written to you that the ultimate cause of the world’s misery is human sin. I’m not suggesting each particular pain can be traced to a particular sin. (Although I would submit that a huge portion of the world’s suffering— physical tortures and relational torments—is directly caused by people. And let no one say in such circumstances, “It was God’s will.” His will and his plan is to bring good from every evil for those who know him and trust him.) As for the cause of pain, what I am saying is that just as horrifying as the symptom is, namely pain, so dreadful is its first cause. Sin is that great and willful abandonment of God by the human race.
In fact, consider the premise that sin is something far worse than pain. Anyone who has been to the dentist knows that pain, on the one hand, can have good purposes. Pain can so often bring people around the ultimate matters of faith. Pain is, in the words of C. S. Lewis, “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Suffering wins our attention in a way and to a depth nothing else ever does, humbling us enough to cry out to him. Sin, on the other hand, is our determination to shut him out, to somehow make life make sense apart from him. Do you see the difference? Pain hurts; sin is death. Pain makes us cry for a while. Sin would have made us cry forever, had God not done something about it.
But cry for a while we do. I purposely write this chapter while the people I visited with last night are fresh in my mind. They are no spectators on the sidelines of suffering. Their daughter was 13 years old when she died. Before she died, she had suffered. Horribly. Let’s call her Katie. She’s been gone for a while now, but it still hurts her family members like it happened yesterday. I keep them in mind so that I remember what pain is and what it is like, not wishing to venture answers that are easier than the ones God gives. Perhaps a safe place to start is to tell you what Katie would if she were here. She would tell you (she did tell her family and friends) that life in this world is only an introduction to another life, one that is better by far for those who follow Jesus. Knowing this makes all the difference.
If it were not true, if this world were the whole show, I suppose we could say that God ought to make things here as pleasant as possible. (But how? I still wonder. I mean, if God were to remove every cause of pain in this world, where would that leave us? Truly “he does not treat us as our sins deserve.”) However, if this life is a brief shadow of a more solid world to come, a temporary prelude to a sweeter song that goes on and on, what then? Then suffering would be necessary in ways we could not be expected to fully see; it could have purposes that justify it being allowed to continue on and do its work, especially if those purposes are eternally good and cannot be achieved in any other way. Now what is noticeable right away is that trust would be central to this arrangement. We would have to have a reason to rely on those purposes, that goodness, that future.
Have I mentioned Jesus?
Whatever is really wrong with this world—something we can only see in part—God’s answer for it goes beyond mere easy explanations. He answers with himself, not a bunch of words or a tightly woven argument that wouldn’t help us anyway. He answers with the ripping and writhing of Calvary that perfectly conforms to the misery of the world, no less awful, no less real. God’s answer to pain is God himself racked with pain—God crying with us, God suffering with us, God dying in no one’s arms.
The most remarkable act of God is that occasion when he did not act at all . . . when men swung and laughed, cursed and struck and pounded. Visit again the sacred occasion through the vivid detail of the Scriptures: “Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.” When you hear the gentle command of God’s Spirit in the Word— “Take this. This is for you.”—you do as told. This faith means that God has showed up; God has acted; God has done something mighty . . . in you.
“There is so much pain in the world” we like to say, even though the pain of all people in the world does not really accumulate, even though it is not actually experienced by any single person. No, I take that back. There is one, and only one, who carried all our sorrows. It is he, Jesus, who keeps me believing in the infinite goodness, power, and love of God and who tells me it makes sense to trust him no matter the “What-I-would-do-if-I-were-God” arguments this world imagines it has the right to make. These are my bottom lines: If I would believe this life is all there is and would not know of the crucifixion of God’s only Son, if I would not have my own small glimpse of the surpassing joy of Christ, I would not venture any answer to the problem of pain. But God’s Son is a gift great enough to compel me to wait on him, and God’s eternal heaven is a place grand enough to redeem the temporary pain of those who trust him. “Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
“Not worth comparing”? Not even belonging on the same scale? Yes, a thing can be both huge and yet nothing compared to something else. Can we even imagine a joy that could dwarf into insignificance such suffering as we’ve seen? Though we cannot, everything will change when the story ends and we are standing there. The apostle Paul’s hope-filled metaphor will bare itself fully to us: if this world groans, it groans not as a man being tortured, waiting for an end, but as a woman in childbirth, waiting for her child. Through Christ, the world’s pain is that sort that can be overwhelming and intense . . . and all in a moment forgotten. For the joy is there. That’s what I understand by faith about suffering. And perhaps we understand that more than this, it is neither helpful nor possible for us to know. So let us “submit to the Father of our spirits and live.”
Very recently I spoke with a young Christian woman who endured a recurring depression and who fearfully, desperately wanted to know how to keep it from happening again. I asked her to do a very simple thing. The next time she could feel the darkness swinging round for her again, I told her she should remember Jesus. I said to her, “What if he were sitting next to you in this chair right here and he looked into your eyes with those liquid eyes of his, the ones that have seen every sad thing in the world, and said: “Sweetheart, would you do this for me? Are you willing?”
And she cried even as she gave me the clearest, loveliest smile. “I never thought of that,” she whispered. And she was willing. God didn’t say, “Figure me out,” but, “Follow me.” I am reminded of how many times and in how many ways it is the way a person responds to suffering that determines the outcome, whether bad or good. One person spreads the pain around; another, like Katie, quite simply shines.
This is the verse we test and test again and never find wanting: “In all things God works for the good of those who love him.” For to love God, to desire him, to want him, is to find that all of life conspires for this, your highest good. Even pain works this benediction—especially pain. It turns you to him.
As for me, I have much to learn. But here’s what I try to do, in my own weak way, about my own small pain. It’s a path I follow in my mind, suggested to me by the writings of the late Henri Nouwen. I find that I can take every particular pain I feel—loneliness, or a headache, or desperate inadequacy—and follow it back to the pain, that of this whole world. I merely taste my tiny share of that inexpressible misery of this human race—so much pain and shame and fear. Should I not have my small cup to drink? In my particular pain, I am one clod of dirt connected to the vast human continent and to the great, terrible truth of the fallenness of this place. From there I follow the pain toward the man “familiar with suffering.”
Surely he carried all our sorrows! All the pain of the entire world made its way into the soul of Christ. Now each particular pain is inviting us closer to him, to walk softly into his compassion for this pain-wracked world. We learn not to cry for ourselves alone, we who know our place in the love of God, who are going to be in the joy of God forever. Blessed are we who mourn for the way we are comforted. But what about the others? Tears for ourselves can become something else—cry for this world along with him.
In these thoughts you are being drawn deeper into the magnificent heart of Christ.
A very good place to be.
Elie Wiesel, as a young and bitter survivor of the atrocities of a Nazi concentration camp, first poured out his story in horrifying and painful detail to a Christian man he happened to meet.
What say you? Should the man have answered with a simplistic back-pocket reply or a fine-sounding, well-rehearsed argument? Or did the situation cry for something else, the sort of thing we learn from Christ?
Without thinking twice, without saying a word, the “little Christ” embraced the thin and broken Jewish man . . . and wept.