by Nathan Nelson

November is here, and since that means Thanksgiving is on its way, it’s inevitable that we see the themes of gratitude and thankfulness around us.  Especially this time of year, (less to do with the holidays, and more to do with the weather) I find myself getting a bit contemplative. I love the fall, especially in the Pacific Northwest.   Overcast skies, reds and golds of changing foliage on a backdrop of evergreens, all washed clean by a persistent sheen of dampness from the ever-present rain. That atmosphere makes my soul happy, and so this time of year I become deeply grateful for little more reason than the beauty of the world around me.

That type of gratitude is easy. The good things in life are easy to be grateful for.  Beauty, happiness, good health, these are all things we should be grateful for, and for most all of us, finding that gratitude within us isn’t even a stretch.

But gratitude isn’t quite so easy to find all the time. Trials come our way, and we Christians—we Adventists—have learned very well how to cope with these bumps in the road.  There are many oft-repeated quotations, texts and platitudes that we say to ourselves and each other during these rough times. A phrase I have heard several times over the last few years finally really registered with me, and has gotten me thinking much harder about gratitude—a simple phrase, deep with meaning and emotion:

“Lord Jesus, quickly come!”

I know this sentiment intimately. In the last two years, I have lost a half a dozen relatives, all older, all nearing the end of their reasonably expected lifespans, all deeply loved, all well cared for until the very end.  But all, nonetheless, missed deeply. Invariably, among the condolences, comes this wish, well intended and heartfelt; a wish that the second coming we are all waiting for will arrive soon, so that we can be reunited with the lost loved one.  I have appreciated the kind-hearted sympathy that sentence represents.

Then, another death hit me much harder this summer. I got word that my girlfriend from college had died suddenly and unexpectedly.  I hadn’t spoken to her in 15 years, we parted on less than stellar terms, and I truly believed that we would never cross paths again. And yet her death hit me like a sledgehammer between the eyes.  I grieved gradually and quietly, but no less intensely despite how hidden I kept it.

Several weeks after, on her Facebook memorial page, that same simple sentence was posted, “Lord Jesus, quickly come” and I had the most puzzling reaction to it.  It was simply:

No!

I didn’t really understand where it came from, but at that moment, I violently and emphatically disagreed with that wish for a soon return. I took a minute to look back and realized that I felt the same way about those other well-wishes from the last two years worth of losses.  I appreciate deeply the sympathy and empathy expressed with that sentence, but no, I don’t want a quick return, simply to be reunited with my loved ones.  It took a bit of time to dig into that reaction, but I finally came to understand why I felt this way,

After much thought, and honest contemplation, I realized that I’m actually grateful for the pain I feel at their loss. I don’t like it. I’d rather not have it. I’d rather the people who I’ve lost over these last two years were still here. But that’s an impractical wish, and it can’t last forever. Old age, if nothing else, will eventually take its toll.  And now that they’re gone, I feel that pain because those people all meant something to me. They made my life richer, more meaningful, deeper, and somehow more important.  I hurt now at their absence, but the fact that I lost their physical presence doesn’t change the influence they had on my life.  

My Grandpa and Grandma affected my life profoundly, both directly and indirectly.  I’m grateful for having them in my life, and yet their impact on me is changed subtly now that they’re gone.  There is an empty spot where they used to be—a soreness of the soul—knowing that I’ll never be back in their living room for Sabbath dinner, my Grandpa will never again tell me “My name’s Cliff! Drop over!” for the 87 millionth time.  But that empty spot is there because once upon a time, it was full.

We shy away from pain, we wish it away, or force it away.  Pain is a warning to us that we are being damaged, whether emotionally or physically, and we want it to stop.  We should want it to stop!  That’s a natural and healthy reaction. But nothing good in this world comes without pain.


We shy away from pain, we wish it away, or force it away.  Sometimes we do it with meditation, sometimes we do it with denial, sometimes we do it with drugs.  It’s a natural repulsion.  Pain is a warning to us that we are being damaged, whether emotionally or physically, and we want it to stop.  We should want it to stop!  That’s a natural and healthy reaction.

But nothing good in this world comes without pain.  Strong bodies don’t come without sore muscles.  Prizes don’t come without sacrifice.  Storybook marriages don’t happen without at least a few long, agonizing nights of hashing out disagreements, sometimes over raised voices.  Children don’t come without childbirth.  Promotions don’t come without long hours at work.  Educations don’t come without grinding headaches from hours of study.

Look back on your life at the things you’re proud of, the accomplishments you are most likely to identify with in your own life.  Now imagine you had accomplished those things without the pain and struggle that goes with it.  Would that fish you caught be impressive if you didn’t have the story of reeling it in to recount?  Is that business you built from scratch such an accomplishment if you leave out the years of balancing on the knife-edge of bankruptcy before everything started working?  Is that doctorate you earned something you’d be proud of if all you did was pay $5 and have Kinkos print you off a nifty certificate?

Without the pain, the value of our accomplishments is gone.  Oddly enough, the conclusion we must draw is that pain may be the most valuable part of many of our experiences.  How odd is it that when we express gratitude for these things, we don’t express gratitude for the pain that came with them?  Perhaps it’s because we’re wired for such aversion to pain.  Perhaps it’s because we were taught that God gave us pain as a curse.  “To the woman, he said. . .  ‘With painful labor, you will give birth to children’ . . . To Adam, he said . . . ‘cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil will you eat food from it . . . ‘“ (Gen. 3:16,17)  We’re taught that Adam and Eve, and by extension, we ourselves, were banished from the garden of Eden, and cursed to pain because of sin.  At least that’s what we were encouraged to take away from that verse.  

What if there’s more to it than that?

I’m a technology nut.  I’ve studied so much about computers, including how to teach them, that it makes my brain hurt sometimes.  If you’re up to stretching your own brain a bit, look up ‘artificial neural networks’ and ‘machine learning’ sometime, and see just a little bit about what’s involved in training a computer to be even passably good at assimilating information and learning how to interact with the world around it.  From handwriting recognition, to voice recognition, to self-driving cars, the one constant in teaching computers to do things we humans do naturally is negative feedback.  Another word would be pain—a sharp, harsh stimulus that says ‘No!  That wasn’t right!  Don’t do that again!’  Feed all the positive examples you want into a computer system, (and those examples are a requirement for success) but if you never feed in negative examples, with the corresponding negative feedback, your learning algorithms will never work.  Not ever!  And the math behind this science supports that conclusion.

Pain and goodness are not mutually exclusive.  They frequently go hand in hand.  And we can’t really, truly grow without it!  It’s not even a stretch to believe that God gave us pain so that we can grow, and learn.  So why is it so hard for us to be grateful for it?

The answer, or at least part of it, is shocking simple.  We’re forgetful.  When the reward comes after the pain, it’s easy for us to forget about how we got that reward, what we suffered to achieve it.  When we have the trophy, the struggle suddenly becomes all worth it.  

It’s much harder to be grateful for that pain when it’s a symbol of things that will stand irrevocably in our way.  The wide receiver who will never wear a super bowl ring because of his knee, torn apart and shattered in a crush of bodies on the playing field, will never have that emotional or financial payoff to make the remaining lifetime of pain worthwhile.  The quadriplegic who survived being hit by a drunk driver will never be able to reach out and touch his children; will never be able to take the burden of caring for him from his family.  His pain will be a daily constant for the rest of his life.

I saw a story not long ago about a child who has a disease where his own immune system attacks and breaks down his skin cells.  He gets blisters from simply being touched, from chewing his food, from even swallowing.  Pain is a minute-to-minute, ever-present part of his existence.  And yet he still finds happiness and gratitude.

I sit here writing these examples, and it seems absurd and presumptuous for me to say we should be grateful not just through our pain, but for our pain, when I live a largely pain-free existence.  And yet, presumptuous or not, that’s exactly what I’m saying.  

God seems unfair and arbitrary when we look at the pain he allows to exist in this world, and indeed among my atheist and agnostic friends, this is the most frequent, most consistent objection they all have to a belief in God.  “What kind of God would create this miserable world?  Either he doesn’t exist, or I don’t want anything to do with him!”  And I have to agree, if the lack of pain and suffering is your measuring stick, this is a miserably poor excuse for a world.

But what if pain is a gift?  And I don’t mean just the consolation prize, what if it’s the gift that God gave us.  We already believe this life is not all there is.  Our denomination’s very name, Adventist comes from our trust that God will return and fetch us from this place and remake it into something better, that we will have another form of existence beyond and better than the one we have now.  It’s a core part of our belief, a fundamental part of our identity!  How absurd would it be to believe that God put us here just to kill time while he gets things all fixed up, or perhaps just out of vindictiveness for one single moment of disobedience?  How much more amazing when we understand that we’re here for a purpose?  That every moment we spend here is valuable for learning something that God thought was important enough to teach us—so much so that he separated himself from us in order that we could learn it!  And what if the lessons we’re supposed to learn aren’t intended to benefit us simply in this life, but rather in the next one, when God calls us home?

The hard part is that despite all the clues, hints and explanations we have in scripture and from prophets, we still seem to disagree about what our purpose here on earth is.  I have my own thoughts about that purpose, and they are very different from most of the people around me.  Perhaps you have your own ideas.  One common thought is that we’re here to prove to the universe that God is fair, that he won’t just shape the world the way he wants, that he’ll actually let free will reign.  

Perhaps.  A cosmic demonstration of integrity seems a less than ideal scenario, but I suppose it’s possible.  Multi-generational atonement—eh, I suppose it might fit, though that’s a pretty rough punishment in my book.  I’ve even heard the theory that we’re isolated here with the corruptive nature of sin as a sort of quarantine from the rest of the universe.  I’ve even had Bible texts quoted at me regarding angels’ feet not touching the ground to support that theory.  Talk to a dozen people, you’ll get a dozen different opinions of why we’re here.

Our experience here is to endure pain. And if we believe that God is truly good, then even this pain must have a purpose.  And if our purpose here is to experience life with pain, no matter how short, or good, or bad, or painful, or charmed that life is, then who are we to refuse that gift?

Regardless, for whatever the reason, we are here.  And it’s clear that part of our experience here is to endure pain.  And if we believe that God is truly good, then even this pain must have a purpose.  And if our purpose here is to experience life with pain, no matter how short, or good, or bad, or painful, or charmed that life is, then who are we to reject that pain?  Who are we to refuse that gift?  Shouldn’t we be grateful for such a powerful gift?  Perhaps we should be careful about simply wishing that gift away.

Today, I can honestly say I’m grateful for my pain.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still keep a handy stock of Tylenol and Advil, I’m not a masochist, nor am I so happy about my pain that I won’t try to avoid it!  But when I have the energy, and the wherewithal to change my perspective, and to see the pain I feel as a gift—my sore muscles are a sign I’m getting stronger, my pounding head is a reminder that I need to take time to relax, my aching heart is a sign that I loved and was loved by the people I miss—at that point, it becomes just the slightest bit easier to endure.

So instead of the usual “Lord Jesus, quickly come!” that I hear so often uttered, I’ll offer my own alternative, which I’ve heard just as frequently, and which resonates so much more strongly with me personally:

“God is good . . .

. . . All the time.”


Nathan Nelson

 

 

Nathan Nelson makes a living programming computers for Nike, the sports shoe manufacturer. He grew up as an Adventist but is not sure how to classify himself these days, perhaps “a non-member, semi-reformed, not-quite-backslider.” He writes from the Portland area.