When the Prospect of Pain Threatens Our Pleasure
The problem might go something like this.
My family and I were sitting around the dinner table, and one of the kids said something funny. I can’t remember exactly what was said, but we were all laughing, all six of us, in the euphoria of spontaneous jollification. We were all glad together, in one of those moments when, as a young parent, you sort of come out of yourself to get a better look at things, knowing in your heart of hearts, happily, that you’re such an unlikely soul to receive so much grace, that no one deserves blessings this intense, that God is good.
But then you think about one of your kids getting hit by a car. Soon after, or perhaps in the wake of that moment, you become haunted by some hypothetical tragedy that would steal such joy. You think about childhood cancer, about the flight of stairs going down to the basement, about teenagers learning to drive, about unhealthy relationships, about a heart that might grow cold. It’s like, almost out of nowhere, our present joy feels the threat of suffering tapping her on the shoulder, reminding her that calamity will come.
The Pain of Pain
And it’s true. Calamity will come. Some kind of pain, sooner than later, will come to all of us. This is characteristic enough of a broken world that is out of our control, but it’s even more so for the Christian who sees suffering all throughout Scripture, momentary suffering though it is. On one level, the most important level, we are virtually untouchable. Momentary affliction produces for us an eternal weight of glory that is beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4:17). The pains of this present age are not even worth comparing to the glory that awaits us (Romans 8:18). Amen.
And then again, on another level, where we live most of the time, we dread the pain no matter what good might come out of it. No child, before getting a shot at the doctor’s office, is tickled by the thought of receiving an injection, even if it means they’ll be healthy enough to play outside instead of cooped up in bed. This is the paradox about tribulation in Christianity, as C.S. Lewis explains: we all agree suffering has its good effects, but still hope to avoid it (The Problem of Pain, 110). And rightly so, as Lewis also says. The suffering itself is not good, only the purpose that God brings about. It’s not in the thing that occurs, but what God does through the occurrence. The shot is still scary and painful, or we might say, the cross is still horrible.
And the threat of horrible things happening to our children is unpleasant when we’re trying to enjoy a laugh with them at dinner. It can smudge the whole thing by harping on how temporary it is, how fragile it might be. It feels like a problem, and to be sure, it would be a problem if we’d let it go on and rob our present joy. But it doesn’t have to, and it shouldn’t — not if we receive the “threat” for what it is. The decisive moment is not whether we sense the possibility of pain or not, but what we do with that sense when it comes.
To let it rob your joy, simply hate the fact that you’d think such a thing in the midst of a good time. Sulk about such a dark thought and bemoan reality for being so unsafe. Let the projected sharpness of what loss might feel like pummel your joy until all the wind is knocked out, and then clamp down on the moment of happiness as if it might never happen again.
But beware, desperation like that is dangerous. It’s interesting how what we might call “making the most” of something can easily become the mask of insecurity, or even unbelief. We should be “redeeming the time” by all means, but not as if our tomorrow will be filled with lesser joys. We shouldn’t operate as if we’re always hitting on a 3-2 count and homeruns are the only option. In fact, I wonder if the reason some of us must have the picture-perfect vacation might be because we don’t really believe in heaven and the coming new creation. And ironically, the uptight parent who puts heaven-like pressure on family outings will oftentimes make it seem more like hell for everyone else.
If we let the possibility of pain put us on edge like this, our joy will evaporate, and our capacity for future joy with shrivel. That’s one option.
But what if, instead of letting the possibility of pain rob our joy, we led it to actually deepen the joy? What if, instead of letting our minds dwell on some future, mysterious experience of loss, we forced the overall prospect of tribulation to make us feel the joys of now more sincerely? — which is to say, we don’t mistake our laughter together as an end in itself, but as a wonderful gift given by God en route to something even more wonderful. The possibility of pain is no longer a threat, but a gentle wake-up call.
This is more complex than simply agreeing with the truth that we should enjoy God more than his gifts. The point here is to get into the middle of enjoying those gifts, and — not in spite of what loss may come but because of it — we enjoy those gifts more fully by recognizing that, as amazing as they are, our souls need more than this to make us happy forever. We remember, as Lewis says, that “all these toys were never intended to possess my heart, that my true good is in another world and my only real treasure is Christ” (107). He writes,
The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, he has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home. (116)
In a sense, every joy we experience on this earth will have this asterisk — that it can’t satisfy our souls and that it is, sweet as it may be, fleeting (this is at the heart of the Book of Ecclesiastes). To ignore that reality is to bury our heads in the sand and settle for superficial gladness. That’s what is really happening with the pursuit of pleasure in this world. The eating and drinking and making merry sounds catchy, but frittering all away is as plastic as it gets.
However, when we remember that the joys we experience here are pleasures of today that point to the greater pleasures of tomorrow, we are freed to neither make the pleasure more than it should be (an idol) nor less than it should be (a distraction). We are freed to enjoy them truly, as gifts from God, postcards from the lasting city that are meant to be handled, admired, passed around, stuck on the fridge. We are freed to laugh, and then keep laughing.
The gladness is, after all, real gladness.
More on suffering and joy:
I Will Go to God, My Exceeding Joy (sermon from John Piper)
No One Will Take Your Joy from You (sermon from John Piper)
The Secret of Invincible Joy (article by John Piper)
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