When interpreting pain, context is everything. If the greatest good, our most basic longing and God’s deepest desire is a dynamic, interpersonal, and intimate relationship, is it possible that sometimes, the way to bring this about is pain? Is it possible sin, our broken relationship with God, is like an illness that requires surgery, a painful cut necessary to being about wholeness
One of my all time favorite books is Hind’s Feet on High Places. Written over one hundred years ago, it is an allegory of the Christian life. In the story, Much Afraid anxiously waits for the day the Great Shepherd will take her to the High Places, heal her and make her lovely. When the day comes, she is deeply troubled to learn the Great Shepherd will not walk with her the whole way. He will always be near, and will come in a moment if she calls to him, but he will not walk with her on the paths to the High Places. She doesn’t, however, walk alone, and her companions trouble her.
(Forgive me the length of these passages, but they are just too good to edit down any further.)
“Here are the two guides which I promised,” said the Shepherd quietly. “From now on until you are over the steep and difficult places, they will be your companions and helpers.”
Much-Afraid looked at them fearfully. Certainly they were tall and appeared very strong, but why were they veiled? Why did they hide their faces? The longer and closer she looked ta them, the more she began to dread them. They were so silent, so strong, so mysterious. Why did they not speak? Why give her no friendly word or greeting?
“Who are they?” she whispered to the Shepherd. “Will you tell me their names, and why don’t they speak to me? Are they dumb?”
“No, they are not dumb,” said the Shepherd very quietly, “but they speak a new language, Much-Afraid, a dialect of the mountains which you have not yet learned. But as you travel with them, little by little, you will learn to understand their words.
“They are good teachers; indeed, I have few better. As for their names, I will tell you them in your own language, and later you will learn what they are called in their own tongue. This,” said he, motioning toward the first of the silent figures, “is named Sorrow and the other is her twin sister, Suffering.”
I am not willing to accept that God does not introduce any pain into our lives. This is not a popular opinion, and it is certainly not a pastoral approach to pain. Interpreting specific pain in our lives is a deeply personal activity and should be handled with a close friend or spiritual director. I don’t know the context for the pain you have in your life, but I know one thing. Regardless of your pain’s source, God, is strong enough to redeem it. He is good enough to transform my pain and yours into something beautiful.
When Much-Afraid reaches the High Places, she is healed and given a new name, Grace and Glory. And the Shepherd offers her companions now that she is on the High Places.
At that Grace and Glory regarded him earnestly, and there were almost tears in her eyes, for she remembered Suffering and Sorrow, the faithful companions whom he had given her before. It had been through their help and gentleness and patience she had been able to ascend the mountains to the High Places…”
Now she was here and they were not. She opened her mouth to make her first request, to beg her Lord to let her keep the companions he had chosen in the beginning… Before she could speak, however, he said with the same specially lovely smile, “Here are the handmaidens, Grace and Glory, whom I have chosen to be with you henceforth and forever.”
Two radiant, shining figures stepped forward, the morning sunshine glittering on their snowy garments, making them dazzling to look at. They were taller and stronger than Grace and Glory, but it was the beauty and joy in their faces and the love shining in their eyes that caught at her heart…
“Who are you?” asked Grace and Glory softly. “Will you tell me your names?
Instead of answering they looked at one another and smiled, then held out their hands as though to take hers in their own. At the familiar gesture, Grace and Glory knew them and cried out with a joy which was almost more than she could bear.
“Why! You are Sorrow and Suffering. Oh welcome, welcome! I was longing to find you again.”
They shook their heads. “Oh no!” they laughed. “We are no more Suffering and Sorrow than you are Much-Afraid. Don’t you know that everything that comes to the High Places is transformed? Since you brought us hear with you, we are turned into Joy and Peace.”
“Brought you here!” gasped Grace and Glory. “What an extraordinary way to express it! Why from the first to last you dragged me here.”
Again they shook their heads and smiled as they answered, “No, we could never have come here alone, Grace and Glory. Suffering and Sorrow may not enter the Kingdom of Love, but each time you accepted us and put your hands in ours we began to change. Had you turned back or rejected us, we never could have come here.”