As I consider the problem of pain, I am transported back to Australia in November 1999. My wife, Linda, and I were just beginning to feel at home in this six-month-old Bruderhof, Danthonia. As our little community looked toward the celebration of the first Advent together, we received the news that our twenty-two-year-old son, Matt, living at a Bruderhof in Pennsylvania, had been diagnosed with an aggressive lymphoma. By the next day our church had arranged tickets back to the United States. We said little to each other during the twenty-one-hour flight; we simply held hands and cried. We must have looked a sight getting off the plane with red and swollen eyes. We both felt numb. How could this be happening? Why, God?
By Christmas, Matt seemed to be responding to chemotherapy; in January, he married his fiancée, Cynthia, who insisted that no amount of uncertainty or sickness would come in the way of their love. When cancer struck my son, I was stopped in my tracks. Everything changed in a moment, and the things I thought were important suddenly weren’t. I was driven to prayer. I began to realize how shallow my life was, how little time I had actually spent focusing on the important things, and how little time each of us really has.
By March, Matt was doing so well that we returned to Australia. But just a few weeks later, the cancer was back, and we left Sydney once more, this time with the unspoken certainty that we were saying goodbye to our son. Same long flight, same tears.
It is unnatural to see your child die. There is something inside you that simply says, “This should not be.” But being in that room when he left us, and hearing him speak of things he was seeing and feeling – things of heaven and eternity – changed us forever. Matt saw things that we could not see or fully comprehend, but for a few hours we glimpsed through him the other side of that door we will all go through one day.
Only a few years after Matt died, Linda was diagnosed with a rare and crippling autoimmune disease. It is characterized by fatigue, nerve pain, and an array of other debilitating symptoms. The treatment is long-term steroids and immunosuppressants, but naturally, they present their own challenges. Due to long-term steroid use, Linda has had six major back surgeries since 2015. Sometimes, despite the doctors’ best efforts, the pain simply cannot be controlled, and she can’t leave her bed. When Linda is fighting an especially tough bout, and neither of us can really do anything about it, the frustration and discouragement threaten to overwhelm. There may be nothing tangible to be done, but we find ourselves turning more to other people for support, and to prayer.
As a pastor in the Bruderhof, I have been able to stand by other people who are in pain, whether emotionally or physically. Both Linda and I have the chance to do what others have done for us, and we now know firsthand that often the best thing you can do is to simply be a presence with those who are suffering. The worst thing is to come up with some practical answer or a suggestion that worked for someone else.
I often think of the story of Job. Everything is taken away from him: material possessions, family, and health. Then his friends come along. They weep with him; they sit down in the dirt with him in silence for a whole week. But then they start talking and mess everything up! The apostle Paul has some simple and good advice for us: he says we ought to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”
Linda reminds me that sympathy cards and well-meant Bible quotes don’t always strike at the right time. But if a true friend walks alongside, listens, and occasionally shares words that uplifted him or her in a time of deep crisis, that can provide a bar to hold to when you feel as if you’re drowning. Linda says:
After Matt’s cancer diagnosis, a friend shared a passage from Come Away My Beloved by Frances J. Roberts with me – I still keep it inside my Bible. As I reflect on the loss of my son, something a mother will never “get over,” and the continual, grinding physical pain which can discourage me and beat me down, these words from that passage go through my mind almost daily: “Bring your sorrow, and watch for the sunrise of resurrection. … Hope is reborn, and life finds new beginning. Wait for it as tulip bulbs anticipate the spring. … God is mighty to save from despair, from sorrow, from disappointment, from regret, from remorse, from self-castigation, and from the hot, blinding tears of rebellion against fateful circumstances. He can save you from yourself, and He loves you when you find it hard to love yourself. Let His peace flow in you like a river, carrying away all the poison of painful memories, and bringing to you a fresh clear stream of pure life and restoring thoughts.”
Yet Linda and I both know that sometimes there are no words, only tears. I look back on what I wrote for a book a friend compiled on Matt’s life and death, and I realize that in the intervening years, we have still found ourselves here:
I was keeping my concerns about Matt’s situation bottled up because I was concerned that Linda was not handling things. The fact that I didn’t really allow her to fully share her fears with me created a lot of tension. She needed me to identify with her and feel safe in confiding to me.
Then came that breakthrough, when I finally stopped keeping a wall up between us; when I allowed myself to become vulnerable. I realized that drawing into a shell in the face of Matt’s illness could rip our marriage apart. We both knew of marriages where the pain and struggle that should draw husband and wife closer together actually did the opposite. Couples were driven apart by holding their feelings inside, distancing themselves from one another, and speculating about what the other thinks and feels.
Suddenly, we were able to see our grief and stress mirrored in each other, and we could share it openly with one another. We held each other and wept, for as long as we needed to. And then we could say, “Well, that is enough for now, let’s go on.” One day we could look at a picture of Matt and smile. The next day we’d see the same picture and totally fall apart. We didn’t feel that we needed to deny or suppress what we felt, or that such emotions were wrong.
It was a tremendous relief to realize that we are not strong people; we are plain, ordinary people. And if we need to cry, then cry. If we need to grieve, then grieve. Do it hard and deeply, and then move on.
As I reflect on my own experience of pain and consider the suffering of others, I have found an echo of my grief and questions in the writings of C. S. Lewis, who in his lonely sorrows put words to an experience shared by people across space and time – all of us, as he put it, “ordinary privates in the huge army of the bereaved, slogging along and making the best of a bad job.”
At ten years old, Lewis lost his mother to cancer. He had prayed to God for healing, and she died anyway. He became a convinced atheist. Then he experienced the trenches of World War I, including the death of his best friend, and narrowly escaped death himself when an exploding bomb killed another soldier next to him. He endured increasing chronic pain as he got older. And he was devastated by the death of his wife, Joy, from cancer. By then a converted Christian, he grappled with God over her loss in the pages of his journal, pages that were eventually published as the 1961 book A Grief Observed.
Lewis’s unanswered questions weighed him down: “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.” Many who have knelt in the depths of grief and agony will recognize this godforsakenness, this answerless void. Lewis articulates the same questions and fears that were roiling around in my own mind:
Aren’t all these notes the senseless writings of a man who won’t accept the fact that there is nothing we can do except to suffer it? … It doesn’t really matter whether you grip the arms of the dentist’s chair or let your hands lie in your lap. The drill drills on. … Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about him. The conclusion I dread is not “So, there is no God after all,” but “So this is what God is really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”
The greatest terror, then, wouldn’t be to find that there is no God, but rather to find that he’s there – and is, in Lewis’s words, “the Cosmic Sadist.” What good could so much senseless suffering possibly accomplish? And if such cries could be uttered by the man whose writings had so shaped my own spiritual growth and faith in God’s goodness, what was left for me to hold on to? As someone who has suffered and watched my loved ones suffer, as a pastor who has mourned with those who are mourning, the answers to these questions – or at least answers that move beyond religious platitudes to provide solace and closure to the fearful and grieving – seem alarmingly elusive.
The first glimmer of an answer comes to Lewis here:
But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless.
He is no longer hammering on a door that was slammed shut:
When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But rather a special sort of “No answer.” It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though he shook his head, not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, “Peace, child; you don’t understand.”
Ultimately, Lewis believed that heaven is the answer to the problem of pain. He held on to passages like 2 Corinthians 4: “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, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
These are words that each of us have to encounter in our own time. They can’t be lectured to us by a well-meaning counselor, or embossed onto a sympathy card that arrives while we’re struggling to take another breath, to make it through another hour. Yet they were written by someone who was himself wasting away, and communicated hope to others through his pain. I believe with Lewis and the apostle Paul that, as we fix our eyes on someone unseen, his gaze is fixed upon us, steady, unwavering, loving. We may only feel his hands when he reaches out, as he did to Matt, to bring us into his eternal light. Until then, we trust in his look to hold us.