The transformation of Sorrow and Suffering

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.”

The problem of context

Do you think it is possible there was pain in the Garden of Eden? If not pain, do you think there may have been some kind of struggle for Adam and Eve? Is it possible there will be some struggle in heaven?

Let me start by saying I struggle with the view of heaven as a place completely different and disconnected from this one. I believe this world and heaven are intimately connected. Heaven is breaking into this world, working toward its ultimate redemption and recreation. Eternal life doesn’t wait for death to begin. Because of the continuity between this world and the next, I wonder if our assumption about being instantly transformed into a perfect state after death is accurate.

I believe relationship is central in the Christian life, a growing, active relationship with a living and loving God. This relationship is dynamic and interactive. It deepens as we grow to love and trust him more. If this is true and there is continuity between this life and the next, it would make sense if my relationship with God continued to grow and deepen in heaven. This is why I wonder about Eden. It seems too sharp a contrast to go from perfect relationship in the garden to long growth on earth and back to a sudden perfect relationship in heaven. Perhaps, you may argue, the sharp turn is evidence of just how jarring and disruptive sin is. I could accept that. But it would also make sense to me if growth and the development of a relationship with God spans from the garden to heaven.

Of course if there is struggle or even pain in heaven (and the garden) there is at least one significant difference… context. In heaven, the influence of the enemy, this fallen world and our own sinful rebellion are absent, giving us a far clearer view of God, his character, our heart’s true desire and his ultimate purpose.


We don’t have a problem with pain; we have a problem with context.

One of the worst parts about pain is the wondering. Why, God? Why is this happening? Why do I have to go through this again? Why can’t I be free of this? What if that question was easily answered, not only answered but also given a satisfactory answer? What if the random pain from a fallen world and the pain inflicted upon us by sinful choices (our own and others) was gone, and the only challenges remaining, were those intended to cultivate a deeper intimacy with God?

I don’t know if there is pain in Heaven. I suspect there will not be. Scripture promises a day when God will “wipe every tear from (our) eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain.” But is it possible we will still have questions? Is it possible we will still experience things that force us to go to God and ask, “Why did you…?” I wouldn’t be surprised.

The Great Divorce

“Son,’he said,’ ye cannot in your present state understand eternity…That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say “Let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences”: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why…the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven, : and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.”

-C.S. Lewis The Great Divorce

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