“ I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”– John 16:33 (ESV)
Perhaps the single most asked question in my office from week to week is “How am I supposed to deal with … /What do I do about . . . ?” Men and women both come in a state of despondency, unsure of what to do in the midst of their present circumstance. It’s a reasonable response to difficulty, one I’ve had many times in my own life. A natural response for most of us is to search for those who can speak wisely, advising us of the next steps to take. Such guidance serves to relieve our fear and sense of powerlessness. Indeed, the desire to relieve these feelings is so great we will expend great time and resource on even the possibility of solace.
How do I answer such questions in my own life and as I sit with others asking them? My purpose here will not be to give you a specific guide to multiple life problems, but to provide some basic principles which can aid in having clearer thinking on such matters.
Where are my eyes? Many of you may have heard the story of the couple having an argument in the car as they were driving to church one morning. Both were in a foul mood, convinced the other person had wronged them and needed to repent. Upon arrival, without a word, both quickly got out of the car and turned at the same time to shut their respective doors. However, as the wife shut her car door, she had been so preoccupied with the insensitivity of her husband that she closed the door on her fingers. She yelled out in pain, telling her husband to come quickly and relieve her suffering by opening the door. He, however, had been focused at the exact same time on his wife’s temper and tendency to easily be provoked. Subsequently, at the exact same time, he closed his car door without paying attention, and felt a horrible pain as it latched shut on his fingers. Screaming out, he demanded his wife come to help him.
It’s such a vivid picture, one we can all relate to as it explains our tendency when feeling pain. In such moments, our tendency is to look exclusively at our own pain and those we believe have wronged us. We go over every aspect of their behavior with a fine tooth comb, feeling more and more certain of our own victimization. At the same time, we place upon them the only hope for the relief of our suffering. After all, if they would do such and such, we could feel very much better, and they would become a decent human being as well. Everyone benefits. In our haste to examine them under the microscope, we miss the obvious, however, and harm ourselves in the process. Such obsessive analyzing makes us blind to the obvious and vulnerable to harm, even harm of our own doing. What then do we do?
Those individuals of great faith in the Bible, had this curious habit of checking their eyes at such moments. They refocused their sight on God, and so gained a clearer picture of all else. Now, I want to be very clearly Biblical here in understanding that none of these individuals ignored the reality of the problem. Having grown up in the church, I am all too familiar with those who believe that to know God is to anesthetize oneself against any of life’s problems, meaning one is not bothered with them. I would put this directly the category of “Christianese”, those beliefs and sayings common in the church but not found in the Bible. Again, returning to the point, where are my eyes? If they are not on God, where are they? Most likely, they are on my pain and this is a problem. When my eyes are on my pain exclusively, such hurt become the lens through which I view everything else in life, including God. My experience and emotion become my deepest truths. All other things are measured against this truth and must be reconciled to it. In my prayers I say, “God, tell me why You have allowed this in the face of who You claim to be?” Such a question masks what we have really done and what we are really asking. “God, reconcile Yourself with the truth my personal experience.” If His TRUTHS(intentionally capitalized) do not match the “truths” of my experience and emotions, I question His goodness, love, or even His existence. What do we do instead?
Instead of viewing all things, including God, through the lens of our own pain, we are to view all of life through the lens of God’s TRUTH and His Character. Dr. Diane Langberg, a Christian Psychologist who has spent over three decades working with trauma, states the issue this way:
We begin to define Him according to the things we hear from others, rather than according to the things we hear from Him. We begin to see God through the lens of sin and sorrow, rather than viewing sin and sorrow through the lens of His character. (Langberg, 2014 p.6).
When we do this, our perspective changes. We are able to see the experience more clearly and open up the possibility of taking wise action. If we fail to do so, we run the risk of greater harm and becoming a cynic. We have contrasting examples in the Apostle Paul and the Prophet Jonah.
When facing hardship in the midst of serving God, Paul chose to view his circumstance through God’s Truth. He does not press God to reconcile Himself to the difficulty in his life, but reconciles himself to the goodness of God’s comfort in the midst of suffering. Paul also understands the temporary nature of his pain and the eternal reward God holds in store for him and all those who believe.
7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – II Corinthians 12:7-10 (ESV)
The Prophet Jonah, on the other hand, viewed reality through his own lens of understanding. God had sent him to the city of Nineveh to proclaim coming judgement. After Jonah’s sojourn in the whale, upon giving God’s message to the people, Jonah is angered by their repentance and God’s mercy. Instead, of understanding the Truth as God sees it, Jonah took a stand in his own belief and suffered to the point of wanting to die.
4 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly,[a] and he was angry. 2 And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. 3 Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?”
5 Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. 6 Now the Lord God appointed a plan and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” 9 But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” 10 And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” – Jonah 4:1-11 (ESV)
We are all face with an important choice in dealing with pain and suffering. In this life we will suffer, it is simply a reality. Will we make it the central truth of our lives, however, seeing everything else through it and requiring God to reconcile Himself with our pain, or will we hold His Word as Truth, and understand all else via that lens?
Langberg, D.M. (2014) In Our lives First: Meditations for Counselors. Jenkintown, PA: Diane Langberg PhD & Associates.