Author: Tabitha Driver
The Powerlessness of Pain
The worst moment of my life was listening to my mom moaning in pain (later diagnosed as interstitial cystitis) and knowing I couldn't do anything. When someone is hurting, I want to do something. I want to take casseroles to the friend whose dad just died and be at the funeral. I want to change my FB profile pic along with everyone else in support of Weston from my home church who was in an extremely bad accident last week. And when a friend is moving a couple hours away due to cancer, I'm disappointed when I arrive too late to help load the moving truck (even if I would have probably just been in the way of the guys loading furniture). I hate watching from afar. I hate feeling helpless.
Six months after his mother's death, Henri Nouwen wrote the following to his father: “When we experienced the deep loss at mother’s death, we also experienced our total inability to do anything about it. We, who loved mother so much and would have done anything possible to alleviate her pain and agony, could do absolutely nothing” (45).
It's not only the friends who feel powerless, but often the one suffering as well. I recently talked to a gentleman about how the loss of his independence was the hardest part of having a stroke.
Yet, I wonder if that is perhaps one of the purposes of pain? To remind us that we are powerless?
“Death indeed simplifies” Nouwen states, and I would argue that suffering does as well. He continues, “Death lays bare what really matters” (41). We tend to think that we control our lives by working hard, purchasing comforts, or planning our calendar, until a painful situation devastates our lives and reminds us that we “are a bit of smoke that appears for a little while, then vanishes” (James 4:14b).
Suddenly, we have no other options but God.
The Power in Pain
Recently, I was asked about my depression a couple years ago. In talking about it, I was again amazed that I'm now actually grateful for it! No, I definitely don't want to go through anything like that ever again. No, I would never have asked for it. But my increased empathy for others and desperation for God, my gratitude for joy, my deeper love for the church, and my lack of desire for empty pleasures cause me to worship God for that painful experience.
I've again been astounded by God showing up in the church as I watch (from 6 hours away) my home church gather around Weston Shank and his family after Weston had an extremely bad accident. Even though I'm not present, the church’s love is obvious. Profile pictures and statuses are changed to express support. When updates are texted to out-of-state friends, everyone gathers to hear the latest. In-state friends regularly travel the hour to the hospital. The church is evident in pain more so than normalcy.
Some people may look to reason to prove the existence of God. But I know God exists when I see a wife praising God the day after her husband dies. I know God is real when my friends who have cancer care how their experience affects my faith. God must be good if my friend can experience a huge emotional and spiritual attack on her family and still say, “Yes, I want God with all my heart!”. I know there is a God when I see Him loving through His Church.
God has shown up over and over in the painful circumstances of my own life as well. And I too can join those who testify that God is worth it even when life hurts.
Pain is powerful because there we experience God.
Holman Christian Standard Bible. Nashville: Holman, 2006. Print.Nouwen, Henri. A Letter of Consolation. New York: Harper & Row, 1982. Print.
It was the championship women’s church league volleyball game. It’d been an intense season, and the double elimination tournament lasting until two a.m. reflected that. A team had come up through the loser’s bracket and had to beat the first place team twice to win. Players were exhausted. Tension was high. A player spiked the ball onto the other side just as a random ball bounced onto the court. “Redo!” the ref called. Everyone was upset. The ball had come from a group of teenagers taking advantage of the empty court on the other side of the gym. A group of teenagers that were, well, my friends and me. After being yelled at, two of my friends volunteered to be on the side of the circle closest to the championship game. My two friends were taller, faster, stronger, and more skilled. They had a much better chance of making sure the ball didn’t go onto the other court than I did. However, strangely, I found myself adjusting my position and running after the ball despite their assurances that they would get the ball. Logically, I knew they had a better chance than I did of getting the ball. Yet, somehow I just didn’t believe they cared as much as I did about not letting the ball go to the other court. I just didn’t trust them. _____________ While I went through my phase of reading or listening to Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel and Ken Ham as a preteen, I haven’t really doubted God’s existence since then. But I have given up on God. At two major times in my life, I came close to abandoning Him for good. During my senior year of high school and subsequent year at RBC, I quit daily devotions, seriously considered choosing a career for pride and wealth rather than what God wanted me to do, prayed with a "yeah, right" attitude, and lived for myself. Then seven years later, I did it all over again. Neither time did I doubt whether God was real. Instead, both times I was angry with Him: He hadn’t changed my negative feelings toward a friend --even though I’d been fasting and praying. I didn’t believe He would heal my mom. My life hadn’t turned out how I expected. I imagined God as this cosmic deity sitting on His couch eating popcorn and laughing at my troubles. If I solved one problem, He’d say, “Oh, what new problem can I create to help Tabitha grow?” I was fed up with “growing”. More recently, as I’ve been monitoring a month long cough with increasing paranoia (since I had pneumonia at the same time last year), I stated, “God, I need to quit worrying. I trust You with my health. Wait! No!” My mind went to a friend with cancer, and I remembered my pneumonia last year. “I take that back. You don’t care about my health. I need to worry.” When I worry, I’m not trusting that whatever God has planned for me is good.
When I idolize books and movies and ignore God, I think that my hobbies will make me happier than Him. When I get angry at a student, I’m replacing my job as my source of happiness instead of God. Thus, when I sin, I doubt God’s goodness. Yes, if I believe that He is the God of the Bible then it makes sense that He is good, but I still don’t actually act as if He will get to the volleyball before I do. I know I struggle with God's goodness when bad things happen. Yet, I don’t always realize that doubting His goodness is the root of even my “minor” sins. __________________ So, what do I cling to in those moments of doubt, those times when I want to turn to “comfort sins” instead of God? I’ve learned to
1) Talk to God; yell at Him; be honest with Him, and don’t cut the communication lines.
2) Worship. Otto Koning once said that God’s heart responds when we say “thank you” while hurting. I’ve found this to be true.
3) Repeat truth. “You are good, and You do what is good” (Psalm 119). “He delights to give good gifts to His children” (the Sermon on the Mount). I’m amazed at how what I choose to dwell on becomes a part of my natural thoughts.
4) Remember His past faithfulness. God has answered prayer after prayer for me. I look back at old journals and am astounded. He’s been good in the past, so thus, I can trust Him to be good in the present.
5) Meditate on God’s incarnation --His decision to dwell in our pain.
6) Enjoy the relationship. I've realized that even the above principles won’t work if I treat them as a formula. My relationship with God has mystery and uniqueness that cannot be pinned down.
Several years ago, my life group decided to each pick a one word theme for our year instead of a list of New Year's resolutions. Never having been someone to make New Year’s resolutions, I liked the idea of keeping it simple.
I can’t remember what my word was last year. Or the year before. But this year’s word has actually been a concept I’ve returned to repeatedly in the last several months. The word is “unseen” since I wanted to remind myself of the reality of the unseen spiritual world with its counterintuitive principles.
I don't know if “unseen” is the best word for what I'm getting at. My Sunday School teacher uses the phrase “in God’s economy” frequently to refer to this inhuman logic; Jesus seemed to like the description “such is the kingdom of heaven”. Perhaps some would just call it “living by faith”.
As much as I want to rely on reason and facts, I find that God doesn't always work that way.
My church and life group have been going through some of the basics of apologetics over the last several weeks, but repeatedly my life group concludes, “You cannot convince anyone to become a Christian through logic. It takes faith.” We celebrate the craziness of Christianity --that God cannot be tamed or confined to our limited brains.
It reminds one of Jesus telling his disciples that they needed the faith of a child or letting them know that searching for God was the “narrow way” or like “going through the eye of a needle”.
Unseen Logic #1: Prayer is powerful.
When I chose the word “unseen”, I was specifically thinking about prayer --and my tendency not to treat it as valuable. Sure, I claim it is important, but the time I spend praying doesn’t reflect that. (Think Peretti’s This Present Darkness).
I’ve been attempting to write a novella. When I spend time working on the novella, it's tempting to view increasing my word count as progress, but instead I’ve been prompted to focus on prayer.
Human logic says that actually typing out words gets it accomplished. The Logic of the Unseen says prayer accomplishes more. If I write without the power of God then I am only a “sounding gong” or a “clanging cymbal” (to take that metaphor out of context).
Unseen Logic #2: The Spirit lives in me.
While I generally think of myself as a fairly confident person, I’ve been struggling with a lot of self-loathing lately. At one point, I caught myself again thinking negative thoughts, but I was so fed up with them that I verbally burst out “I rebuke you, Satan! Get out of my mind”. Now, that is generally not how I pray, nor did I consciously think, “I need to rebuke Satan.” However, I think that I reacted because the Spirit of Christ lives in me.
It is often easy to recognize the Spirit working in my life in hindsight, but in the present, it is often difficult to determine if I'm listening to the “still, small voice” or my own desires.
I've felt led to write a novella as my fictional testimony of God's goodness in singleness. I believe God wants me to write it and has given me a burden for singles. Yet, at the same time it feels incredibly presumptuous to say “God told me to do this", and I find myself questioning myself constantly: “I don't have the time, discipline, or ability. I'm an innocent little Mennonite girl whose life few could relate to.”
And yet, I have this nagging feeling it is what I”m supposed to do --even if the only person who benefits from the story is me.
Jesus lives in me. He works through me. It's exciting to see Him touch other people's lives through my actions, words and prayers. But too often I doubt that He wants to use me, and, thus, I miss out.
Unseen Logic #3: His strength is weakness.
I’ve been traveling a lot. Some may love being busy. I do not.
Having come up with a theory last year that busyness and stress should not necessarily be times to avoid busyness and stress, but rather opportunities to see God work, I frequently prayed that God would show up. Instead, God sent even more stress and more people to help.
I was accusing God that He hadn’t come through the way I’d expected. “I’m tired of being strong.” I complained.
“That’s the point.” God told me. "Busyness shouldn't be about successful accomplishments, but rather recognition of your frailty, humanity and need." It doesn't quite feel right to rejoice in failure, to be thankful for not being perfect, yet faith recognizes that success sometimes looks like human weakness. The Unseen I'm learning that living by faith often could be described as "acting crazy". Why celebrate a God who dies? Why continue to trust God when a baby has a fatal illness? Why leave the comforts of home to travel to a new place? Faith is crazy. It's uncomfortable and illogical. But the more I experience instead of evaluate --the more I pursue God instead of human priorities-- the more I long for the reality and meaning of faith.NOTE: I often post several months after I've written the blog post --hence, the time discrepancies.
"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is God’s power to us who are being saved. For it is written: 'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will set aside the understanding of the experts.'
Where is the philosopher? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish? For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of the message preached. For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength." --1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Knowing I had Monday off, I'd gone into full-scale Hermit Mode that Saturday. When I'm in Hermit Mode, I avoid people. Sometimes my solitude is invigorating and productive. Sometimes it is relaxing and needed. Other times my solitude gives my mind permission to be negative. This time was the latter. I was berating myself for not being more friendly in an earlier conversation as I drove to pick up Wilma for a social event. “God, I have no desire to fight this. How do I get out of this selfish, negative funk?” It suddenly hit me where I was headed, and I found myself grinning. God didn't even have to answer. He'd already sent me someone to help me out. Wilma.
Wilma had told me she'd be done eating supper by 5 o’clock, so I arrived at the assisted living center eager to get to our party which had already started at 5. Wilma, however, was still eating. I thought longingly of my book in the car.
“No! Be present, Tabitha.” Then I thought of my phone. I could check my email.
“Don't do it, girl!” It was awkwardly quiet. I tried to think of something to say, but my mind was still on myself. “Are you a Seventh Day Adventist?” a resident asked. “I noticed your prayer cap.” “No, I'm a Mennonite. Do Seventh Day Adventists wear prayer caps?” I asked, trying to keep the conversation going. He misheard me, “I'm not a Seventh Day Adventist,” he stated. I tried again, but he just repeated his statement. We again fell into silence. Wilma still had a sandwich left to finish. Finally, I made a comment about the weather. It worked. Conversation flowed naturally. The men told stories about their construction days and teased Wilma. We laughed. My mind was no longer on my book. Or myself. I have conversations with strangers a lot when I'm with Wilma. She introduces me to everyone, tells everyone my personal business, and then tells me their personal information. Somehow even though she won't have been able to go to church for months, she still knows more about what is going on at church than I do. When we go to a restaurant, I pay attention to the menu. Wilma, instead, pays attention to people, saying “hi” to every table near us. “Are you in the military?” “What’s your name?” “Are your kids enjoying the canceled school day?” If we are at a buffet, I usually head off to find more food and let her do her thing. But there was one time that I was halfway through my plate and had nowhere to go. Wilma somehow could tell that the lady beside us had diabetes and started a conversation. To my surprise, the lady started sharing her whole life story. I felt rebuked. What I viewed as annoying people during their lunch was perhaps an opportunity to provide a human touch of compassion. Another quality I find refreshing in Wilma is her blunt honesty. There’s no pretense. You know exactly what she thinks of you. If she’s mad at you, she gets quiet and abruptly hangs up on you. If she’s enjoying herself, she’s asking to stay longer. I wish I'd counted the number of places Wilma asked me to give her rides in just the first day we hung out. It was constant. She'd see a sign for a free church meal. “Can we go?” Or she'd invite herself along when I traveled to my parents for Thanksgiving. If she wants something, you don't have to wonder. She just asks. I don’t realize how much of a pretense I put on --even around my closer friends-- until I hang out with Wilma. I don’t mind being honest about my quirks with her --my messy house, the old-fashioned radio station I listen to and my appreciation of cemeteries. She lets me pray aloud when I have something on my chest that I need to confess and gets on me if I’m speeding. When I started attending my current church, I was hurting from my previous church experience and not quite ready to open up to a new church. Thus, I thought I'd sneak in and out for a while. Yet, with Wilma as the welcoming committee, the avoiding church life thing didn't really work. Giving her rides actually made me feel part of the church family and not just a guest. It also helped me be less me-focused at church. We apparently make an odd pair. Occasionally, one of Wilma’s nurses will try to figure out our friendship. “Are you related?” “No, she’s my friend.” Or the other residents assume I'm a new social worker. “How did you meet?” “Church.” “Oh.” They still look puzzled. I guess people think it's weird for a twenty-something year old to be hanging out with Wilma, but I wish I could convey to them how much I need Wilma in my life. When I leave Wilma’s, I find myself leaving with a big grin on my face that I didn’t have when I came. I leave with a different perspective on life too. For a couple hours, life is reduced to the basics. We are concerned with where we are eating, what we are doing and people we know. National politics doesn’t matter --just the local election where we know the candidates. My activities don’t matter --unless it’s possible for Wilma to get a ride with me. Conversation doesn’t matter --just being together makes Wilma’s day. Everything I stress over, my work, my car, my friends, et cetera is unimportant. Life calms down as I have to slow my step, sit in the parking lot for five minutes until the seatbelt clicks, and collect all her bags. Thank you, God, for giving me Wilma.Note: This post was requested (frequently) and approved by Wilma.
“A twenty-some kid barely out of seminary shouldn’t presume to counsel a father dealing with his son’s fatal car crash.”
"A happily married woman with well-behaved kids and a successful job has no clue what it is like to have my family issues." “Your life is perfect. You know nothing about mine.”I’ve been on all three sides of these statements:
- The Hermit: I’ve thrown mega self-pity parties, assuming that no one else could ever understand my struggle.
- The Avoider: I’ve used my easy life as an excuse to not get involved in another’s problem, being terrified of not knowing what to say or do.
- The Bystander: I’ve winced as a brash, arrogant friend advises instead of listens.
The idea that one with an assumed “easy life” cannot help someone with a supposedly “harder life” is deceptively close to the truth. Obviously, tough situations are not appropriate times to pretend we have all the solutions. Yet, we can’t let this concept prevent us from accepting or offering love in pain.
Here is the truth:
- No one’s story is the same. No one.
- There is no absolute hierarchy of grief. A rebellious child could be more painful than an illness for one person and vice versa.
- We never know another’s past or inner struggles. Their life may not have been as easy as we assume.
- Pain is universal. It may be cloaked in differing circumstances, but we all understand pain and can empathize to an extent.
- If we only got involved in the stories that were identical to ours --well, we’d never reach out.
- We cannot expect to fully heal other’s pain. We are not God.
- We need each other --even if we bumble and make mistakes when trying to comfort or counsel.
- We need each other because our stories are different.