Take The Pain.
In the film ‘Platoon’, Oliver Stone’s seminal work on the Vietnam War, based upon his own experiences of service in the US Army, there is a scene early on in the movie that I have found myself thinking about. It involves members of the platoon running into an ambush, deep in the jungle. One of the new recruits is shot and is screaming out in agony. Understandable, you might say. Then Sergeant Barnes, played by Tom Berenger, puts his hand over the injured soldier’s mouth and says, “Take the pain, take the pain.” The soldier eventually ‘takes the pain’ and quietens down. Barnes’ concern wasn’t only about giving away their position to the Vietnamese soldiers, but also because he knew something of pain and how to deal with it.
Those of you familiar with the film, and the character of Barnes, will acknowledge that this man was an unlikeable sort of chap, hardened by war and frightened of nothing. We find out that he has survived many tours of duty in Vietnam and has been injured badly on several occasions. And, as unlikeable and unsavoury as he might be, there is something about his policy regarding pain that we can draw on. The method itself, I can tell you, with regard to certain physical pain, works. I have tried it. Now, I should say here that I don’t live my life based upon throwaway one-liners from movies, no. I live my life in the shadow of Jesus of Nazareth. But when I have found myself in physical pain, I have applied this method of taking the pain, of absorbing it into me and found that you can manage it far easier than you can by screaming out at the top of your voice. Something happens. I can’t explain what exactly, but something changes in me. Almost like a peace. An acceptance.
And, it is this subject that has stirred the murky waters of my mind this week. Wherever we turn there is pain. Just walk down the main street of any provincial town and you will see pain manifested in people. Look at their faces. Even if you can’t see an obvious physical ailment, the pain that is etched onto their complexion is enough to know just how much it hurts. Many people suffer in silence. They have learnt the secret of absorbing the pain. Fear of doctors or hospitals will make some people hide the pain. Many end up self-medicating, as we did, because what the doctors prescribe simply doesn’t touch some pain. Thankfully, for us, the endless downward spiral of self-medication is over. God set us both free from drugs, alcohol, prescription drugs and nicotine. He lifted us out of the pit and gave us a firm place to stand.
I wouldn’t ordinarily tell you, but for the purposes of qualifying me to speak on this subject, my life has been strewn with one pain and another. Physical and otherwise. Most of it was of my own making. For a while, pain and suffering were as two unwanted friends. I simply couldn’t shake them off. But, in recent times, and only because I stopped and asked, God has been teaching me, like Sergeant Barnes, to take the pain.
Being called to do something like Cornerstone is a real privilege. Especially for someone like me who walked away from God for so long, to be called back by Him and to be restored to a right relationship with Him, you get to see how special the relationship is. Having spent, on and off, 23 years in some kind of exile from God which saw me gripped by addiction; broken-hearted and imprisoned, coming back and finding that the story of the Prodigal Son is exactly how God is, changes you. You learn not to take anything for granted. You become grateful for every little thing, good or bad, providing you experience His presence in your life. Of course, I wouldn’t recommend my course of action to anyone, but for those who have experienced it, for those chosen to experience it – it is a genuine blessing.
Psalm 51 reveals a great deal about the beleaguered king David. His clear conviction of guilt; his need for reconciliation to God; and his readiness to repent. But, to me, it reveals more about God’s nature: His readiness to forgive; to restore; and to be merciful. In my desperation, in my pain, a couple of years ago, I prayed this psalm to God and He answered it. He restored to me the joy of His salvation. It was something I hadn’t experienced since 1988, and (this time) it hasn’t left me. Naturally, with this restoration I expected my life to change dramatically. I expected life to become trouble-free. It didn’t. And it still isn’t. But what is changing is the way in which I face the difficulties and the pains of this life. But why did it take me so long to start dealing with trouble in this way?
Probably it was that I wasn’t ready any time earlier to hear the message. But the message of how to deal with pain and suffering is there right in front of all Christians in the accounts of Jesus and the letters of the apostles. We simply chose not to look at it. But why?
Over the years of attending Sunday services and hearing many different preachers, I have identified a common strand that could go some way to explaining why I used to fight against suffering and tribulation. It is possible that it might explain some things for you too.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not using this platform for the purposes of tearing people down. Instead I wish to build people up. My motive is not to grind an axe, but instead to encourage people that God is with us…all of the time. In my own life I have long been striving for the deepest relationship possible with God. I know now that it is only possible with surrender. What I say here isn’t to tear down men, but instead the arguments that they adopt that do not assist the believer in a closer walk with God. The apostle Paul says this:
“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ…” [2 Corinthians 10:3-5a NKJV]
In other words, I speak from personal experience against some of the ideas that we are taught, because those ideas are not always a true reflection of what God intended for us to understand about them.
Some of these ideas are cherry-picked. This means that a preacher will take a notion from scripture and pick the very best part of that scripture (sometimes out of context) in order to make their point. I want to use an example to highlight this. This scripture you will know. My guess is that you will have heard someone preach on it, or at least read some daily devotional about it.
The example is a verse that is often given to new Christians as an encouragement to know that God is in charge of their lives. It was (funnily enough) the first bit of scripture that anyone gave to me, back in March 1988.
“”For I know the plans I have for you”, declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”” [Jeremiah 29:11 NIV]
All good. And, if you have heard teaching on this verse, it is likely to have been a message about prosperity. Wealth, health and happiness. Popular with televangelists. And, out of context, you could teach it as a prosperity message. I mean, it is all there – God has a plan to prosper you. It is there in black and white. I certainly took it that way and spent a great deal of time, or rather, wasted a great deal of time expecting a financial blessing. After all, God said so. And it is a message we actually want to hear, who wouldn’t? But…with all things that God would have us learn, there is always a context. Preaching this message to every Christian from the pulpits or over the airwaves is a travesty because God isn’t going to make us all rich. He may bless some of us with money, if we prove to be good stewards and obedient in the giving of it away. But, for the main, for those who chose to follow Jesus, it will never be a life of wealth. In fact, He promises just the opposite.
Now, the context of Jeremiah 29:11.
In many Bibles the heading giving at the start of Jeremiah chapter 29 is ‘The Letter to the Exiles‘, or something very similar. The New King James Version says ‘Jeremiah’s Letter to the Captives‘. We know from the text that Jeremiah wrote the letter to the Jews who had been taken to Babylon, when Jerusalem fell to the might of Nebuchadnezzar. God had allowed the Jews to be taken into exile because they had failed to listen to prophets like Jeremiah, who had continually warned them to return to God. Instead, they listened to false prophets who told them just what they wanted to hear. As a result of their disobedience and failure to listen to anyone other than false prophets, God raised up Nebuchadnezzar to lay siege to Jerusalem. God had warned the Jews that they had no choice but to face the consequences of their actions. When Jerusalem fell, the Jews were taken into captivity and marched to Babylon where they were enslaved.
In his letter, Jeremiah told the captives that they would be exiled from their homeland for seventy years. He told them that God was saying that they should accept this hardship; that they should settle in the land and have families. God also said that they should seek the peace of the city and pray for it – for in its peace will be their peace. He said that after 70 years He would bring them back to Jerusalem. Jeremiah sent this letter to the elders of the Jews via an envoy. Seventy years later, one of those exiles, Daniel, would find this letter and realise that the time of their exile was up. He prayed to God (Daniel 9) and God answered by raising up Cyrus, king of Assyria, to overthrow the Babylonians and free the Jews. Not only did he free them, but he ordered them to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. You can read about how Isaiah prophesied about Cyrus around 100 years previously to this in Isaiah 45.
So, that’s the context.
Now, let’s take a closer look at Jeremiah 29:11.
Above I quoted the New International Version (NIV) translation of the verse. Now look at what the New King James version translates it as:
“For I know the thoughts that I think towards you, says the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.” [Jeremiah 29:11 NKJV]
When you read them in English they are really quite different, aren’t they? But this isn’t a case of a bad translation. The word which the NIV renders as ‘prosperity’ and the NKJV as ‘peace’ is in fact ‘salom’ (Strongs #7965). You will recognise it as ‘shalom’, the Hebrew word for peace. But peace doesn’t do it justice. Nor does prosperity.
According to a particularly fascinating website (The Refiner’s Fire), this little word is so much more than just a salutation or peace. It is in fact completeness, wholeness, contentment, well-being and harmony. It describes the fullness that we can only experience with a close walk with God. It does not, however, mean financial wealth.
The cynic in me cries out at this point and declares that those preachers who use this verse to teach that financial prosperity is a promise of God and part of His plan for our lives, only want your money. But, they might just be ill-taught themselves, for this has been going on a while. Not just with Jeremiah 29:11, but in general. We are taught to expect ‘abundant life’ if we follow Jesus. The trouble is, the abundant life that Jesus spoke of in John chapter 10 is the same fullness and completeness that Jeremiah spoke of, and not a life of plenty and comfort.
The reason why Jeremiah 29:11 is so important to so many people is that it gives hope. The fullness of God’s love for each of us is contained within that single verse. His thoughts are of ‘shalom’ towards us and not for evil. The trouble is, in order for the exiles to experience the fullness that God had planned for them, they had to go into Babylonian captivity. The same applies today.
In order for me to even grasp the fullness of God, I had to go into my own exile. Without the suffering that I have been through, I could never have been able to know that God was really there for me to call upon. If it wasn’t for all the pain and distress, coming back to God wouldn’t have been an option. I needed to experience all of those things in order to see that I needed God. Really needed God. To gain His peace, His prosperity, His shalom, we first need to know we need it.
Throughout the Old Testament we see that God uses suffering to show people their need for Him. Just look at the lives of Job, or David, or Moses. Suffering is the common theme. But today we are often taught that all suffering is from Satan. I think this is a misunderstanding of what the Bible teaches. Satan certainly causes misery and suffering, but if you read the book of Job carefully, it is clear that God permits it to happen in order to show Job his own shortcomings.
This is hard to write. I don’t profess to have the answers. But, based solely upon what is written, the evidence is that God allows suffering for His own purposes. That is not easy to write. Or even believable. But it is true nonetheless.
So, why do we preach and teach something to the contrary? I suspect that it is part of a growing trend in modern churches to attract more people to Christianity. Health, wealth and happiness is much easier to swallow than take up your cross and follow Jesus. Even in the example of Jeremiah, he is surrounded by false prophets telling the people what they want to hear. Why should we think that we are not surrounded by the same today? The New Testament is filled with warnings that many will come in Jesus’ name and that we shouldn’t be deceived by them. The trouble is, I am not sure that the people who are preaching falsehood even know it is a falsehood. The deception runs deep.
At the start of this post I wrote that I had been thinking about ‘taking the pain’. The reason I had been thinking about such a subject is that we often find ourselves surrounded by people suffering. Good people too. People we love. People who pray. People who expect to be healed. People who cling to Isaiah 53:5 like a life raft. I have prayed for people who are sick and they are not healed. I have prayed for others who were. There appears to be no logical explanation for it. We can ‘claim’ healing in Jesus’ name and nothing appears to happen. We can have faith for healing and no healing arrives.
We know someone who is ill. Really ill. They are looking for healing. A miracle, they say. They believe that God can, and expect that He will. If I am truthful, over the months, I have lurched from thinking that they wouldn’t be healed, to reprimanding myself for unbelief, and then to the place in which I now stand. The apparent dichotomy of what is taught in churches and the reality of healing is very difficult to resolve. There is so much of it that God has chosen to remain, for now, a mystery, that we try to fill in the missing pieces of the jigsaw.
“And by His stripes we are healed.” [Isaiah 53:5b NKJV]
What does this really mean? We hear people laying claim to it as our right to be healed. We even say that we are already healed, even though we don’t really conceive what that actually means. It is as if we are saying that if we talk of the future in the past tense, it makes it so. It is true that we can apply what Jesus said in Mark’s gospel:
“Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.” [Mark 11:24 NKJV]
The verse is clearly written in the present tense. And I believe that we should pray in this manner. I have and it works.
And in Paul’s letter to the Romans we have another similar verse:
“…God, who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did;” [Romans 4:17 (fragment) NKJV]
We use these as part of our process because we are told to do so. And that is right. But there has to be more. If this were just some method for getting what we want, some visualisation technique, then we wouldn’t need God. We would just learn how to do it and order up whatever we wanted.
No, these verses aren’t for that. We use them when we are praying for something that is in God’s will. For the things that He has ordained. His will, not ours.
But, what happens if what we are asking for isn’t God’s will?
Well, that’s when we can’t expect Him to grant our request.
Let’s take a look at what Paul had to say. Without doubt, the catalogue of his sufferings in his pursuit of Christ and the gospel of the kingdom, is truly astonishing. Stoned, beaten, shipwrecked. You name it, he suffered it. And yet, we have this example of how to approach life right there in the pages of his letters, all of which serve to encourage others to face suffering with joy. Joy.
We have discovered something. I may have mentioned it before. When you start to look at tests, trials, and tribulations as God’s method for showing you just how much you need Him, things change. When you yield to whatever comes your way and acknowledge that praying ‘your will be done’ is effectively a contract, a verbal agreement, with God for Him to do as He wishes with us, you see life differently.
And that is what we have been doing. We pray ‘your will be done’ and we accept whatever life throws at us knowing that God will never leave us nor forsake us; that He will never let us be tempted beyond what we can bear; and His grace is always sufficient. Always.
How do we know that? Well, Paul tells us this:
“To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the LORD to take it away from me. But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” [2 Corinthians 12:7-9 NIV]
We don’t know exactly what the nature of this thorn was for Paul. It could have been physical. Whatever it was, Paul wanted rid of it. He asked God three times and was told that he must endure. God said that Paul could get through it with His grace. That if he yielded to the situation, then God would help him through. Not only that…but the power of God is perfected in us when we are weak, so weak that we can only rely upon God.
To me, this proves that God will make use of any suffering and if we let Him, will use it to perfect us – to make us more Christ-like.
This is backed up by what Paul also wrote to the Romans:
“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, and are called according to His purpose.” [Romans 8:28 NKJV]
In other words, whatever comes our way, God will use it to our good, providing we are doing His will. Paul expands this theme throughout his letters. In the letter to the Philippians he is clear of our calling:
“For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” [Philippians 1:29 NKJV]
And again here:
“…that no one should be shaken by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we are appointed to this. For, in fact, we told you before when we were with you that we would suffer tribulation, just as it happened, and you know.” [1 Thessalonians 3:3-4 NKJV]
You see, the Bible is clear, if you want the fullness of God, you will have to suffer. Through tribulation, whether physical or otherwise, God perfects us. We attend churches that preach it differently, but we have a responsibility to read the Bible ourselves and ask the Holy Spirit to give us understanding of the scriptures.
It is all there in Jeremiah 29. We just need to read it and believe what it says. Instead, we only see what we want to see. We want to believe in Jesus, attend on a Sunday and that’s it. Only it’s not. There’s so much more.
“If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” [Matthew 16:24 NKJV]
We don’t preach this anymore. We preach all about grace, but not about the repentance that brings the grace. We teach about healing but not how to deal with suffering, the suffering that we must all face if we are to deny ourselves and take up our own cross.
If you have asked God for healing and He hasn’t given it, then He is telling you that His grace is sufficient. It is a hard message sometimes. That abundant life; that shalom is what we all need but sometimes, it is suffering that makes us realise it.
So, we have both had pain in our lives. That pain exposed us to the only solution – the redemption of the cross. But in response to that redemption, we do works befitting our repentance (Acts 26:20). Some of those works will ultimately involve trouble and strife. It is the way God shows us just how much we need Him. Otherwise, like Paul and his thorn, we get to think we are special and don’t need God.
And now, walking forward, we will pray ‘your will be done’ and then embrace whatever comes our way, safe in the knowledge that He knows what He is doing. For He knows the plan He has for us, and it is a plan for shalom. It will involve suffering. It will be hard. But we will get through it and glorify Him.
I urge you to go back to scripture and ask the Holy Spirit for a fresh revelation of what it says on suffering. Don’t take my word for it.