A pastor quickly learns
that if he stays at a church for even a short while, he'll consistently walk with people through pain.
Suffering is never far away from a pastor. Through trial and error, he learns (some of us slowly) what to say and what not say. There are no pat answers. Formulas generally work only on paper, not on people.
I have learned that shepherding people through suffering and pain takes more love than pastoral expertise, and often love comes with time. Many times I've been ready with an answer for a question someone didn't have. That's not love. Without speaking for other pastor-flunkies, that impulse usually comes from wanting to be the Savior of the their pain, rather than the one who shares in their pain.
But often the tough questions finally do come. Usually it's not when they first approach me. It's typically after I've been slow to speak, and they can sense my heart is broken with them. From my experience, when people come to pastors concerning their suffering and pain, they're coming with questions. However, those usually come after folks know their pastor loves them; he's slow to speak and quick to mourn with the mourning.
When the questions come, it's clear that not everyone goes through pain the same way. There's not one good answer for questions about God and suffering. People are complex, and so are God's ways. Our answers should reflect that reality.
Nevertheless, I have found three categories of thinking about God and pain that have been helpful as I talk with different people in my church who have been fired from work, learned of their wife's affair, lost their spouse, or endured infertility. These three different ways help us wrap our minds around Romans 8, which teaches that somehow God works all things—whether pain or joy, sword or comfort—for our good.
I say "category" because, again, there are no easy answers to pain. Each instance of pain is different, and each person faces it differently. So use these categories flexibly and with as much love and tenderness as possible.
The 'Jazz' Answer
One of my favorite jazz artists is Dave Brubeck, and one of my favorite of his songs is "Blue Rondo a la Turk" with its forceful rhythms with improvisations. For the most part, the improvisations of Dave Brubeck's piano and Paul Desmond's alto sax are anticipated. But later on in the song, the improvisations become less and less predictable. The changes are abrupt, and the mood shifts at a faster pace as the song nears the end. What is pleasant at the beginning can be painful near the close. It's painful because you don't quite know how to listen; the song puts you on your heals; you can't just relax like you could at the beginning. Your discomfort is all you can think about.
That kind of pain is common until you get to know the artist, not only the song. And when you begin to know the artist, you can begin to see that when an artist is doing something you don't expect, he's trying to get your attention. When you begin to know the artist, you can lift your head from your discomfort to see what he's doing.
Similarly, God's creation often follows a general rhythm: if you obey the wisdom of Proverbs, you will receive the fruit of faithful living. If you are slow to speak, you will turn away wrath. If you humble yourself, you will be exalted. If you work hard, your barns will be full. If you raise your children up in the knowledge of the Lord, they will not wander from it. There are improvisations, but they can be anticipated.
However, some improvisations are less predictable. The godly get swallowed up, and stock markets collapse on the just and unjust alike. These changes put us on our heals, and we can only think about our discomfort.
The pain consumes us until we get to know God. We begin to see that when God does something painfully unexpected, he's showing us something. The more you get to know God and his ways, the more we begin to lift our head from our discomfort to focus on what he's doing. He's changing us. He's making us more like Jesus: meek and humble. And usually on the thousandth time he's brought us into some measure of pain, we can begin to say with the apostle Paul, "His grace is sufficient."
The 'Father' Answer
We live in an older New York City apartment, and when the temperature dips to a certain degree, they turn on the heat. You cannot adjust the heat to fit your comfort; it's just on. It can be 20 degrees outside and we'll have the windows open, because the heat is blazing.
That heat plays tricks on our youngest daughter's mind. She seems to think, If I'm sweating inside, then I don't need a coat when I go outside in the 20-degree weather. Fortunately, I have a bit more experience and wisdom than our 4-year-old, and she always leaves with her coat.
If it's true that I have greater wisdom than my 4-year-old daughter, is it not possible that God, who knows all things perfectly and completely, might have greater wisdom concerning what might be good for me, even if it seems bad from my perspective? I am limited in my scope of knowledge and understanding in all things. God is not.
Not only does God surpass me in knowledge, but he's also good. He's a better Father than I am to my daughter (see Luke 11). He's all knowing, all good, and all powerful. I don't remember who said it first, but if you knew everything God knows, you'd ask for everything he gives you.
So when pain comes, it comes from a Father who knows the outcome of the pain. He has shaped the trial for your good. And he has, as John Newton said, drunk the cup of unmixed wrath for us so that every bad thing in this world will turn out for our good.
The 'Love' Answer
At the time Paul was writing to Christians in Rome and Philippi about his suffering and theirs, many assumed that if you suffer, the gods must be mad at you. But in our day, if we go through pain and suffering, many assume the gods don't care.
For Christians, neither answer tells the truth. God is not aloof from your pain. The modern hymn "Satisfied in You (Psalm 42)" puts it perfectly:
Youʼre the one who made the waves
And your Son went out to suffer in my place
And to show me that Iʼm safe
God created the wake and sent his Son to be consumed by it so that the wake can never overtake us. As, again, John Newton says, "It is best to believe that a daily portion of comfort and crosses, each one the most totable to our case, is adjusted and appointed by the hand which was once nailed to the cross for us." God's participation in our pain rules out anger and aloofness.
None of these answers gives us reasons for our pain. Job never learned of the celestial conversation between God and Satan that brought on his pain, and rarely do we ever learn how one particular pain leads to our ultimate good. But Jesus promises us they do, and he bled so we can believe all his promises.
John Starke is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and lead pastor of All Souls Church in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter.