Sitting with Pain
October 11, 2015
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Psalm 22: 1-15
These are hard passages that we read today. Today’s lectionary passages are the anger, the pain, despair, the bottom-less pit, the grief of human experience. Unlike most of the rest of the year where we hear the grace, the comfort, the love or the challenge of being God’s people, today we are given the passages in which the writers feel God’s “absence” or feel betrayed somehow, abandoned, and hurt by God. These are the feelings we are least comfortable with, as a whole, in our churches. But while we are uncomfortable with these emotions, they are in our scriptures and as such they call us to take a closer look, to spend time with feelings we would otherwise wish away. Usually we reserve this look for Good Friday or Passion Sunday as we remember Jesus’ journey to the cross. But as it came up in the lectionary passage for this week, I felt that though these emotions are uncomfortable, we have a call to look at them, to honor them, and to listen for God’s words even through these words of anger, of pain, and of railing against God.
Job had everything taken from him - his wealth, his home, his living, his children, his health. The only things that remained were his wife and several friends, but all of them told him he must have done something to deserve his pain (an accusation which is confronted and overturned by the story itself), and so their remaining presence in his life was in itself an affliction. Psalm 22 we recognize as the psalm that Jesus quoted on the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” These passages reflect our deepest despair, those moments when it is hard, so hard, to feel God’s presence, when we, too, might instead feel that God has somehow forsaken us, is somehow not there.
Each of us has gone through hard times. We’ve gone through hard times individually, I know you’ve gone through hard times as a church community, and we’ve gone through hard times as a nation, and as the world. We’ve experienced losses. We’ve experienced deaths, divorces and other endings. We’ve seen our families and friends struggle to find or hold on to work, some have experienced pay cuts, we’ve gone through moves. The world is experiencing wars and droughts and climate change. Things are hard. And sometimes we feel, each one of us, that deep pain, that deep grief for what was, or what should be, or what could have been. Kierkegaard put it this way, “the most painful state of being is remembering the future…particularly the one you can never have.” I want to say that again, “the most painful state of being is remember the future…particularly the one you can never have.” We know that grief looks different for everyone, but some of the emotions people may feel in grief include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, pain and guilt to that list. Job and Psalm 22 reflect all of these feelings. And yet still, it is hard to be with those feelings, hard to acknowledge the grief, let alone allow ourselves the time that it takes to really experience all of it. I was with a group of pastors at one point several years ago discussing these lectionary passages. And one of the pastors wanted to include the end of Job (though it is not in this week’s lectionary) and the end of psalm 22 (also not in this week’s lectionary) because those endings are more positive. Her justification was that we cannot let our parishioners stay in the pain. But the reality was that this was more a reflection of her discomfort in sitting with the pain of those in her church. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that someone in every room is in pain, is in grief, and recognizing and naming that reality is helpful and important. But again, it does appear to be fairly normal to want to avoid it. We have sayings, trite things, that we say to one another as a way to “help” that in fact are simply ways of avoiding sitting with one another in our pain. I’d like to challenge a few of those. Saying to someone in pain, “Remember, God never gives you more than you can handle” may comfort the comforter, but it tends to be a way of discounting the extreme pain a person is in. When you say this, the person hearing it often hears, “oh, you’re fine. No big deal. Get over it!” Or worse, if the person being told this isn’t handling it, they may add a feeling of failure to the other feelings of grief they are experiencing. “Everything happens for a reason” is also discounting. It is a way of saying, “because this is part of a great plan, you shouldn’t be upset about this.” You may believe that to be true. But saying it to someone in pain does not honor or respect the feelings they are experiencing at that moment. More importantly, these sayings make it sound like you are not willing to simply be with the other in their pain.
Henry Nouwen in his book, Out of Solitude wrote, “You might remember moments in which you were called to be with a friend who had lost a wife or husband, child or parent. What can you say, do or propose at such a moment? There is a strong inclination to say, “Don’t cry; the one you loved is in the hands of God.” Or “Don’t be sad because there are so many good things left worth living for.” ...”Our tendency is to run away from the painful realities or to try to change them as soon as possible. But cure without care makes us into rulers, controllers, manipulators, and prevents a real community from taking shape. Cure without care makes us preoccupied with quick changes, impatient and unwilling to share each other’s burden. And so cure can often become offending instead of liberating. It is therefore not so strange than cure is (often) refused by people in need...it is better to suffer than to lose self-respect by accepting a gift out of a non-caring hand.”
C.S. Lewis also wrote about his struggles after the death of his wife, Joy, in his book, A Grief Observed. And he, too, wrote about these situations in which well meaning friends could not tolerate his pain. They couldn’t tolerate it, and so they tried to shove it away with trite quips. His favorite was “Well, she will live forever in your memory.” And he found this created nothing less than an intense rage within him as he struggled to grasp, daily, that she was no longer alive, no longer with him in a way that he could recognize while he was in the midst of his deepest grief. To tell him that she would live in his memory did nothing for him but make him feel completely alone in his grief - in other words, it had exactly the opposite effect of what was undoubtedly intended. It did not make him feel better. It made him feel misunderstood, isolated, alone.
It is hard for us to experience our own pain and it is hard for us to be with others in their pain. Pain hurts. It is not comfortable. And in this fast paced, instant gratification society, we don’t want to feel pain. We want to make it go away, for everyone, right now.
But we now know, from a psychological perspective, that grief that is not really felt, pain that is not really experienced does not go away. If we really care about ourselves and one another, we have to allow the grief to be felt. We cannot heal it by avoiding it or denying it. We know this from the perspective of psychology. But that doesn’t make it any easier to take when we are in it up to our necks.
There are some cultures, however, that are better at living in the pain than others. Early Israel was one such culture. The people who wrote the scriptures and, later on, those who chose the books that would be part of our cannon recognized our profound need to feel the pain that life gives us, to experience our losses and to express them. Job is an entire book in the Bible, and with 42 chapters, it is one of the longest Biblical books at that. The book of Job is about being in the pain. The book is a description of Job’s experience of hurt and despair and his feeling that God had abandoned and forsaken him.
As Henry Nouwen continued in Out of Solitude, “… are we ready to really experience our powerlessness in the face of death and say, ‘I do not understand. I do not know what to do, but I am here with you.’ Are we willing to not run away from the pain, to not get busy when there is nothing to do and instead stand rather in the face of death together with those who grieve?” ... “When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not-knowing, not-curing, not-healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares.”
There is more good news in the face of grief. As hard as it is, there are gifts in grief. Some of those gifts of grief include a larger vision of the world, a deeper understanding of what is possible and what new futures we can envision to replace the images of the ones we used to have. Through grief we become more integrated, more whole in our experiences and our memories, making sense of the past and building tools of fortitude and understanding for facing future loss. Through grief we become more empathetic and have a deeper vision for the compassion Jesus calls us to have for one another. Through grief we learn our own resilience, our own strength, and learn about internal gifts and external supports that we never would have known we had. Only through genuine grief can we make room in our psyche’s to move forward into a new tomorrow with new dreams, goals and hopes. Through genuine grief we say goodbye to the past, and we open the door for God to bring about the resurrections that God promises us.
Robert Browning Hamilton wrote:
“I walked a mile with Pleasure;
She chatted all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And ne’er a word said she;
But oh! The things I learned from her,
When Sorrow walked with me.”
When we remember grief, when we experience grief and when we read scriptures like today’s passage from Job and even more, Psalm 22, we are also called to remember that these words of pain, and of suffering are quoted from Jesus on the cross. Psalm 22 like Job ends with a recognition of God’s greatness, God’s comfort and God’s love. But it does not start there. Some commentators who talk about Jesus quoting Psalm 22 on the cross are so uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus saying that God forsook him that they, too, discount Jesus’ pain and say that Jesus was just beginning a psalm that everyone knew ended with a declaration of God’s love and presence. But Jesus wasn’t quoting the end of the psalm. He was quoting the beginning. He was in the pain. He felt abandoned by God. He felt the despair that all of us have felt at one time or another. He felt it all. And that is the best of the good news for today. That is the good news that we find in the Hebrew’s passage as well when we are told that Jesus is not without empathy, that he has felt all that we have felt and experienced all that we have experienced. Our feelings of despair, of loss, of anger are not blasphemy. They are not un-holy. They are mirrored and reflected in scripture itself. Jesus, himself, felt all that we feel. And therefore, as today’s passage in Hebrews tells us, he is not unsympathetic with our weaknesses and our pain. Jesus felt our pain and he expressed that pain. His expression likewise gives us permission to speak of it as well. God can handle it, and God gives us the words to do it if we are uncomfortable using our own words. We can read Job, we can pray the psalms, knowing that God has heard them before, and that Jesus felt they were worthy enough to be expressed that he himself said them too. We therefore have been given the gift of being able to speak our feelings to God. Knowing this can also give us the courage to stand with one another in each other’s pain, too.
Just as we strive to be the friends to one another who care, not by our sayings that try to avoid or ignore each other’s pain, but by being willing to be with one another, in silence, in love, just to listen, until we can move through and beyond the pain; we are called to give ourselves the same grace of experiencing the grief. Jesus knows our deepest pain - we see him on the cross, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” And while we can stand in the sure knowledge that the other side of the pain is the resurrection, we have to truly experience the death first before we can get there. Holding hands with one another and with our God, we can get through this, and anything, together. Amen.