By Nathan Baker
At this point, many articles like this one have reminded us of C. S. Lewis’ masterful apology for pain and suffering: God communicates most clearly and globally in our pain. I believe God is communicating to us in our present crisis, not by inflicting disease and economic uncertainty on us, but revealing how unaware we already were of our infection and poverty.
As a missionary coming from comfort yet living in a society highly familiar with pain, let me share my observation while in America last year:
I needed a root canal. Normally, people are not relaxed during a root canal. It’s hard to be relaxed when the man with needles in one hand and a whirring drill in the other approaches you to discuss options for your torture. But I was extremely relaxed. I had happy gas. Technically, it’s called laughing gas (or N02 if you want to get even more technical). My experience would call it “nap gas.”
Whatever you call it, the gas did its job. As the dentist poked, prodded, scraped and chiseled away, I was only vaguely aware of my tooth’s infection. Now, a few days prior, I had been, let’s call it, hyper-aware: the throbbing in the tooth let me know something was awry—along with the more intense stabbing pain when anything got near it. Pain is purposeful. Our brains and nervous systems are hard-wired to increase the sensitivity of an area when something is not right. You’ve experienced—you injure something it’s suddenly sensitive to even potential touch.
Our man-made comforts (normally) buffer us from reality—especially the reality of sin and suffering.
There were Pros and Cons to both my pain and my more comfortable “nap gas” state:
|In pain||Highly aware of the problem||In pain|
|On nap gas||No pain||Highly unaware of the problem|
Why am I telling you all this?
I think we can see a correlation between cross-cultural work and our present crisis.
Here in Madagascar, one of the hardest lessons to learn is how to function as people anesthetized to pain in a society where everyone is in pain. We noticed that people in pain are also far more aware of the reality of suffering and its root—sin. When we told the story of God cursing the earth because of the first human rebellion against God, we were met with furious nods. “Yes! This makes sense,” they would say as they looked over scorched earth. The story of Scripture coheres to a suffering world. Comfort, inversely, makes us highly unaware of this story.
We told the same story at an American college (a self-proclaimed Christian college). We were met with frustration. “Why would God punish them just because they sinned?” The question sounds a lot like someone objecting to the dentist, “Why do I need an operation just because I have an abscessed tooth?”
Our man-made comforts (normally) buffer us from reality—especially the reality of sin and suffering. This is not to say people in pain are in a better position, necessarily. For one, they are in pain! Also, people in pain will normally do anything to relieve that pain—good or bad. This is why people in pain are prone to both more fervent response to the good news of Jesus and also the temptations of false hope (through self-reliance or false teaching). It is hard for people in pain to persevere long enough for the correct procedure and recovery. (I speak for myself and my root-canal!)
At the same time, there is nothing wrong per se with being comfortable. But comfort can be deadly if overindulged. I could have fairly easily inoculated myself to my tooth pain with a diet of pain killers or even distractions. It would only mask a growing infection, but I could have stayed out of pain. In the moment, a pain reliever is the easier solution. Only it’s not a solution. We are anesthetized to a perennial problem.
As of this crisis, some of us are coming out from under the malaise of the nap gas. We are awake, and it hurts! We remember the sickness and death the majority of the world faces every day. We remember we are not invincible, just highly unaware of the growing infection that always requires a painful, life-altering blood transfusion with the God of the universe, become man.
The story of the Bible is not away from pain to comfort but through pain to ultimate victory and rest.
The story of the Bible is not away from pain to comfort but through pain to ultimate victory and rest. Thankfully, God does still give us comfort in the interim to relieve the pain that would overwhelm us. However, for every one of us, God must perform an operation to remove a deadly infection—and it hurts. Our present pain reveals our need for Jesus. He alone humbled himself and suffered pain for us, and for the world. As you wake up and push through, draw close and remember his pain; shelter in his scars.
Meanwhile, God calls those of us in comfort to humbly go to those in pain. He does this (1) to teach us about pain and about the problem of sin and suffering, and (2) that he may use our resources to bring relief to those in pain.
Given the present global crisis, we should find comfort in our pain. We are more in-line with reality. We are newly aware of the weight of a world in pain. I hope we become collectively aware of the global Body of Christ that bears this burden together. We must still do a lot of heavy lifting to bring relief to the suffering and good news to the dying. Thank God, with Jesus at our sides, the yoke is easy, the burden light. As we lift up our cross and follow him into the uncertain future, we should also remember and rejoice that Jesus took the sting out of suffering and death—even that of the coronavirus—a long time ago.
 “But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” C. S. Lewis, “The Problem of Pain,” The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (HarperCollins: New York, 2007), 604.