From the Shepherd’s Nook: Pain

From the Shepherd’s Nook: Pain November 9, 2012

This series on pastoral theology is by our friend, a pastor, and an author: John Frye.

For whatever convoluted reasons, I avoided conflict for many years in ministry. I liked to think of myself as a “peacemaker,” but what I was really was a pain-avoider. Later in ministry I got some very wise counsel about my jitters regarding conflict. I avoided conflict because it kept me distant (safe) from my own personal pain. In an intense pain-avoidance, therapeutic culture, the idea of engaging suffering without either trying to explain it or trying to eliminate it seems blasphemous. Yet, according to EHP in his book, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, “pastors have no business interfering with another’s sorrow, or manipulating it. Suffering is an event in which we are particularly vulnerable to grace, able to recognize dimensions in God and depths in the self. To treat it as a ‘problem’ is to demean the person.” A good counselor helped me, not “fixed” me. I was guided into the pain in order to see the transforming grace of God resident in it.

Using the Book of Lamentations as the pastoral basis of “pain-sharing,” EHP unpacks the wonder and power of the acrostic form of Lamentations. The reader is intriguingly introduced not only to the importance of the content of Lamentations, but to the pastoral significance of its form. Suffering is given its full and rightful place in human experience, yet at the same time suffering is not given everlasting status. Suffering may feel eternal, but it is definitely bounded. In Lamentations, suffering is probed and explored five times from A to Z, we may say. “The acrostic is a structure for taking suffering seriously. … Every line of pain is traced in patient detail. Finally, though, it says, ‘Enough.’ Evil is not inexhaustible. It is not infinite. It is not worthy of a lifetime of attention.”

“Prayer is suffering’s best result. … If suffering is conceived as impersonal and abstract, it sends us to the philosophers for a ‘metaphysic of evil,’ or to the theologians for a theodicy, or to the psychologists for a diagram of the unconscious.” EHP sees suffering taking us to God, making the consequences of sins hidden in the heart glaringly evident in the streets and provoking repentance. God gets angry about sin, yet sin does not produce his anger, love does. “Anger uses the material of suffering to intensify the relationship of love. It breaks through indifference. It smashes through apathy. It confounds abstractions. It insists that God personally deal with free persons who are capable of rising above despair into repentance, into faith, into hope.”

For a long time a subterranean Christian triumphalism gripped the lives of Christians. “Christ is the victory that overcomes the world!” Christians were not allowed to acknowledge pain. If they suffered, they needed to suffer in silence. As a young pastor I remember being with an older pastor at a funeral. The seasoned pastor told the widow not to cry in public over the death of her husband because it would reflect poorly on the faith. I was gob-smacked. Who thinks up that kind of cheap, pastoral (?!) advice?

“The gospel that boldly sets the cross of Christ at the center of its message, also courageously accepts the cross of discipleship as part of its daily routines. Difficulties and sufferings are not problems for which the gospel provides an escape, but part of a reality which the Christian experiences and in which Christians share a faith by encouraging one another in hope.”

Peterson mourns the loss of communal lament in the church. The USAmerican church does not know how to lament because, in a big way, we know little to nothing about being a suffering community. So many people in our churches suffer alone. When we lose the ability to mourn together, we lose a significant feature of our humanity. When we mourn, we do not need “the bright, plastic cheerfulness of pastor or friend who tells us to cheer up ‘for everything is going to be ok.’” People and their pain need to be treated with the dignity they deserve. Jesus, we recall, was a man of sorrows and well-acquainted with pain.

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