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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Pain & Learning

Did you ever tear through a book so quickly that you surprised yourself? I sat down to start reading this week in the Old Testament book of Job. I had intended to read a chapter or two a day --- I was surprised to see myself finishing the book of Job the very next day!

I'd read someone quoted not long ago as saying that pain is necessary for learning to occur. Maybe that caused me to be more than a little intrigued in Job's story. What exactly did he learn from the loss of his wealth, his family and his health? Or did he really learn anything? Could it be true that pain is necessary for learning?

Of course this wasn't the first time I'd read the book of Job. His story has always been one of the more noteworthy stories in the Bible. I've especially been in awe at how it begins. "One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them." (Job 1:6)

Really now. Why were the angels presenting themselves before the Lord? Was that all of the angels, or just some of them? And how is it that Satan was able to join that meeting? Or was he not invited? Did he just notice the line of angels funneling into God's front door and decide to sneak in with them to see what was going on?

So after this mass assembly, God and Satan strike up a conversation. "Then the Lord said to Satan, 'Have you considered my servant Job?'" (Job 1:8) Now why would God do that? Was God bragging on Job to Satan? God proceeds to tell Satan that there is no one on earth as righteous and godly as Job. Why would God want to call that to Satan's attention?

I don't know about you, but after seeing how it played out and what God and Satan agreed to do with Job (i.e., let Satan try to break Job to prove God wrong about his righteousness and godliness), I came to a quick conclusion. If God and Satan are ever having another chat, I sure as heck hope my name doesn't come up in the conversation!

But I digress. As I was saying, I surprised myself by tearing through the book of Job this week. Maybe it was this new question in the back of my mind about pain and learning. There is this thing about mankind and suffering or pain. We seem to think that suffering has no positive value whatsoever, so we seek to avoid it at all costs. Seriously, most humans will do just about anything to avoid suffering. It's as if we don't believe suffering has any positive value whatsoever.

However, I notice that in God's perspective, suffering is seen as a privilege. The Apostle Paul spoke in the New Testament about the joy of suffering, rejoicing in his suffering, etc. Certainly we can see that Jesus' suffering was for the good of all mankind. So I don't have any problem seeing that suffering has some value. But of course I see more value in the suffering of others than I do in the suffering that I might myself be subject to.

The thing is, Job was already a righteous and godly man, without sin, fully obedient to God ... when his whole story in the Bible started to unfold. In fact, Job was so good and so perfect that God was bragging on him to Satan. But we see at the end of the story, Job is an even better man. He has acquired an even greater eternal perspective on both God and mankind. Job was humbled in his suffering. And his suffering had caused him to examine his faith in God more acutely than he ever had before.

Another thing I notice about Job's story is that he experienced suffering on two different levels. First, he had to grieve the loss of his fortune, family and loved ones. In other words, he lost the things and people that comprised his environment and circumstances. That created one level of loss and grief. But it left him focused on the goodness of God. In that level of pain and suffering, he didn't question God.

But when Job's suffering came from personal physical pain, everything was different. When he had boils and other physical ailments, his pain became very physical and much more personal. In that level of suffering, he lost sight of who God is. That physical pain seemed to have the ability to blot out Job's view of hope. He began to question or even accuse God.

In the last year, I myself have been stricken with a physical ailment that results in physical pain. Last August I landed in the hospital with a back problem. The neuro-surgeon that's treating me doesn't believe it is serious enough (yet) to warrant the high-risk, complicated surgery that would be required to try and correct the problem. He explains that the surgery is so difficult that it would be unlikely to produce a much better result. So I suffer.

Mind you, my physical suffering isn't anything like what Job had to endure. It's nowhere like that. But it wakes me in the night --- the pain keeping me awake. It's with me during the day, in the good times and bad. I find the pain changes or at least clouds my perspective at times. When I'm hurting, it's hard to be joyful. Truly, a dose of narcotics (pain killers) and muscle relaxers seems to make my worship a bit more sincere. For pain has even influenced my personal worship of God.

The fact of the matter is that I deserve to suffer. I don't feel God has been unjust in leaving me with this pain. And intellectually I trust that God has a plan for even my pain and suffering. The thing about Job's suffering is that nobody ever explained it to him. He went to his grave never knowing the reason for his suffering. Indeed, the full purpose(s) of Job's suffering may not even be revealed now, thousands of years later! Perhaps the reasons for Job's suffering are still unfolding before us now.

So I'm not sure about this suffering thing. As I grow older, I find physical pain a little more present in my days and a little more influential in my perspective. I've told my wife that I want to suffer better. I don't want to be one of those people who is so focused on their pain and suffering that they appear to "enjoy poor health." Truly I want to be someone to walks in spite of his pain, who prevails in the face of his pain, and who looks past his pain to the higher truths of life in Christ.

But I'm not deceived about the size of this challenge. Physical suffering is some of the most effective suffering known to man. My prayer is that mine be kept in its proper perspective. May I always take dominion over my physical pain and not be blinded by it to the hope that I have in Christ Jesus. May my suffering not obscure my view of all the rich blessings God has poured out on me. Through my suffering, may God be glorified. And through my suffering, may God be pleased.

Yes, that is my prayer. May my suffering be for nought. May my suffering bring Him glory. May my personal pain be for my education and growth. And let my pain and suffering keep me so focused on God that I happily tear through every other book of the Bible like a dehydrated and thirsty animal who stumbled on a spring of cool, refreshing water from heaven.

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