Finding Meaning in Pain
SEPTEMBER 27, 2017
When our rope breaks and the tragedy follows, we feel that something is out of control. But that may not be the case. Broken ropes are not necessarily the major concern of God. He may have other priorities.
A woman who had been through a time of great loss in her family once told me, “Pastor, I could stand all of this if I just knew there was a reason for it.” The rope’s breaking is not the central problem we face. Our real problem is the seeming meaninglessness of broken ropes. When the rope breaks and there seems to be no reason, no meaning behind it, the hurt we experience is compounded.
You do have a choice in how you view the world after your rope has broken, you know. You have at least three ways to look at the world where your rope has broken.
This Isn’t Really Happening
You can choose to believe that the world is a wonderful playground created by a benevolent Creator for your enjoyment and pleasure. With this belief, you will see your broken rope as a temporary aberration in the norm, or you will pretend that the broken rope really isn’t broken.
In the book of Job, one of Job’s false friends, Eliphaz, told Job his present experiences were only temporary; they would soon pass over. “He [God] shall deliver you in six troubles, / Yes, in seven no evil shall touch you” (Job 5:19).
Now, there is nothing wrong with Eliphaz’s advice to Job. In fact, in many situations it would be the proper thing to say. The problem with applying it to Job is that it simply wasn’t true. Having read the first two chapters of Job, we know the truth.
Job’s reply to Eliphaz cuts through what, in this case, was simply the wrong thing to say to a hurting man:
“Teach me, and I will hold my tongue;
Cause me to understand wherein I have erred.
How forceful are right words!
But what does your arguing prove?
Do you intend to reprove my words,
And the speeches of a desperate one, which are as wind?
Yes, you overwhelm the fatherless,
And you undermine your friend.
Now therefore, be pleased to look at me;
For I would never lie to your face.”
Positive thinking can be an effective way to make your life better, but positive thinking simply doesn’t work when the rope has broken. You can pretend that the rope is still holding you, but you can’t will it back together. Pretending that you live in a world where failures and tragedies don’t happen—or if they do they are only temporary—is going to require a lot of pretending.
An old Chinese story tells of a thief who stole a bell. As he was rushing away from the place where he has stolen the bell, he found that he couldn’t keep the bell from ringing. In his panic and his fear of being discovered, he came upon a way to feel safe. He covered his ears so he couldn’t hear the bell.
The real world is no place to cover your ears or eyes. Playing pretend may be okay for children but not for the man or woman of God. Yet that is exactly what a lot of Christians do. Anyone who has ever faced a tragedy straight-on has heard and winced at some of the clichés people use when trying to give comfort. People will say, “I know it’s bad now, but you’ll be better for it.” “Sometimes God loves us so much that He allows us to suffer.” “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” “Great good will come out of this.”
Now much of that may be true, but it is desperately important that a Christian not hide behind clichés and pious platitudes.
Death is, perhaps, the thing we fear most. Too many Christians glibly talk about how they have no fear of death, and more often than not, I don’t believe them. In fact, most people who say they have no fear of death are simply denying a reality they’ll eventually have to face. The statistic is always one out of one.
Fear of death is normal, and the best way to deal with the fear is to face it head-on. The English proverb about dealing with fear is right: Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered. No one was there.
Face the fear of death as a normal part of living. We can deal with it by first facing the reality that it will happen and then claiming the promises of God related to it. The problem happens when Christians claim the promises without facing the reality. They are, then, not dealing with the problem of the fear but rather denying that the problem exists.
Examples can be multiplied over and over again of Christians denying the reality not only of death, specifically, but also of broken ropes, generally. Parents, even when confronted with incontrovertible evidence, will deny that their son or daughter is on drugs or into any other trouble. For most Christians, self-analysis rarely yields much real knowledge of their sin. We pretend that by quoting Romans 8:28 we won’t experience any real hurt or pain. We deny our doubts thereby making our faith a fantasy. We deny the pain of growth thereby becoming stunted. We deny the harshness of God thereby becoming worshipers of idols.
For a while our proclaiming that God has created the world for our enjoyment and pleasure may work. But that choice is essentially a game of self-delusion.
All Is Vanity
You can adopt a second view of the world where your rope has broken. You can choose to believe that the world is essentially meaningless. In other words, you can say with Macbeth, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, / And then is heard no more; it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”
If you’re looking for a world without meaning, you can find plenty of evidence. The Preacher, the author of Ecclesiastes, wrote:
What profit has a man from all his labor
In which he toils under the sun?
One generation passes away, and another generation comes;
But the earth abides forever….
I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and
indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind.
The Preacher was simply saying, “Men must work and women must weep, and the sooner it’s over, the sooner to sleep.” Or, as I read on a bumper sticker the other day: “Life is hard, and then you die.”
Meaninglessness is a choice we make. When Camus said that the only question with which modern man must deal is the question of suicide, he understood perfectly the dilemma we face. What is our purpose for living? Do we have any? Only the very silly believe that the world is a playground filled with good things for God’s children. There is simply too much hurt and loneliness and death and evil. If we are not so silly as to accept that kind of option, without God, our only other option is meaninglessness.
If you’ve chosen that option and the rope breaks, you can create meaning in the broken rope as long as you realize that the meaning you’ve created is not ultimate. Whether you want to devote your life to stepping on Dixie Cups or to helping the poor, it doesn’t matter—you can invest meaning into your tasks. But don’t ever fool yourself into believing that the broken rope has meaning beyond what you’ve assigned. Ultimately, all is vanity.
If there is no God, there is no meaning; and if there is no meaning, there is no value to your life with or without broken ropes. And if there is no value, you might as well be a turnip. As long as you remember that, you can keep on until you die, and, who knows? You might have a little fun on the way.
God Is Everything
The final option if you’re asking questions about the meaning of broken ropes poses a Creator who, for His own reasons, created the world. That is the biblical option, and while it isn’t altogether great news, it, at least, brings genuine meaning into the equation.
One of the reasons I believe in the Christian faith is because no one would make up the stuff we believe. I have, in my day, been a reasonable good liar, and I know (as does every proficient liar) that a lie, in order to be believed, must not stray too far from the reality of the one who is presented with the lie.
When one considers the Christian faith, one must face the fact that it is either true or one whopper of a lie. God entering time and space? In a manger, no less? Walking on water, bringing sight to the blind, raising the dead? Dying for sin on a cross? Teaching about love in the midst of a world of hatred? A dead man getting out of a grave and talking about death? Ascending into heaven in a cloud? Coming again?
You’ve got to be kidding!
And yet that is exactly what Christians believe! Because it is so unbelievable, so wild, so gigantic there is no way we would believe it unless it’s true.
If you understand the rules of a game, you may not like the rules but you’ll play a lot better. Most people, however, seem to be playing a football game with baseball rules; that is, they are living in a world with a whole set of presuppositions (I’m supposed to be happy; the world centers around me; I’m more important then anything else) which simply aren’t true.
The Bible teaches that the world was not created for us; it was created by and for God: “‘To whom then will you liken Me, / Or to whom shall I be equal?’ says the Holy One” (Isa. 40:25). The world was created by God so that His attributes might be seen: “Since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead” (Rom. 1:20). The reason for creation is that God might be glorified: “The heavens declare the glory of God; / And the firmament shows His handiwork (Ps. 19:1). When we look at the creation of God, our response should be the response of the living creatures in Revelation: “You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created” (Rev. 4:11).
The Bible teaches that God created the world that He might be glorified. Once you understand that, you have the key to living and to dying. In the early days of this country, Puritan pastors took an extensive examination before they were ordained, covering their understanding of doctrine. One of the questions examiners often asked was, Would you be willing to be damned for the glory of God?
I used to think that question was irrelevant, but the older I get the more I realize that it is the central question. Would I be willing to be damned for the glory of God? I don’t know. I do know, however, that the closer I can come to saying yes to that question, the closer I come to understanding what my life and the world is all about.
I think it was Toscanini who, after conducting a Beethoven symphony, said to musicians in his orchestra, “I am nothing. You are nothing. Beethoven is everything!” Just so, when you come to the place in your life where you can say, “I am nothing. God is everything,” then, and only then, are you equipped to deal with the meaning behind breaking ropes.
Our God Reigns
We live in a fallen world, and everything about it was created that God might be glorified. If you understand that one fact, broken ropes will still hurt, but you will find the meaning in them. And if you can find the meaning, you will be able to deal with the hurt.
Life is about the King. It is not about His servants, or His lands, or His subjects. It is only about the King. In the midst of broken ropes, our God reigns.
If you understand that—I mean, really understand that—and you belong to Him, you can face almost anything.
Adapted from Steve’s book, When Your Rope Breaks.