Pain Threatens Pleasure

When the Prospect of Pain Threatens our Pleasure

by Jonathan Parnell, desiring god.com

The problem might go something like this.

My family and I were sitting around the dinner table, and one of the kids said something funny. I can’t remember exactly what was said, but we were all laughing, all six of us, in the euphoria of spontaneous jollification. We were all glad together, in one of those moments when, as a young parent, you sort of come out of yourself to get a better look at things, knowing in your heart of hearts, happily, that you’re such an unlikely soul to receive so much grace, that no one deserves blessings this intense, that God is good.

But then you think about one of your kids getting hit by car. Soon after, or perhaps in the wake of that moment, you become haunted by some hypothetical tragedy that would steal such joy. You think about childhood cancer, about the flight of stairs going down to the basement, about teenagers learning to drive, about unhealthy relationships, about a heart that might grow cold. It’s like, almost out of nowhere, our present joy feels the threat of suffering tapping her on the shoulder, reminding her that calamity will come.

The Pain of Pain

And it’s true. Calamity will come. Some kind of pain, sooner than later, will come to all of us. This is characteristic enough of a broken world that is out of our control, but it’s even more so for the Christian who sees suffering all throughout Scripture, momentary suffering though it is. On one level, the most important level, we are virtually untouchable. Momentary affliction produces for us an eternal weight of glory that is beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4:17). The pains of this present age are not even worth comparing to the glory that awaits us (Romans 8:18). Amen.

And then again, on another level, where we live most of the time, we dread the pain no matter what good might come out of it. No child, before getting a shot at the doctor’s office, is tickled by the thought of receiving an injection, even if it means they’ll be healthy enough to play outside instead of cooped up in bed. This is the paradox about tribulation in Christianity, as C.S. Lewis explains: we all agree suffering has its good effects, but still hope to avoid it (The Problem of Pain, 110). And rightly so, as Lewis also says. The suffering itself is not good, only the purpose that God brings about. It’s not in the thing that occurs, but what God does through the occurrence. The shot is still scary and painful, or we might say, the cross is still horrible.

And the threat of horrible things happening to our children is unpleasant when we’re trying to enjoy a laugh with them at dinner. It can smudge the whole thing by harping on how temporary it is, how fragile it might be. It feels like a problem, and to be sure, it would be a problem if we’d let it go on and rob our present joy. But it doesn’t have to, and it shouldn’t — not if we receive the “threat” for what it is. The decisive moment is not whether we sense the possibility of pain or not, but what we do with that sense when it comes.

Joy Evaporated

To let it rob your joy, simply hate the fact that you’d think such a thing in the midst of a good time. Sulk about such a dark thought and bemoan reality for being so unsafe. Let the projected sharpness of what loss might feel like pummel your joy until all the wind is knocked out, and then clamp down on the moment of happiness as if it might never happen again.

But beware, desperation like that is dangerous. It’s interesting how what we might call “making the most” of something can easily become the mask of insecurity, or even unbelief. We should be “redeeming the time” by all means, but not as if our tomorrow will be filled with lesser joys. We shouldn’t operate as if we’re always hitting on a 3-2 count and homeruns are the only option. In fact, I wonder if the reason some of us must have the picture-perfect vacation might be because we don’t really believe in heaven and coming new creation. And ironically, the uptight parent who puts heaven-like pressure on family outings will oftentimes make it seem more like hell for everyone else.

If we let the possibility of pain put us on edge like this, our joy will evaporate, and our capacity for future joy with shrivel. That’s one option.

Joy Deepened

But what if, instead of letting the possibility of pain rob our joy, we led it to actually deepen the joy? What if, instead of letting our minds dwell on some future, mysterious experience of loss, we forced the overall prospect of tribulation to make us feel the joys of now more sincerely? — which is to say, we don’t mistake our laughter together as an end in itself, but as a wonderful gift given by God en route to something even more wonderful. The possibility of pain is no longer a threat, but a gentle wake-up call.

This is more complex than simply agreeing with the truth that we should enjoy God more than his gifts. The point here is to get into the middle of enjoying those gifts, and — not in spite of what loss may come but because of it — we enjoy those gifts more fully by recognizing that, as amazing as they are, our souls need more than this to make us happy forever. We remember, as Lewis says, that “all these toys were never intended to possess my heart, that my true good is in another world and my only real treasure is Christ” (107). He writes,

The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, he has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home. (116)

In a sense, every joy we experience on this earth will have this asterisk — that it can’t satisfy our souls and that it is, sweet as it may be, fleeting (this is at the heart of the Book of Ecclesiastes). To ignore that reality is to bury our heads in the sand and settle for superficial gladness. That’s what is really happening with the pursuit of pleasure in this world. The eating and drinking and making merry sounds catchy, but frittering all away is as plastic as it gets.

However, when we remember that the joys we experience here are pleasures of today that point to the greater pleasures of tomorrow, we are freed to neither make the pleasure more than it should be (an idol) nor less than it should be (a distraction). We are freed to enjoy them truly, as gifts from God, postcards from the lasting city that are meant to be handled, admired, passed around, stuck on the fridge. We are freed to laugh, and then keep laughing.

The gladness is, after all, real gladness.

Wandering

I have not been much of a wanderer, at least not geographically. I have been privileged to put down roots in the same place for nearly 50 years. Those with whom I worked in the 60s still know where to find me and when they do it’s almost as though they expect to hear me ask, “So, how’s it going between you & God?” If things are good they want me to know it. If they are wandering emotionally or spiritually they usually are looking for my reassurance than God hasn’t moved, he loves them and wants them to come closer.

 

Jms. 5:19-20 “My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” 

My study Bible says “’wander from the truth’ means to stray into sinful patterns or to give evidence of the absence of a saving faith.” This is significant wandering, not the frequent failing into which we all fall. We definitely need to remain accountable to each other for that and support one another in our desire to fail less frequently. 

But this wandering is serious stuff: sinful patterns… giving evidence there is no saving faith. Encouraging someone to turn from such error, influencing people to walk in the light, is the business of every follower of Jesus – not just those who get paid for it.

There are little and large ways every day that people are encouraged to turn away from error and embrace truth. They remember the lives of respected, faithful followers who love them. A bit of scripture or a valuable phrase from a song comes back to their mind. Truths spoken by a godly parent long ago resurfaces. This is God’s Holy Spirit working to convict the heart of sin.

God’s Spirit also uses the words, always loving, sometimes gentle, sometimes very firm, of other believers straightforwardly to challenge the course of one headed for destruction. I think of the bread the Teacher said we should cast upon the waters, telling us we would find it again after many days (Ecc. 11:1). The words are spoken, yielded up as a gift to God, asking him to use them to turn this sinner from the error of his way. Sometimes we get to see results, sometimes not; but the attempt is made in genuine love for the individual and for God.

It is my desire to influence people to walk in the light. That’s why I write this blog, mentor, teach and post on Face Book (kitty jones mt. gilead). It is why I seek counsel from older, wiser saints, confessing my sinful ways and relishing their prayers for me.

It is not the reason I carve out time to spend in God’s Word, prayer and meditation each day. I do that because I, myself, am such a needy creature – desperate to hear from God, to see him more clearly and to pour forth my worship and adoration. When I miss a day I feel like my lungs will burst with desire for another breath of oxygen. 

I do hope it all results in a life that can be used of God to turn sinners from the error of their way, to save them from death.

Confession

“Going to Confession” is done by many folks. One on side of the curtain is the confessor, one human who has sinned. On the other side is a priest, another sinful human being, but one who carries some measure of spiritual authority to encourage the confessor to repent and turn away from sin. There may be value in this process if the confessor is experiencing Holy Spirit conviction of sin and accesses the grace of God genuinely to repent.

 

Is James encouraging a process like this in chapter 5, verse 16? “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” 

“Therefore” refers to the preceding thoughts regarding confession and repentance of any sin which may be influencing the progress of an illness. James has encouraged seeking the prayer and oil-anointing of the elders who are familiar with our lives. This present sentence is not directing Christians regularly to confess their sin to each other, rather to confess to church elders when sin could be the reason for their illness. Scripture indicates these elders will be men of integrity whose walk with God is genuine, men who will love us and know how to confront and challenge sin in our lives, encouraging repentance and implementation of God’s grace to make better choices. 

There is great value, as well, in developing deep, godly friendships within which we are mentored, challenged, unconditionally loved, exhorted and held accountable for attitudes and behaviors in keeping with a committed follower of Jesus. That depth of friendship would include the confession of sin to one another and the praying for one another, for physical healing when that is the issue and always for spiritual maturing and godly decisions in life. 

This person with whom we develop such friendship would be a “righteous” person. That means they have the righteousness of Christ imputed to them and they live like it, frequently failing because still human, but always forging ahead to follow more closely the Christ who gave his life for them. The prayers of that person are effective prayers – the kind we want prayed over our lives. 

In order to develop a friendship like the one described above we also must be righteous, offering a depth of character and relationship with God to our friend so that our prayers for them also are effective. 

“Effective prayer” doesn’t mean we tell God what to do. It means we don’t waste words and emotion with excessive sympathy over pain when sin is really the issue. We are genuine with our friend when we pray, and genuine with God. We recognize God’s sovereignty and bow before it as we pray, asking him to do that which will bring the greatest glory to his name. Effective means that God hears what we ask and takes it into consideration. He does. He is sovereign and he knew what he planned before the prayer but part of his plan is to use “effective prayers” as means to accomplish his purposes. It is a great joy to participate in his plan with effective prayer.

In the next two verses (Jms. 5:17-18) we read of righteous Elijah’s effective prayer regarding rain. God knew he was going to hold back the rain for 3½ years and then bring it down. By praying Elijah got to participate in the plan of Almighty God!

Faith Healers

Faith healers – are they genuine? I attended one service at the request of my parents-in-law and I have to admit that God did something! My husband’s dear mother was in great pain, dying of cancer. The preacher identified her area of the auditorium and she felt a wave of heat go through her. From that day to her death, 3 weeks later, she never experienced pain again. I cannot deny the facts. Neither can I support those who turn their attention to human beings and away from God himself.

 

Jms. 5:14-15 “Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.” 

There is no mention of faith healers in this passage. There is mention of God responding to the prayer of his child. No intermediary is really necessary at all but James prompts us to seek the prayer of the elders. Why is that? These are the leaders of our own church, those who know us and love us – not some famous stranger known for healing. The benefit of involving our own elders who know us is their ability to confront sin in our lives if, indeed, sin is complicating the illness. 

Most definitely, not all sickness is the result of sin in the individual’s life but that may be what James had in mind when he penned these words. In the following verse (16) he says we are to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another, so that healing may result. Putting it all together, it looks like the directive is for a Christian to repent of sin that may be causing illness, confess to the church elders and ask them to pray for healing of body and soul. 

When I read Dr. McMillan’s book “None of These Diseases” I was astonished at the multitude of damaging effects and outright illnesses that can result from harboring bitterness and anger and engaging in other behaviors that are rebellious to God. If a follower of Jesus becomes ill and the Spirit of God brings conviction to bear that sin is at the root of the illness, James has in these verses provided the appropriate action to be taken. 

I reiterate: not all sickness is the result of sin in the person’s life. Much emotional damage and even spiritual abuse has been propagated in the assumption that there is insufficient faith or unconfessed sin at the root of someone’s serious illness. We can pray and trust the Spirit of God to convict of sin. That is his department (Jn. 16:8) and he’s very good at it. 

Appropriate behavior is tenderness and mercy extended to those enduring lengthy and serious illness. God forbid that we heap weight upon them by playing Job’s friends and assuming there is sin at the root of their illness!

Casual or Committed?

There seems to be genuine dichotomy between those who say they are followers of Jesus, thinking of him occasionally, feeling confident of their heavenly reservation, and those whose lives are interwoven with him so completely that no matter what’s going in any given day he is at the forefront of their thoughts and they seek to follow faithfully.

 

Jms. 5:13 Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.” 

It is when troubles arise that the casual follower thinks of praying, usually in the form of “get me out of this!” I wonder how God feels about that, when he hasn’t heard word one from that individual for ages…

And what about happy times? If relationship with God is a casual thing why would anyone immediately recognize each delight as a gift from the Father and render to him due praise? 

I don’t know many saints of God who respond immediately with an attentive-to-God attitude, but I do know some who maintain it, no matter their situation. The degree of joy and peace in which they function is remarkable (as in noticeable). There is room for improvement in each follower. 

Throughout James’ letter he clarifies the kind of behavior that proves the possession of genuine faith. Verse 13 continues that clarification to challenge and spur followers on to growth. Saving faith does not result in a casual relationship with God. If that’s what you have, you have reason to question any confidence you have felt regarding your heavenly reservation.

My Word, My Bond

Swearing = profanity, right? Not necessarily. Obviously employing our mouths to utter filthy words and careless use of his name is displeasing to God. But when the word “swear” is used in holy writ it often refers to vows.

  

Jms. 5:12 “Above all, my brothers, do not swear – not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your ‘Yes’ be yes, and your ‘No’, no, or you will be condemned.” 

Though often misused as a prohibition against cursing, this verse is actually about oaths, fitting hand-in-glove with Jesus’ words in Matt. 5:34, 35 & 37: “… I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”

Anything beyond “yes” or “no” comes from the evil one and carries with it the condemnation of James 5:12. When one is transformed by the grace of God and privileged to be no longer under condemnation (Rom. 8:1), then that individual is trustworthy. A simple yes or no will suffice. That word of that individual becomes their bond. A handshake seals the deal. Yes, I know, our culture requires all those signatures. But the trustworthiness of the individual is not in doubt. 

If, instead, various oaths, promises, vows and signed contracts must be in place before an individual can be trusted to fulfill his word – then it is doubtful that person has been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. They face condemnation – not because they must swear to be trusted but because the necessity of so much declaration demonstrates their unredeemed condition. Without behavior that proves faith in God to be genuine (at least the beginnings of the process of transformation), a person has reason to question the genuineness of their faith.

Is your word your bond?

The Patience of Job

Have you heard people praise the patience of Job, wishing they had what he evidently had? We really don’t want to endure the hardship that came upon Job, but we pretty much know we need to be more patient with the people and inconveniences in our lives, right?

  

Jms. 5:11 “As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.”

Recently I read an article entitled “I Wonder If Sunday School is Ruining Our Kids.” It was written by one who loves the gospel of grace. His point was that we teach about the Old Testament heroes as though they were victorious because they somehow mustered up some amazing faith when in reality they were flawed beings whom God showcased to demonstrate his grace, which empowered them to come through in his name!

We hear of the “patience of Job” and conclude, “that’s what I need, patience like Job.” For awhile Job was, indeed, able to summon patience in his suffering but eventually he gave way to whining, complaining and demanding that God give him audience so he could justify himself!

God lifts up Job in the scriptures as an example, not because he possessed such a reservoir of patience within his character, but because of the grace God poured out on Job, empowering him to persevere. The perseverance James speaks of in this verse was a supernatural gift from Almighty God. It came forth to Job because “the Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” If he weren’t, he would have struck Job with that proverbial lightning bolt.

The perseverance, the active patience I outlined in a recent blog, are not qualities we can summon from within ourselves. They are gifts from our compassionate, merciful God. He hands us a difficult assignment with a multitude of purposes in his inscrutable mind. One of those purposes is that we will avail ourselves of the grace he offers and seek the patience, the perseverance he will work within us so we can experience the suffering, whatever its degree, refusing to let it pull us away from him.