My wife is a nurse, so she has a lot of experience in dealing with those in pain. She told me about the following chart they use in triage to help people gauge their pain:
Where are you today? What’s your number?
I imagine there are very few, if any, who aren’t dealing with some form of pain or suffering during this COVID-19 pandemic.
Before I move on, let me offer a working definition of pain and suffering. Pain and suffering can be defined as the light-to-severe physical, emotional, and psychological discomforts we feel and/or experience when life doesn’t go according to our plans, dreams, intentions, and expectations.
According to sociologist Peter Berger, “[Every culture has provided] an explanation of human events that bestows meaning upon the experiences of pain and suffering”
Berger definitely describes me. When I encounter some form of pain and suffering, I want to know why this happened. Was it my fault? Could it have been avoided? As human beings, we have a difficult time understanding the meaning and purpose behind pain and suffering that we can’t (or couldn’t) control.
Take for instance, the COVID-19 crisis. Because of COVID-19, hundreds of thousands across the globe have been laid to rest. Nations and states have been locked-down leading to the need to bailout businesses and offer stimulus checks. In the midst of shutdown, many have been furloughed and laid off, as well as having to make the tough decision to close their small business indefinitely.
In addition to the physical losses, there’s the emotional and physiological toil of being isolated from friends and family, the awkward feeling you have toward a neighbor while passing them on the sidewalk due to virus concerns, or the lack of physical touch (i.e., a hug, handshake, or pat on the back) that leaves you with feelings of loneliness, stress, and depression.
And every culture has wrestled with trying to explain and bring some kind of meaning to pain and suffering. But I believe the Bible has the best framework for understanding (and giving meaning to) pain and suffering.
John 11 gives us a framework of three questions (and answers) all human beings have in the midst of their pain and suffering.
Question 1: I’m in need. Can you help?
In the moment of Mary and Martha’s pain and suffering, as they watched their young brother struggle with this illness, they sent word to Jesus saying, “The one whom you love is sick.” They had nowhere else to turn. What they were doing wasn’t working. Rather than getting better, every day he was getting worse. So, they decided there was only one other person who could help—Jesus.
Interestingly, Jesus receives the word but doesn’t drop what he is doing to go and tend to Lazarus. Instead, he utters, “This sickness will not end in death but is for the glory of God…” and stays two more days in the place where he was. In short, Jesus’ response to Mary and Martha’s question, “Can you help?” was “I will help in my own timing, in my own way, and purposefully for the glory of God.”
This may sound rude and cruel. Jesus can help, but he chooses when he helps and how he helps. My wife has uttered a phrase for as long as we’ve been married: “A crisis on your part, doesn’t mean a crisis on my part.” In other words, even though I might think something warrants urgent attention doesn’t mean she thinks it warrants urgent attention.
You see, we have a problem with what Jesus did with Mary and Martha’s request because we believe Jesus should give us his full undivided attention and do what we say, when we say it. In other words, in moments of pain and suffering, we want Jesus to be our genie in a bottle.
Again, I get it. In moments of intense pain and suffering, I want it to be alleviated. And if God is supposed to be all-powerful and all-good, then shouldn’t he stop what he is doing and come to my rescue? But, the truth is that Jesus isn’t our genie in a bottle, but the King of Glory. He acts when he wants and how he wants.
This reality reveals some myths that need to be busted.
First, just because God doesn’t show up when we want or how we want, doesn’t mean he isn’t listening. Jesus heard the request from Mary and Martha. He hears your request as well.
Second, experiencing pain and suffering doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love you. He very much loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus; and he very much loves you!
Third, just because we experience pain and suffering doesn’t mean God isn’t in control. He was in control of Lazarus’ situation; yet, he allowed the illness to take his life. The same is true with us today—even though God allows our paths to enter the valley(s) of the shadow of death.
Fourth, experiencing pain and suffering doesn’t negate God’s goodness. As the adage goes, God is good all the time, all the time God is good. The tension of a fallen world and a good God can exist.
Jesus is, according to Scripture, the King of Glory. Everything that he does and allows to happen revolves around his glory. Therefore, even our pain and suffering can be used to expose his glory.
Question 2: I’m mad. Where were you?
As Jesus waited another two days, Lazarus died. And sometime between him leaving and arriving, Mary and Martha buried their brother.
As they are grieving, they hear Jesus is on his way. Martha, the older sibling, runs out to encounter Jesus. When she gets to Jesus, she exclaims, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” Basically, Martha tells Jesus she is angry at him. In her eyes, Jesus was [too] late.
C.S. Lewis had similar emotions when he lost his wife. He writes the following in A Grief Observed:
Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. . . . Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble.”
It is natural for us to question (to even interrogate) God’s whereabouts in the midst of our pain and suffering. In fact, it is suffering and pain that either keep or stop people from believing in God. They reason, if he can’t stop pain and suffering from happening, he must not be real. Paul Tripp notes, “The central lie of Satan to all God’s suffering children comes in the form of a question: ‘Where’s your God now?’”
Interestingly, it doesn’t seem that Jesus is bothered by her angry interrogation. It’s ok to ask God where he is in your moment of pain and suffering. However, keep in mind that while he respectively offers us the platform to vent how we feel, we need to reciprocate and offer him the platform to respond. And respond he does.
Jesus responds to Martha by offering truth. He shares, “Your brother will rise again. . . I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever believe in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
In short, Jesus tells Martha that he is the resurrection—he is the eschatological future now who has come to make all things new and to turn the upside-down world back right-side up. Therefore, Jesus declares to Martha, in her pain and suffering, in her grief and loss that:
- He is Hope
- He is Life
- He is the future hope in her present reality
- He is the One who will reverse the curse of death
- He is the One who will right all wrongs
- He is the One who will make all things new
- He is the One who will destroy the sting of death
- He is the One who will turn the world right side up
At that moment, Jesus offers truth. It doesn’t necessarily change what has happened and how Martha (or Mary) feels. But what it is meant to do is bring comfort and hope. Jesus speaks into Martha and Mary’s pain and suffering and reveals that he is their light in their darkest days; he is their hope in their hopelessness; and he is their breath when they feel they cannot breathe.
Question 3: I’m hurt. Do you care?
Fast forward a little in the story and we see Mary now approaches Jesus. She has been in the house while Martha engaged Jesus. Now, it is her turn. I’m imagining Mary is grieving slightly different than Martha.
Martha seemed to have more of an angry grief, whereas Mary has more of a desperate (broken) grief. It’s not that one is right and the other wrong. It just means that we all grieve (and respond) to pain and suffering differently. Mary literally falls at Jesus’ feet and said what Martha said, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Basically, Mary expressed how hurt she is. She’s sobbing. She’s probably been sobbing so much she’s physical weak and exhausted. She’s devastated. Her world has been turned upside down. And she is wondering, does Jesus care?
In the depths of human response to the depravity of life, we see one of the clearest pictures of the divine descending into our misery depths to express how much he cares. What does Jesus do as Mary and others wept in their pain and suffering? He wept.
What does Jesus do in our moments and seasons of pain and suffering? He doesn’t pity human suffering. Rather, he identifies, sympathizes, and empathizes with our trouble, our grief, our pain, our suffering, and yes even our tears. Jesus too, is torn-up at pain and suffering.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. What he does next separates him from all other religions, philosophies, and ideas as it relates to pain and suffering. Jesus not only descends into the darkness of our pain and suffering—identifying, sympathizing, and empathizing with us—but he redeems it by reversing it through resurrection.
Deeply moved and troubled by the ultimate cause of pain and suffering—death—Jesus went to the place where Lazarus was put to rest. After having people roll away the stone, he called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And come out he did!
Imagine if you were Martha and Mary. How would Jesus raising Lazarus change you? In short, my morning would be turned to dancing, my sadness into gladness, my hurt into happiness, my gloom into grandeur, my darkness into light, my sorrow into joy, my weeping into singing, and my grief into glory. He would have reversed, redeemed, my pain and suffering.
What Jesus did with Lazarus was both a prelude to his impending death and resurrection as well as a foretaste to what he will (one day) do with all those who call him Lord—who look to him as Savior and King.
So, does Jesus care that we are hurting in our pain and suffering? Absolutely! And he cared so much that he did something about it. This is why Paul wrote to the Corinthians,
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:16–18)
There is a lot of pain and suffering in the world. The COVID-19 pandemic and crisis just intensifies it. And in this season, people—both believers and nonbelievers—are trying to understand and make sense of their pain and suffering, which in many cases they couldn’t control. They’re trying to understand why life hasn’t gone according to their plans, dreams, intentions, and expectations, and thus why they’re left with intense physical, emotional, and psychological discomforts.
As noted earlier, every culture has attempted to explain and give meaning to pain and suffering. In comparison to other religions, philosophies, and ideas that offer a framework for dealing with pain and suffering, I believe the bible gives the best (albeit not perfect) framework of all.
Although the Bible’s framework isn’t perfect in the sense that it doesn’t instantaneously alleviate present pain and suffering, it nevertheless teaches a comforting and hopeful truth that God can help, God is with us, and God will redeem our pain and suffering.
For there is coming a time when Jesus—because of his death and resurrection—“will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Maranatha!
Josh Laxton currently serves as the Assistant Director of the Billy Graham Center, Lausanne North American Coordinator at Wheaton College, and a co-host of the podcast Living in the Land of Oz. He has a Ph.D. in North American Missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
 Quote taken from, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 14.
 Paul Tripp, Suffering, 156.