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Bear the Burdens of one another
The following quotations are from Philip Yancey’s book, “Where is God when It Hurts?” published in 1977.
Those who have known pain profoundly are the ones most wary of uttering the clichés about suffering. Experience with the mystery takes one beyond the realm of ideas and produces finally a muteness or at least a reticence to express in words the solace that can only be expressed by an attitude of union with the sufferer.
John Howard Griffin
During three years of public ministry God’s Son put his emotions on public display. Anyone could come to Jesus with problems of suffering. Anyone could follow him and, by observing his reactions to sick and needy people, go away with a clear answer to the question, “How does God feel about my pain?”
But of course Jesus did not stay on earth, and for neatly two thousand years the church has been without Christ’s visible presence. We cannot now fly to Jerusalem, rent a car, and schedule a personal appointment with him at the King David Hotel. What about those of us who live today? How can we sense God’s love?
Authors of the New Testament, still adjusting to the fact of Jesus’ departure, addressed this issue with a certain urgency. They give two main suggestions.
Romans 8 contains one: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” The Gospels reveal the God alongside, a God who took on flesh and heard humanity’s groans with human ears; the Epistles reveal the God within, an invisible Spirit who lives inside us and gives expression to our word less pain.
Because I write about pain and disappointment, I get letters from people who pour out their private groans. I know well the helpless feeling of not knowing what I ought to pray, as I imagine every Christian sometimes does. How to pray for a dead-end marriage that seems to represent only stuntedness, not growth? Or for a parent of a child diagnosed with terminal cancer? Or for a Christian in Nepal imprisoned for her faith? What can we ask for? How can we pray?
Romans 8 announces the good news that we need not figure out how to pray. We need only groan. As I read Paul’s words, an image comes to mind of a mother tuning in to her child’s wordless cry. I know mothers who, through years of experience, have learned to distinguish a cry for food from a cry for attention, an earache cry from a stomachache cry. To me the sounds are identical, but not to the mother, who instinctively discerns the meaning of the helpless child’s cry.
The Spirit of God has resources of sensitivity beyond those of even the wisest mother. Paul says that Spirit lives inside us, detecting needs we cannot articulate and expressing them in a language we cannot comprehend. When we don’t know what to pray, he fills in the blanks. Evidently, it is our very helplessness that God, too, delights in. Our weakness gives opportunity for his strength.
For this reason—--the new intimacy of a compassionate God living within—--Jesus informed his disciples it was actually good that he was going away. “Unless I go away,’ he said, “the Counselor will not come to you” (John 16:7). Now the Holy Spirit lives inside us as a personal seal Of God’s presence. Elsewhere, he’s called a “deposit,” a guarantee of better times to come.
But the Holy Spirit is just that—--a spirit: invisible, quick as the wind, inaccessible to human touch. And heaven lies off in the future somewhere. What about right now? What can reassure us physically and visibly of God’s love here on earth?
The New Testament’s second answer centers around “the body of Christ,” a mysterious phrase used more than thirty times. Paul, especially, settled on that phrase as a summary image of the church. When Jesus left, he turned over his mission to flawed and bumbling men and women. He assumed the role of head of the church, leaving the tasks of arms, legs, ears, eyes, and voice to the erratic disciples—--and to you and me. The French poet Paul Claudel expressed the change this way, “Since the incarnation, Jesus has only one desire: to recommence the human life he lived. That’s why he wants additional human natures, people who’ll let him start all over again.”
A careful reading of the four gospels shows that this new arrangement was what Jesus had in mind all along. He knew his time on earth was short, and he proclaimed a mission that went beyond even his death and resurrection. “I will build my church,” he declared, “and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18 KJV).
Jesus’ decision to operate as the invisible head of a large body with many members affects our view of suffering. It means that he often relies on us to help one another cope. The phrase “the body of Christ,” expresses well what we are called to do: to represent in flesh what Christ is like, especially to those in need.
The apostle Paul must have had something like that process in mind when he wrote these words: “(God) comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows” (2 Corinthians l:4—5). And all through his ministry Paul put that principle Into practice, taking up collections for famine victims, dispatching assistants to go to troubled areas, acknowledging believers’ gifts as gifts from God himself.
Nothing unites the individual parts of a body like the pain network. An infected toenail announces to me that the toe is important, it is mine, it needs attention. If you step on my toe, I may yell “That’s me!” I know it’s me, because your foot is at that moment resting on pain sensors, Pain defines me, gives me borders.
Wolves have been known to gnaw off one of their own hind legs once it has grown numb in the winter cold. The numbness interrupts the unity of the body; evidently they no longer perceive the leg as belonging to them.
Remember the baby who chewed off her own finger? Unable to feel pain, she had no acute sense that the finger was hers, and needed protection. Alcoholics and people with leprosy, diabetes, and other problems of insensitivity face a constant battle to keep in touch with their extremities.
In my work with Dr. Brand, especially, I have become aware of the body’s vital need to sense pain. In the human body, blood cells and lymph cells rush pell-mell to the sight of any invasion. The body shuts down all nonessential activities and attends to the injury. And physical pain lies at the heart of this unified response.
Pain is the very mechanism that forces me to stop what I’m doing and pay attention to the hurting member. It makes me stop playing basketball if I sprain an ankle, change my shoes if they’re too tight, go to the doctor if my stomach keeps hurting. In short, the healthiest body is the one that feels the pain of its weakest parts.
In the same way, we members of Christ’s body should learn to attend to the pains of the rest of the body. In so doing we become an incarnation of Christ’s risen body.
Dr. Paul Brand has developed this idea as a key part of his personal philosophy.
Individual cells had to give up their autonomy and learn to suffer with one another before effective multi cellular organisms could be produced and survive. The same designer went on to create the human race with a new and higher purpose in mind. Not only would the cells within an individual cooperate with one another, but the individuals within the race would now move on to a new level of community responsibility, to a new kind of relationship with one another and with God.
As in the body, so in this new kind of relationship the key to success lies in the sensation of pain. All of us rejoice at the harmonious working of the human body. Yet we can but sorrow at the relationships between men and women. In human society we are suffering because we do not suffer enough.
So much of the sorrow in the world is due to the selfishness of one living organism that simply doesn’t care when the next one suffers. In the body if one cell or group of cells grows and flourishes at the expense of the rest, we call it cancer and know that if it is allowed to spread the body is doomed. And yet, the only alternative to the cancer is absolute loyalty of every cell to the body, the head. God is calling us today to learn from the lower creation and move on to a higher level of evolution and to participate in this community which He is preparing for the salvation of the world.
Cries and Whispers
It would be much easier for us to avoid people in need. Yet ministering to the needy is not an option for the Christian, but a command. We—you, I—are part of God’s response to the massive suffering in this world. As Christ’s body on earth we are compelled to move, as he did, toward those who hurt. That has been God’s consistent movement in all history.
The Middle East, South Africa, Northern Ireland—--these are loud cries of pain from the body of Christ. The scandals of some Christian leaders. Third World poverty. Do we listen to them, hear them, respond? Or do we grow numb and ignore the pain signals, in effect sacrificing a limb of the body of Christ? Not all cries of pain are so far away: there are some in every church and office. The unemployed, divorced, widowed, bedridden, homeless, aged—--are we attending to them?
The Christian church, by all accounts, has done a mixed job of acting as Christ’s body through the ages. Sometimes it has seemed to devour itself (the Inquisition, religious wars). Yet in his commitment to human freedom Christ still relies upon us to communicate his love to the world. And despite its failures the church has indeed responded in part. In every major city in the U.S., you can find hospitals with names like Lutheran General, Christ Hospital, St. Mary’s, Good Samaritan, Baptist Hospital. These institutions, although often run as secular businesses, had their origins in a group of believers who believed healing was part of their calling as Christ’s body.
In a nation like India, less than three percent of the population call themselves Christian, but Christians are responsible for more than eighteen percent of the health care. If you say the word “Christian” to an Indian peas ant—who may never have heard of Jesus Christ—the first image to pop into his mind may well be that of a hospital, or of a medical van that stops by his village once a month to provide free, personal care in Christ’s name. It’s certainly not the whole of the gospel, but it’s not a bad place to start.
In Western countries, much health care has been taken over by other sectors, but a new problem has arisen in major cities, that of homelessness. Will our society respond to the cries of pain from millions of homeless who spend the night in city parks, under expressway bridges, on heating grates? Once again, churches have been among the first to respond, organizing shelters and soup kitchens.
I received a copy of a letter from a woman in Grand Rapids who experienced the healing touch of the body of Christ on a smaller scale, one-on-one. For seven years she ministered to her husband, a well-known church musician afflicted with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He died, and on the first anniversary of his death, the widow sent out a letter of gratitude to her many friends at church. It read, in part:
Ever since the first symptoms of ALS appeared over eight years ago, you have surrounded us with love and support. You have cheered us with innumerable notes and letters and cards, some hilarious, some profound, some just warm and caring, but all greatly valued.
You visited and you phoned, often from faraway places. . . Many of you prepared and brought marvelous food which nourished our spirits as well as our bodies. You shopped and ran errands for us and repaired our broken and out-of-order things while yours waited. You swept and shoveled our walks, brought our mail, dumped our trash. It was possible for us to be a part of our church services because you recorded them. And you brought gifts of love, too many to count, to brighten our hours.
You “doctored” . . and even repaired a tooth right here in our home. You did ingenious things that made life easier for both of us, like the “coughing jacket” and signal switch that Norm was able to use until the last few days of his life. You shared Scripture verses with us and some of you made it your ministry to pray for those who came to our home regularly to give respiratory treatments. You made him feel like he was still a vital part of the music industry and of the church music ministry.
And how you prayed!!! Day after day, month after month, even year after year! Those prayers buoyed us up, lifted us through particularly hard places, gave us strength that would have been humanly impossible to have, and helped us to reach out on our own for God’s resources. Someday we’ll understand why Norm’s per fect healing did not take place here. But we do know that he was with us much longer and in much better condition than is the norm for an ALS victim. Love is not a strong enough word to tell you how we feel about you!
I could go back through Part 4 (“How Can We Cope with Pain?”) and show how this widow’s fellow church members had, by instinct, done everything recommended in this book. They became the presence of God for her. Because of their loving concern, she was not tormented by doubts over whether God loved her. She could sense his love in the human touch of Christ’s body, her local church.
Listen to one who understands loyalty to the body:
“Who makes a mistake and I do not feel his sadness? Who falls without my longing to help him? Who is spiritually hurt without my fury rising against the one who hurt him?” (2 Corinthians 11:29 LB). Or again: “Think too of all who suffer as if you shared their pain” (Hebrews 13:3 PHILLIPS).
Or yet another voice, that of John Donne:
The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me:
all mankind is of one author, and is one volume.
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main, If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore can never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Bear one another’s burdens, the Bible says. It is a lesson about pain that we all can agree on. Some of us will not see pain as a gift; some will always accuse God of being unfair for allowing it. But, the fact is, pain and suffering are here among us, and we need to respond in some way. The response Jesus gave was to bear the burdens of those he touched. To live in the world as his body, his emotional incarnation, we must follow his example.
The image of the body accurately portrays how God is working in the world. Sometimes he does enter in, occasionally by performing miracles, and often by giving super natural strength to those in need. But mainly he relies on us, his agents, to do his work in the world. We are asked to live out the life of Christ in the world, not just to refer back to it or describe it. We announce his message, work for justice, pray for mercy. . . and suffer with the sufferers.
Alan Paton, South African author of Cry the Beloved Country, holds up St. Francis of Assisi as a Christlike model of human response. One of the transforming moments of Francis Bernardone’s life occurred when he was riding a horse as a young nobleman and came across a person with leprosy. Francis was bitter toward God at the time, and felt a certain revulsion at the diseased man. But something within him overcame both those reactions. He dismounted from his horse, walked over, and embraced the beggar, kissing him full on the lips.
St. Francis could have cursed either God or the man with leprosy, says Paton. He did neither. Rather than spending his energy in accusing God for allowing the wound to creation, he chose instead to make his life an instrument of God’s peace. That act transformed both the giver and receiver: “What had seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of body and soul,” said St. Francis.
St. Francis’s response was the very same response Alyosha gave to his brother Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov. He could not resolve Ivan’s or his own questions about the problem of pain. But he chose to put him self beside the sufferers, and embrace them. And,
pointedly, Dostoyevski portrayed Jesus giving that very same response to his enemy, the Grand Inquisitor.
If the church followed the pattern consistently, and responded to questions of suffering not with arguments but with love, perhaps those questions would not be asked with such troubled intensity. The united strength of Christ’s body can be a powerful force on behalf of the lonely, suffering, and deprived. It can be like the tree in the gospel that grows so large that birds begin to nest in its branches.
In my visits in hospitals, I have been impressed by the huge difference between the measure of comfort that can be offered by believers (“We’re praying for you”) and unbelievers (“Best of luck—--we’ll keep our fingers crossed”). Today, if I had to answer the question “Where is God when it hurts?” in a single sentence, I would make that sentence another question: “Where is the church when it hurts?” We form the front line of God’s response to the suffering world.
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:16—18). (Pg245-254)
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