In a few weeks I will be leading a workshop at a Counselling Conference. The topic of my workshop? The Wounded Healer: The Blessings of Brokenness. Perhaps it is a counselling seminar so dealing with pain is a given. There are still some in the Christian community, however, that believe that followers of Christ have some magical armour that protects them from the pains of life. Most understand that complete deliverance from pain and brokenness must await the new heaven and the new earth (Revelation 21:4). Some of us have also discovered that we learn our deepest lessons in pain. Our Buddhist friends would agree.
A few weeks ago I met a friend from school that I had not met for more than 30 years. He is a man of deep integrity. He dropped out of university a few months before he was to graduate. He said he didn’t see the point of chasing the middle-class dream when he didn’t know the meaning of life. I had shared the gospel with him a number of times but he embraced Buddhism instead. (Looking back I realise that I wasn’t a very good witness but the decision to be a Buddhist was his call.) He is now a senior Buddhist monk running a retreat centre near Taiping, Malaysia. We talked about some friends who had become more spiritual later in life. My monk friend said that it is usually an experience of pain that sets one on a spiritual quest. I agreed.
The awareness of suffering as the starting point of enlightenment is a key Buddhist belief. You don’t have to have undergone suffering to appreciate Siddhartha’s (Buddha) awakening. But it helps.
Looking at his life through the prism of the suffering of sickness, old age, and death, Siddhartha decides that there must be more to human existence than profit, power, pleasure, and prestige. (Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One, New York, NY:HarperOne, 2010, 170).
Followers of a Jesus who calls us to carry our cross would not dispute that there is tremendous pedagogical power in suffering. God had to dislocate Jacob’s hip before he could be transformed into Israel (Genesis 32:22-32) and become the father of God’s people. Paul had to have a thorn in the flesh, something that God refused to take away even after repeated requests, so that Paul could be humbled and remain dependent on Him (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). Even Jesus learned from the sufferings He experienced (Hebrews 5:8).
Of course, unless you are a masochist, you try to avoid suffering. But suffering is a given in our fallen world. We should live wisely and avoid it when we can, but the recent death of a dear friend, someone who had given her life to serve others, is one more reminder that we cannot really escape suffering. Suffering cannot be avoided. But if suffering is such a powerful teacher, perhaps we can learn to be good stewards of our pain.
In an article called “Adolescence and the Stewardship of Pain,” Frederick Buechner writes:
We are never more alive to life than when it hurts — never more aware both of our powerlessness to save ourselves and of at least the possibility of a power beyond ourselves to save us and heal us if we can only open ourselves to it . . .We are never more in touch with life than when life is painful, never more in touch with hope than we are then . . . (Frederick Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry, New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1992, 98 – 99)
I know what Buechner is talking about. There was a black period in my life, lasting about 10 years. It was a time when I realized I had little control over my life. I could only wait for God’s healing and deliverance. It came, but I couldn’t make it happen. The storms of life overwhelmed me. I was sinking till Jesus calmed the storms. Yet so much of what is good in me today can be traced back to that dark period. I wouldn’t wish that pain on anyone, but I can with good conscience encourage folks to be good stewards of their pain, to learn from it when they are ready.
In my line of work I come across all sorts of folks. I am privileged to hear their stories. Some of the stories are so sad. I am blown away. I don’t know how people can survive such sorrow. But they do. Some wounds may only be healed in the new heaven and the new earth. This side of heaven, by the mystery of grace, we discover, as Ernest Hemingway discovered:
The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places (A Farewell to Arms, 1929).
Suffering is a universal experience. Different people derive different lessons from pain. Some, like my friend, respond by learning from the Buddha. I follow a Christ who has also suffered, so He knows my pain, and by His death and resurrection, conquered the evil that is the source of all suffering. This same Jesus continues to mould me to become the person I am supposed to be. He loves me so much that He sometimes has to break a leg to do it. Or dislocate a hip.