The Freedom of Pain
Can we start with the assumption that if God created all things then he is in control of all things?
Thanks. You're a trusting person. Don't let anyone call you a sucker.
So here's the question: Why does God providentially control events that bring us pain, whether that be mental or physical duress, loneliness, or an injustice of some kind?
“But God doesn’t do this, right?”
No, he does.
“So that means he is evil, right?”
No, the opposite.
“This makes zero sense.”
I thought that too, so let me explain how my perspective was changed.
I recently had a counseling session with Pastor Bobby Grossi, and it was one of those casual conversations where I casually mentioned THAT GOD IS AGAINST ME AND THAT I AM BEING TORTURED BY HIM WITH FUTILITY.
Was I being dramatic? Sure. But did I believe what I was saying? Absolutely.
My angry-at-God rant over a string of disappointments (including the fact that I make less money than the average 13-year old babysitter) exposed me as an entitled whiner, but the emotion behind it was genuine.
So Bobby told me a similar story from his life, where he had lost a custody battle years ago and felt that God had unfairly stacked the deck against him.
He felt immense pain as his daughter was taken away, and in his most objective thinking at the time he could not see how this was good. Because of this, he was angry - especially with God.
But during that time his perspective on pain was forever changed, and he explained it to me through this conversation between Peter and Jesus in Luke 22:31-34. (Jesus does most of the talking, so I have inserted what I assume to be Peter’s running internal thoughts).
Jesus: “Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you as wheat...”
Peter’s thoughts: “You said ‘no,’ right?”
Jesus: “But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail...”
Peter’s thoughts: “Excellent. Crisis averted. Thank you Jesus.”
Jesus: “And when you have turned back...”
Peter’s thoughts: OH NO THAT MEANS I HAVE TO TURN TOWARDS SOMETHING FIRST!!! THIS MEANS YOU TOLD THE DEVIL TO SIFT AWAY, DIDN’T YOU??!!! DIDN"T YOU!!!!”
Jesus: “...Strengthen your brothers.”
So Peter actually speaks, and does so like a tough guy: “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.”
Jesus: “The rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.”
Shortly after this conversation, Peter does cowardly deny Christ three times, even to a little girl (Luke 22:56). Peter swore on his own willpower that he would be strong and would not succumb to the "sifting," but his denial had been providentially decreed.
But not long after this painful period of shameful cowardice God used Peter’s passionate faith to start the church, which people around the globe are a part of today.
The point, however, is not that God puts us through pain so that we can accomplish great things. He does it to bring us freedom.
We think that pain and freedom cannot coexist.
But they can.
How? Bobby explained it to me with the most profound statement I have ever heard: “On the cross is where pain and freedom meet.”
Christ endured injustice, physical pain, and mental anguish to a degree we will never understand to give us freedom from an eternal state of suffering. His incalculable pain gave birth to our eternal freedom, because he is the king and redeemer of the universe.
And this freedom can be felt now through faith.
For the Christian, pain is the fire that refines our God-given faith in Christ like gold. If worshiping God alone is the point of human existence, then we need to be melted down for our impurities to be sifted from the top. This painful experience of refining, in whatever form it takes in our lives, allows freedom to become more than a concept - it allows us to live peacefully despite our current situation.
“On the cross is where pain and freedom meet.”
The pain we experience also connects us to each other. Your experience of pain can be used to strengthen others, just as Bobby used his past pain to strengthen me. He did not counsel me as one who had solutions, but one who had solutions because he had suffered through the same doubts as me.
This is how Peter was later able to write these words to suffering Christians:
“In this [suffering] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:6-7)
Peter was able to “strengthen his brothers” as Jesus commanded because he knew their pain firsthand. He knew what it was like to doubt God, and he could not have written these words if he did not first understand how true they are.
Neither can we.
This was not my first bout with the thought that God is a celestial waterboarder bent on killing me slowly, and it probably won’t be my last. As Christians, we never escape suffering and doubt this side of death, but each time we come out of it our faith is a purer gold because Christ allows us to see him more clearly.
In Christ there is eternal freedom for the troubled soul. And it is available now.