Credible Faith

Ink on Paper: How God Loves You and Others through Your Pain and Sorrow

Paul explains how God uses our pain and sorrow to love us and others.

Text Publication: November 29, 2019

Text Changes/Revisions: December 1, 2019

Audio Publication: December 3, 2019

Video Publication: December 4, 2019

Author(s): Paul Larson

When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were sent off to accompany Shakespeare's Hamlet to England, they carried with them a missive, mere ink on paper whose significance was as nothing compared to the message it conveyed. The story would have ended on their arrival had it not been for Hamlet exchanging its message to execute himself with a letter to execute his companions. And so his death was reserved for the tragic climax of the story. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had no idea what they carried. They thought it meant nothing for them, but everything for Hamlet. That is until it was too late, and it dawned on them in horror that the reverse was true. What they carried was not mere ink on paper. It was their death.

As with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we set off towards the future with a letter whose contents we knew, and we discover to our dismay that it was somewhow switched for another. We knew its ink detailed lofty visions of hope, and yet the promise of success we espied from afar was smashed asunder in the shoals of time. It was not mere ink on paper. It was the death of our dreams. Such was the case with a newfound friend whose success in book publishing hid an unfulfilled aspiration. Multiple attempts to achieve his doctoral degree were cut short by severe health problems: organs failing, a virus that proved impossible to eradicate, hiding in various parts of the body for a time, popping up to wreak havoc on his organs, enormous medical bills and protracted hospital stays, all precluding the possibility of pursuing the dream to use his life in God's service through the academy.

Never having lived health problems so serious, I can not speak from experience of the pain involved in seeing one's dreams crushed and of the sorrow of one's academic ambitions for God's glory being stopped by a virus totally under his control. But I have seen the passing of years slowly and painfully kill dreams once bright with anticipation, and my own joint problems have repeatedly stricken my spirit with anguish. Why me? How could you do this? What are you doing? Those are questions of a soul in so much pain that its eyes are dimmed to God's goodness, acutely aware of the ache of the heart and at best faintly aware of the divine benevolence it once perceived more clearly. Then is it easy to question God, to wonder how the Father who loved sinners so much that he would submit his son to the torture of divine wrath could permit something that seems to make so little sense. It is in these times of questions and angry accusations of a heart dulled to the glory of its omniscient, all-wise creator that the horizons of the heart need to be expanded to encompass two further fathoms of his faithfulness: Your pain and sorrow is how God loves you and how he loves others.

In 2 Corinthians, we find the apostle Paul plagued by what he described as a thorn in the flesh. Three times he pleaded with the Lord to take it away, and the Lord refused with the words, 'my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness'. His grace was sufficient for Paul. Precisely in the difficulty that Paul's thorn engendered, Jesus had not abandoned him. If Jesus gives Paul grace, he is of course not absent. He is there with Paul. And then the promise. This is not just any amount of grace; it is grace sufficient for the burden bestowed. Whatever its extent, it need not break Paul, for the Lord's giving shall match the trial's taking. This is true not only of the trouble in the moment; it is true across time. It walks the path from Paul's present to Paul's passing into glory. It is a guarantee that the unknown, scary road ahead will never be so dark that the divine hand will not reach therein to sustain the believer until he has safely arrived in eternal dwellings. That is a comfort. The pain may be great but it will not be too much. It will not divert the Lord's child from the path of life whose pinnacle leaves such pain forever in the valley of memory below.

What the Lord gives Paul as a reason for the sufficiency of his grace is that the Lord's power is made perfect in weakness. The weaker Paul becomes, the more strongly does he know and experience Christ's power in him. The greater the sorrow, the greater the power of God in sustaining the sorrowful. This is how God loves you, though it may not be immediately obvious, especially to the unbeliever. The claim is easy to caricature. God loves me by making my life worse. But that is just the point of our disagreement with God. We do not use a bike to reach our destination when we have a car. We do not walk when have a bike. But we do insist that that the road to our happiness is walking. We must be forced to learn to ride a bike, and then we protest when we are asked to abandon it for a car. God tells us that he is more more valuable than walking, even more satisfying than a bike. The pleasures of God are unending and overflowing; our pleasures in comfort and created things are cursory and inconsiderable.

For the believer, pain and sorrow drive him to God, because the believer has nothing else. He thus feeds on a bread that is living, in drink that wells up to eternal life. He is made to munch on manna from heaven, and like the dawn's gradual revelation of a countryside whose beauty was always there, the believer slowly sees and increasingly loves its maker. He mourned what loss God permitted, and he found joy in God through the pain. He threw a tantrum in losing a toy plane, and found the unmatched exhilaration of piloting a real one. That is the way God loves us in our pain. He opens our eyes to his glory in grief.

This growth of joy in God diminishes the love of what is lost, just as we think a light bulb bright until we look at the sun. The irony here is a newfound joy not only in the now absent gift, but in other gifts. They become connected to the giver in whom joy is found, like ink on paper from one's lover. Tell a man that ink spilled on piles of paper, and he will throw them away. He thinks very little of mere ink on paper. But inform him that that the ink flowed from the pen of his beloved, and he will stash away her words in safe-keeping. He likewise cares little for a slab of stone, but he will make perennial pilgrimage to a stone etched with her name as the landmark of her passing.

Such is a woman's effect on a man, and how much more is it so with God. We amuse ourselves in the mundane. We see little more in life than pleasures and pursuits for which God seems irrelevant. And so he takes them away, not because he is mean or cruel. Quite the opposite. If the beauty of God will not overcome the heart's love of the world, then the loss of this world may turn the heart to the beauty of God. He hears the heart's cries that never make it past our lips. He sees the sorrows to which all others are blind. To him only can we turn, and we cast ourselves on him in the midst of mourning. There, in Him, was a joy never dreamt or tasted in the pursuits of pauperish passions and pleasures of earth, felicity fostered in the failure of the body, bliss surprisingly sustained in suffering. This joy is not of this world, and so this world lost can not lose it. It is joy in the creator of the world. We were as men who realized that a stack of ink-strewn papers worthy of the trash were the writings of our dearest bride. Every inch of the world transformed from the mere motion of mindless matter to the exquisite scribbles of a sweet spouse. We lost one part of the world we never fully knew that we might truly know the rest. We complained about losing our home, and then marveled at inheriting an entire country. We groused at the adversities of algebra, only to easily grasp the complications of calculus and the difficulties of differential equations.

But the unbeliever will think this unjust. He is content with algebra. He would rather rule a modest manor than inherit the earth. God tells him that he may have a joy far beyond the parochial pleasures of earth. But he wants no such delight, nor loves the one who would delight him, certainly not so much that he would trade away his comforts or health for it. And to him it feels unfair. Will he be forced to love God by some imposition of affliction, as if love could be faked? He misses the other side of God's perfection, that God's justice will not forever be put off. In his mercy God withholds the punishment due the sins of men, for he wants none to be lost. But the day will come. The date is set. If the unbeliever will not taste a morsel of the joy found in God, had in part now, and in fullness in eternity, God will let him taste a morsel of judgment, dispensed in doses now to warn of destruction, and fulfilled when the full number of those whom God has chosen are redeemed. God wants his joy in us, and so sends us pain. He warns us of wrath, and so sends pain still. It is love in either case. He permits pain to produce permanent joy in the saint. To the sinner, he sends sorrow to signal celestial sanction. Sinner or saint, we are one or the other. He loves us through our pain and sorrow.

Satan once approached God with the same skepticism we use of those whose loyalty has never been tested. Job only serves you because you blessed him so abundantly, the adversary complained. Strike down his children; rid him of his wealth; afflict his body; then will he curse you. The premise, as with all man-made religion, is a quid pro quo. Religion is exchange; it is man extending his commerce with his neighbor to commerce with God. I serve God. I praise him. I sacrifice. All that he will uphold his side of the bargain, delivering what I actually desire. I do not want him. I want what he can give. The creator is a pawn to sacrfice for the creation.

This requires no miraculous change of the heart, no renouncing the self to strike a self-interested bargain, whether with man or man's maker. One's loves need go no further than the confines of earth, and even the most pious religion can accommodate that. But pain was not part of the pact. The absence of pain was, and God failed to uphold his side of the bargain. So was what Satan thought of Job, and what the world thinks of the Christian. We worship God because he blesses us. We follow him because he gives us health and wealth. The world does not know the love of something beyond the world, and so our claims to the contrary, it does not believe the believer. It does not fathom that for us to die is gain. Pain will burrow beneath the praise to bring to light the bargain with the divine. Sorrow will show us for what we are. Sorrow certainly shows that, but not as the world expected. The believer loses his health, his family, his possessions, even all the earth has to offer, and yet he praises God for his goodness, delights in the very love that permitted the pain, and finds joy in the source of the sorrow. Believers are not frauds after all.

But how can this be? Is there felicity unforfeited when mind and body fail? Is it possible to love someone beyond smell and sight, taste and touch, to abound with joy when all is lost? It must be. Look at them. They rejoice in suffering. They glorify God in defeat. To them God must be their greatest treasure, worth selling all one has to find. That is a revelation to the unbeliever, who at most barters with God to get everything but God himself, and at worst ignores him. God is not a businessman who trades in passing and perishable goods. He is the supreme good. God need not be a means to some other end; he can be the end for which one uses all means. So comes the discovery of the spiritually dead, guided by the path of pain in the believer's life. The believer finds joy in God through his loss and his sunny songs in sorrow open the eyes of the sinner. That is how God loves sinners through saints. He loves others through our pain and sorrow.

Those who read past Paul's plea find Paul claiming that he will gladly glory in his infirmity, so that the power of Christ may rest on him. Those who read prior to Paul's plea will find the Lord sending Paul a thorn of the flesh to keep him from being conceited. It is a remarkable contrast. Unsought suffering saves Paul from sin, and he revels in what he rejected. Paul set off for a distant land with pain and sorrow as his companions, sure they carried a letter of death. Hamlet swapped such a letter for his own, saving his life in England only to lose it in Denmark. The Lord gave Paul no such opportunity. He arrived on foreign shores in fear that his hopes would be hanged. They were, and yet Paul discovered that the very letter that was intended to bring death actually brought life. So do others who live to see such times. It is a surprise, but only for the receding echoes of the Lord's words being too faint: he who saves his life will lose it, and he who loses his life will find it. That is true of Hamlet. It is true of us. And it was true of Christ. Peter rebuked the Lord when he foretold his own death. Surely this shall not happen to you. It did happen to him, and the disciples who did not understand the redeemer's rebuke of Peter hung down doleful heads at the death of their master. But the death they deplored delivered the life they longed for. By his wounds they were healed. Death brought life. The principle applies even to us. He loves us through our suffering. He loves sinners through our pain. And by our wounds we are saved.

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