What Hurts Most?

James 1:22-27
March 24, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

An Arabian proverb says, “All sunny days make the Sahara desert.”  The Arab who coined the proverb was not really foretelling the problems of climate change but was using the common knowledge that we all hold about the natural world to comment on the human condition. Just as the world needs some gloomy days of rain in order to nourish the roots of its plants, so too, the proverb’s author said, the human spirit requires occasional tribulations in order to strengthen one’s character because a life of sunshine and bliss will lead to a blighted spirit.  We look around at the natural world and we see that gloomy days of rain produce abundant gardens; forest fires clear the underbrush for lush new growth; floods leave fertile mineral-laden soil as they recede and that the processes that we term disasters are often necessary to the continuing ability of the earth to yield its harvest.  So, too, when we consider some of history’s most creative figures, we realize that many suffered through difficult times or from disabilities — Beethoven was deaf when he wrote some of his best work, Vincent van Gogh suffered from depression and possibly bipolar disease, and closer to our time, Oprah Winfrey was sexually abused as a child and at age 14 gave birth to a baby who died two weeks later. A literary critic once condemned an author with the words, “He was always an amateur; [for] life was too agreeable for him to take the trouble to become an artist.” The suffering endured by some of the most productive and important figures gives validity to the claim of the Arabian proverb, “All sunny days make the Sahara desert.”

While that may be true, however, if given a choice, would you actually choose to experience pain in order to gain greater depth of character? It’s like that party game: “Would you rather?” “Would you rather?” poses difficult choices in order to spark conversation, questions like, “Would you rather eat worms or spiders? Would you rather be alone for the rest of your life or always be surrounded by annoying people? Would you rather live through suffering and be a person of deep strong character, or live a blissful life free of pain but end up shallow and vacuous?” Although we accept the proverb’s observation that suffering can lead to a more profound spirit, I’m not sure many of us would intentionally choose to suffer in order to lead a deeper life. Certainly, you would be insensitive, to say the least, if you were to comfort someone experiencing tragedy with the words, “How good for you that your husband has died because now you won’t be so shallow.”  We may recognize that suffering can lead to strength, but I for one, sometimes think I could live with a little more shallowness if it meant less pain.

In the comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes, six year old Calvin is having a discussion with his father.  Calvin’s dad says, “I hear you signed up to play softball at recess.”  

“Yeah,” Calvin replies, “but I didn’t even want to.  I just did it to stop getting teased.”  

His father says, “Well, sports are good for you.  They teach teamwork and cooperation.  You learn how to win graciously and accept defeat.  It builds character.”  

Calvin throws up his hands in frustration.  “Every time I’ve built character I’ve regretted it,” he shouts.  “I don’t want to learn teamwork!  I don’t want to learn about winning and losing!  Heck, I don’t even want to compete!  What’s wrong with just having fun by yourself, huh?!”  

Calvin’s father sighs.  “When you grow up it’s not allowed,” to which Calvin responds, “All the more reason I should do it now.”

It may be interesting to speculate on whether we would rather live a shallow life of bliss or a profound character-building life of suffering but the reality is that we don’t get that choice. The proverb wasn’t coined to encourage us to choose suffering but to help us to come to grips with a reality we cannot avoid. Pain may come sooner to some than to others, but to everyone who lives out their three score and seven, suffering will come.  It is inevitable.  If you love, you will hurt.  If you live, you will encounter times of trial.  The book of Job says, “Human beings are born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards.”  Suffering isn’t a choice; it is part of the human condition.

And the Bible is radically honest about that. Karl Marx famously called religion the opium of the people suggesting that people use faith as a way to escape from the reality of their suffering, but I wonder if Karl Marx really read the Bible because to insist that religion is a placebo for our pain is to misunderstand the message of the gospel. Jesus didn’t offer us easy answers or delusions about life. He never promised that following him would save us from pain and suffering; and in fact, a life lived honestly and on behalf of Christ may at times cause our burden to increase because we will insist on opening our hearts to the hurts of others as well as our own, but what Christ does offer us is a way to find meaning in the midst of suffering and a companion on our journey. The gospel says that we have a Savior who knows our suffering and is acquainted with our grief. The Son of Man, it says, had no possessions and nowhere to lay his head; he was persecuted, hounded by the authorities, betrayed by his friends, and abandoned by his followers; he suffered the agony of piercing nails and a crown of thorns, and he, just as all of us will, faced his own death and breathed his last. The comfort of the Christian faith is not some pie in the sky by and by that skips right over the cross to get to the empty tomb; the church has always tied Easter to Good Friday as one inseparable event knowing that without the reality of Jesus’ suffering, his resurrection would have been cold comfort. Imagine, if Jesus had lived out his life in a 30 room mansion, eating steak every night, waited on by servants, and carousing with fellow billionaires before he died of old age in his sleep, would we have been impressed when God resurrected him? More likely we would have groused, “Sure, the wealthy get all the luck.”

During the long weeks of Lent, we are reminded that Christ knows our suffering intimately, and offers us a companion on our journey. It is his presence with us that gives us the strength to quilt a life of beauty out of these ragged patches because God knows that of all of the pains we bear as human beings there is one pain that surpasses them all, one pain for which we desperately need the company of Christ to endure and have hope.

Last year, the British National Health Service compiled a list of the top 20 most painful conditions. The list included such conditions as cluster headaches, shingles, sciatica, kidney stones, and a frozen shoulder. Anyone who has endured one of these can attest to how debilitating they are and the older we get, the more likely it is that we will have experienced one or more of the top 20 pains on that list. How many times have people, hobbled from aching knees or bad backs, said, “Getting old is not for the weak?” Yet for all of their intensity, none of these physical pains can come close to emotional or mental anguish. Going back to that “Would you rather?” game, would you rather have a broken leg or a broken heart? I’m guessing that we would all choose the broken leg. The grief of losing a loved one, or the trauma of abuse, or the upheaval of a divorce is always going to be worse than anything we might experience on the National Health Services’ list of physical pains. In fact, sometimes we will even choose physical pain in an attempt to try to get our minds off of our emotional pain. We might go to the gym to pound ourselves into exhaustion in order to alleviate the pain of a fractured relationship, but no one ever said, “I’m going to get through this migraine by remembering the day my father died.” In the scale of human suffering, emotional pain trumps physical pain every time.

One thing, however, surpasses them all: on the scale of the worst pain the human soul can endure, there is one condition that exceeds all of the rest; one condition that eats away at the heart like an infestation of termites, one condition that makes every other pain, physical and emotional, impossible to bear; and that is the suffering that comes from the conviction that there is no one who knows the trouble you are in; there is no one who will lift a hand to save you; there is no one out there who cares. The worst pain that the human soul can experience is the pain of isolating loneliness.

Vincent Van Gogh said, “A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke.” 

The Methodist preacher William H. Willimon tells of the time during his childhood when families were petrified that their children might contract polio.

“A little girl in my second grade class,” he wrote, “got the dreaded disease… [and our] teacher described to us the possible complications… She told us in some detail about the bad things that could happen to her body. But our teacher also told us that, because of the polio, we could have no contact with her…. I remember thinking at that moment that the polio itself wouldn’t be all that terrible. I, as an eight-year-old, could put up with the physical pain and inconvenience, but the isolation, the shunning, the loneliness would be the worst.”

The gospel tells us that Jesus was a healer who healed people of their ailments but if we look closely at the stories of his healing, we discover that the miracle was not that the lame could walk or the blind could see; it was that Jesus restored people to their communities. The people with leprosy who had been forced to live outside of the borders of town where no one could touch them and they could touch no one were able once again to live with their friends and their loved ones. The lame who had been shunted aside to beg on the streets could once again resume meaningful work and a place in the social structure. In the first century, there was no place in the community for people with physical or emotionally disabling conditions and so their pain was compounded by that most serve pain of all — social isolation. There was no one to speak on their behalf; no one to notice their suffering; no one who cared; until Jesus came along and not only saw them as valued people in God’s eyes but opened the eyes of others so that their loneliness would be broken and their souls healed.

The scripture reading from James says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” The concern for the widow and the orphan in the early church and throughout the Bible is a shorthand way of expressing concern for all of those who have been left alone without a voice to speak on their behalf in the community. The poverty of the widow and the orphan was not a poverty of income alone but was the poverty of community and it is this pain that Christ took upon himself on the cross. Deserted by friends, and tossed aside by a system that branded him not even worthy of a decent death, Christ entered into the greatest of all human suffering and proclaimed to the lonely, to the voiceless, to the friendless, and to the lost, “I am with you. I see your pain and I care.”

As Christ is with each of us in the loneliness of our suffering, so too he calls us to open our broken hearts to others who are in pain. We are called to care for the widows and the orphans, for the sick and dying, for those in prison, for the hungry, for the impoverished and homeless, for those who suffer quietly in the darkness afraid that no one sees their hurt, and to say to them, “As Christ has walked with me, so too I will be with you,” and together we will quilt lives of beauty out of these ragged patches.