It’s like taking a splinter out.
My kids regularly get splinters. Playing outside, on swingsets, going up and down wooden stairs and railings or barefoot on someone’s patio, picking up sticks and logs – being outside, there’s always that risk of splinters. As a mom, splinter removal is part of my job description. It’s one of the least fun things about being a parent.
Sometimes they know right away when they’ve gotten one. It hurts and they come running. Sometimes though they’ve got them and don’t even realize they’re there. Once Grace had eight – yes, eight – tiny splinters in her hand and had no idea. We had to pin her down, all twenty three pounds of her, and get them out.
That part hurts, there is no way around it. If you’ve ever had a sharp metal instrument piercing into your hand, you know the feeling. I took a splinter out of my own hand this summer and on top of the pain, the blind, screaming pain, there was the fear of the pain, compounding it, making me stiffen up and wince.
Grace took the pain. She grit her teeth and bore it, silent as stone. Sam’s the wailer, his pain is loud and it will be heard. Peter, I’m not sure yet: he’s joyful and sturdy (part of being the youngest child, I suppose), but when he hurts it crumples him, and he just wants Mommy.
It hurts after, too. Even after the splinter is gone, there’s relief, but your skin still throbs. You still feel a little inside out, the sliver of flesh visible, raw and pink. A little Neosporin helps, a Hello Kitty band-aid. A kiss on your finger. All better.
It’s not all better, of course. Getting better takes time and patience and Vitamin C. But it helps when Mommy says it. Somehow, that makes it a little bit true.
Whoever you are, however you hurt, whatever the pain, no one is immune. And it sucks.
Maybe you’re in the thick of it now; maybe that’s you lying there on the table. Maybe you’ve lost someone close to you, a friend, a parent, a baby, even. Maybe you’re a victim of abuse, physical, sexual, verbal, spiritual — they all count. Maybe you’ve been betrayed, cheated on, maybe a breakup, maybe the person you love is not the person you thought they were after all. Maybe you’ve been dealt some seriously bad news.
Or maybe you’re somewhere in the aftermath. Feeling a little chewed up and spit out. This aftermath can be long. You want to “move on” but you can only do this in fits and starts. Some days pass by with the pain a fog over everything: shower, get dressed, coffee, work, meal times. You watch it in a vague stupor, wondering how these shoes got on, how this car somehow drove itself. Maybe some days you can’t even gather the strength to do all of this. Other days, you feel like a human being, you are back on your feet, you can do this. Maybe. Or maybe this wave of hope lasts for an afternoon or as long as your coffee buzz before you’re back in the fog.
In the aftermath, these waves last longer and longer until finally you reach a new normal.
And when you get there, you are living in a new reality. You are moving into an uncharted future – maybe one of hope, but different nonetheless. And you are grieving the reality you have left behind.
Did I put the splinter there? Of course not. I wish to God that none of my kids would ever get a splinter ever again. But I know they will. Because splinters are a part of life. If I wanted to splinter-free their existence, I could never let them outdoors or on a swingset or pick up a stick ever again. But there’s so much of life out there to be enjoyed. And as beautiful as it is, life is painful sometimes.
But when it is, I’m there. To hold their hand. To put the icepack on to numb the pain, to get the tweezers, to do the dirty work, to put the band-aid on, to dry the tears, to cuddle the sadness away.
God’s a little bit like that when we hurt.
But here is where the metaphor breaks down.
First off, kids will do stuff they’re not supposed to. I can say, “Please keep your shoes on. It is not safe to run around on this wooden porch barefoot.” Then they don’t. This is called disobedience, and if they get a splinter on their foot because they disobeyed, they need to learn the natural consequence of this sin.
Consequence of sin is not the kind of suffering we are talking about here. God may let us feel the consequences of our actions in his loving discipline of us. But this is another topic entirely.
What I’m talking about is the kind of suffering we endure when there is no explicable reason for it. Tragedy happens to us sometimes, and we don’t deserve it. And here’s how we know this kind of suffering exists: because Jesus endured it. He didn’t need to feel consequences of sin; he was sinless. He didn’t need to learn any lessons; he was all-knowing. So we can silence the lies we hear that when bad stuff happens to us, we must have had it coming somehow. That it came along to teach us a lesson.
Here’s the second caveat with this metaphor. Much as I love my kids, much as I want to be there for them, I will fail them. I will be part of disappointing them, I will be complicit in their hurt. And in my own shortcomings I may not always be able to, or want to, see their pain or hear it.
But we have a faithful, true and perfect parent who is always close, always listening, always seeing. And who is hurting with us.
It is my firm conviction that when it comes to suffering, all human systems will fail us, all human metaphors will break down. And maybe there isn’t an “answer” to suffering in the tidy way that there is an answer to a mathematical equation. But there is a response to it. And his name is Jesus.
What can Jesus possibly offer us in our suffering? Here are some of my thoughts.
- He is close to us and suffers WITH us.
When we hurt, what we need is a good friend to sit with us in our suffering. Jesus can empathize with us in our pain. He was betrayed by his closest friends. Some lied about having ever even known him. Someone in his inner circle basically sold him over to be slaughtered like a sheep. Jesus lost friends and family to sickness and murder. His own cousin was beheaded.
As he hung on the cross, Jesus was separated from his Father. The Father stood by and watched while his only child was murdered. The Holy Spirit has grieved and continues to grieve at the bottomless brokenness of this world. God, in his three-personed mystery, knows pain.
Jesus is a friend that walks beside you in your suffering. Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Our pain is real, and it’s real to Jesus.
- He will fight for us.
Yes he is the gentle Jesus, a shepherd, a fellow sufferer. But he is also a mighty Jesus. He is big enough to absorb your grief, your anger, your confusion, your despair. Don’t stuff it down, don’t deny it’s real and don’t try to carry the load on your own. Instead, take it with you to the foot of the cross where he will personally deal with it. He is not a Father you have to hide from, even and especially in your weakness. Cry out to him, he can take it. Pound your fists and tell him how much it hurts. His ears are always open, and he hears you.
Not only does he hear our pain, but he burns with anger on our behalf. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns… He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. Intense, isn’t it? No one likes to talk about God’s wrath because it makes us uncomfortable. Until we look around and see the gross injustices happening all around us. We should want a God who is angry at how we hurt each other. And when we embrace the righteous anger of God, we can release our own. He will deal with it in his own good time. It may not be the when or the way we think it should be, but it’ll be right. Vengeance truly is his.
- He gives us each other.
Mourn with those who mourn. Carry each other’s burdens. Remember those who are mistreated as if you yourself were suffering. If we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
Follow the example of Jesus as a faithful and sacrificial friend. God’s love shines through when we offer even just our presence to our friends. We don’t have to say all the right things or even anything at all. Sometimes love is just showing up and sitting down.
- He will heal our pain.
Therapy is useful. Pastoral counseling is useful. Reading books, journaling, talking to friends, all useful things. But there is a place in the heart that only God can heal. He makes all things new.
Moreover, he offers us himself. He is a perfect and loving Father and friend, so that we can release others from that expectation of being perfect for us. When others have let us down, God fills us up. And as we come to know him better we release our need for others to fill those needs for us.
- He is transforming all things.
You want to talk about plans, here’s the plan he has for us: trust him. Walk with him. Follow him with no condition. Get to know him as your good Father, your friend. Tell him about your hurts (read the Psalms – they are full of griefs gone up to heaven.) He is always close, always active, always desiring and pursing us. He is always good. And he will come for us.
He is telling us what he told his close friends millennia ago before his death: In this world, you will have trouble. Let’s be real about the pain. It’s deep. It hurts.
He has overcome the world.
It may not always seem that way when we look around us, and we do not have to look far to see how messed up things are. But he is renewing his beloved creation, one heart, one family, one community at a time. He will empower us to be part of that renewal, scars and all, and he will be with us every step of the way. And ultimately we do have a hope in seeing all things renewed, all tears wiped away, the death of death itself, the triumph of his love. But we have a ways to go.
And that’s his plan. What’s yours?
You don’t have to know now. You don’t have to do anything at all right now, if you are sitting in your pain. But as you sit, know that you are not alone.
There is one whose hands are both strong and tender enough to carry your pain, and he sits with you.