The other day Stacey returned home with a special purchase for Susannah. It was a bottle of bright-coloured, foaming hand soap. Susannah has reached an age where we want her to be able to do more things (like washing her hands) on her own.
Susannah took to this task with joy! She stood at the sink (on a stool) like a big girl. She got her hands all soaped up, and then her daddy said, ‘Put your hands under the water and rinse them off.’ So she put her hands under the water… only to quickly pull them out and yelp, ‘Hot!’
I had accidentally left the tap turned a little too far too the left. She wasn’t badly hurt at all, but looked at me as if to say, ‘I’m not doing that again!’
That got me thinking about pain. I thank God that Susannah is able to feel pain. Not because I like the thought of my daughter hurting, but because I know God’s purposes in pain are good.
Medically speaking, it seems that the purposes of pain are generally straightforward: Pain alerts you to the fact that something is wrong in your body and needs attention. Something must be done now to avoid greater consequences later. Pain is a warning.
In James 5, James is alerting his audience–people who are undergoing suffering–that they must be patient to endure hardship and pain. He gives them several reasons. He argues that those who persecute them will be finally judged, and that the Judge stands at the door. He also refers to the prophets, and then to Job.
When he gets to Job, James becomes more specific and says,
you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.
The Lord’s purpose in Job’s suffering was compassionate and merciful. At the end of Job’s turmoil, not only did he receive back more than he ever lost, he said these words:
I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. … I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust ashes.
The Lord’s purpose in Job’s suffering was to reveal more of himself to Job–and then ultimately to us, thousands of years later. God was revealing himself as one who is compassionate and merciful, even in suffering.
There are things which are eternal and there are things which are temporal; things which will matter when the Judge appears, and other things that won’t. At least a part of the purpose in our pain in this life is to warn us of a bigger problem: that this world and everything in it is cursed because of sin, and already under condemnation. We suffer pain, things fall apart, tragedy happens, all to warn us of a potentially greater tragedy to come: eternal condemnation and wrath against sinners for sin.
If Susannah didn’t feel pain at the little bit of hot water, she might leave her hands there until they were scalded and then permanently damaged. The pain was uncomfortable, but it let her know that if she didn’t act, worse would result. The Lord’s purpose in pain is–like his purpose in everything else–compassionate and merciful. He desires to show us that there is no ultimate life, no hope, no safety in this world. Those things can and must be found in him alone. He wants to ween us off our selfish joy-seeking in the creation so that we might pursue true joy-seeking in the Creator.