By Kristi Lee Hermeir
The experience of pain, in whatever form it takes is universal. Human suffering is one of the world’s greatest unanswered questions. Especially during the newness of the Christmas season, do we become more and more aware of the mystery involved in it. I’m not writing this article to attempt an answer to the suffering question. I am writing instead, simply to share some of my thoughts and experiences on the matter. Also, perhaps by examining my mistakes, and efforts in dealing with pain, you will have something to fall back on when it comes your way … as it inevitably will.
Just by way of background, I was on Cross Fire ’75, the team to West Africa. I spent much of the fifteen months we traveled in pain, and incredible fatigue. I never really took it too seriously, as most of us were sick regularly. It became frustrating for me, and the entire team though, when my illnesses outweighed my healthy times. The situation reached a crisis the final month of team when I just couldn’t continue. I was
hospitalized at the end of August 1976, and due to the persistence of a caring doctor, discovered I was the victim (and had been for years) of an incurable, and oftentimes cruelly painful disease called Systemic Lupus Erythemetosis. Lupus for short. The cause, and the cure remain unknown.
I remember laying in the hospital in a state of dis-belief. My head whirled with questions, but none so prevalent as the eternal “why?” Why me … why now … why this? I was suddenly faced with the reality that I would be dealing with pain on a day to day basis for the rest of my life. In the fear that such thoughts bring, I began to observe the attitudes toward suffering in the people around me. Most of us view pain as something alien, something to eradicate and be rid of as quickly as possible. This attitude may be fine when you deal with ills that are temporal, definable, and curable. But not all suffering falls into those categories. What do we say to those ills and accidents that leave their victims permanently disabled, disfigured, or mentally incapacitated? We cannot simply dismiss them. They are real, and difficult, and very much a mystery.
When a Christian deals with life situations, we must keep in mind the fact that God is a mystery. He cannot be defined or explained by our limited knowledge. Who hasn’t heard someone in desperation or grief ask the unanswerable “why?” And who had the power and wisdom to respond? Once we accept that sometimes there are no answers, at least for now, we experience a release of those gnawing doubts, and become free to start learning. When there are no answers, only questions for us, we must look to Christ, and His example. Jesus felt. He hurt–and laughed, suffered and died as we all must. He was and is God incarnate,
sensitive counselor to our despair, as He has felt the very same pain we do. C.S. Lewis, upon the death of a dear friend, wrote in his book A Grief Observed:
“When I lay these questions before God, I get no answer. But, a rather special no answer. It is not a locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not unkind gaze. As though He shook His head, not in refusal, but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace Child, you don’t understand.”
The enigma of pain reflects the mystery of God. It begins as a journey of trust. We can choose to accept and deal with our frailty, or, like Ivan Dostoevsky stated, “If God offered me suffering as a pass through life, I for one would return the ticket.” We can face, and even learn from the realities of our humanity, or we can run from them.
Why must suffering remain a mystery? I can’t give a pat answer, but isn’t it true that the times we are closest to the Lord are those times we have no control? For me these are also the hours of my greatest sensitivity and compassion to those near me. It’s only when our efforts to rationalize and eradicate
seemingly useless pain are gone, and we reach the end of our own rope, we see Christ’s strength available to us. If the mystery were fully explained, there would be no crisis. Most of all, there would be no need of our faith walk with God. Pain and suffering are not some type of Cosmic Character Builders sent by
the Almighty. They are however, used by Him to strengthen and cleanse our relationship to Him and to each other.
As Christians we believe that God’s promises are true. Romans 8:28 reminds us that the Lord is ever present and working in our trials. Sometimes this is comforting, but often, the pain is still there, and still very hard to cope with. Just because we know we are living a mystery, and God is using it, doesn’t make it hurt any less. But so much of our suffering depends on our attitude toward it. It’s very human, and necessary I believe, to experience fear, anger, self-pity, and even bitterness. We wouldn’t be normal if these emotions didn’t pass through us. I think so often of one of my African friends, who when I reached a high pitched frustration, would always shake his head and say, “Kristi, it will pass.” It will pass. Fear, and
all of the so-called “negative” emotions that follow it can be healthy, normative, and even creative forces in our lives. A well balanced emotional human is capable of them all. They only become evil when we allow them to immobilize and blind us to the lessons we could be learning. Personally, I have chosen to
concentrate on life, my life as it is now. I cannot wish the pain away, or ignore it. It has become a very real part of who I am. But what I can do, whether I am suffering or not, is to concentrate on the health that exists inside of me. The acceptance of my human condition, in the light of God’s promises leads to a fresh hope, and a new peace of mind.
As I study the Bible, I’m always amazed at the incredible sensitivity Jesus has toward us. We humans, unfortunately are much more ego-centric in our view of suffering. We mean well usually, but never quite know what to say or do. In sharing with a person in pain, or dealing with it yourself, it is vital to
remember that the suffering Christian lives with a constant reminder of his/her frailty. There is no question that God heals, likewise there is no question that we don’t always understand how He does so. Ours is not a total theology of glory. We live, as Martin Luther puts it, “In the shadow of the
Cross.” We must take this cross seriously, with all of it’s implications. There is no victory without defeat, glory without shame, or health without suffering. For example; I cannot say that I have been healed of my disease. (Not yet anyway) I can say however, that I have been healed of many other things through my
disease. I’ve never felt as loved as when I discovered I had Lupus. I saw Christ alive through the caring of His church, and I experienced firsthand the sensitivity and faith of His followers. Healing with suffering … victory, in the shadows.
I’d like to tell you that I accept and trust at all times, but I can’t. I’m human. When I’m in pain, I’m constantly reminded of my mortality. But, I’m also reminded that in the shadow (or light?) of the cross, and God’s promise of redemption through Christ, there is hope.
In closing out my thoughts, I think it’s important to mention a little bit on the practical side of sensitivity to the suffering person. I believe the most important attitude you can take is honesty. A person is rarely alone in their pain. If there are people around who care, they will be suffering also. If you find yourself in that boat, don’t be afraid to admit you’re afraid. Be honest about your feelings, hurts, and fears. If you’re angry or confused, talk about it, it helps. Be supportive of the suffering person, but don’t pity them. Let
them know you care by being yourself, that is after all who they love and need. Accept the ills of those you’re dealing with as a part of themselves. A very real part. Most of all, don’t underestimate them. They will fight the pain, fear, and desperation hand in hand with you, and with our Lord.
I hope some of the things I’ve talked about will help you in your trials. I hope it helps the next time you hold me, or someone like me as they cry. I hope most of all, you use your experience in suffering to grow in sensitivity, and that our God will burn into your conscience your need of Him in health as well as pain. This Christmas, may you be guided by the tender compassion of our bleeding Savior.
Kristi Lee Hermeir
NOTE: This article was written by Kristi for the Christmas, 1977 issue of the National Lutheran Youth Encounter Newspaper. The article was written only a few days before Kristi’s death. Permission to reprint the article was given by Pastor Gene and Ruby Hermeir, Kristi’s parents.
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