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Mueller: The agony and the ecstasy of life

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By Bob Mueller

Through the years I have visited many patients in hospitals. Often I have asked a patient the question, “Since you have been sick, what have people said to you?” And frequently I get one of three answers:

1. The patient is told that there is something in his or her life which is displeasing to God. “In some way you have broken God’s law, and now, through this illness, God is telling you something.”

2. Often patients have been told that illness is never God’s plan or purpose. Illness is the work of Satan. Therefore, the patient is told: “Build your faith. Keep believing and keep praying. When your faith becomes strong enough, God will use it to overcome the evil of Satan.”

3. Other people are told that they were selected by God to share in Christ’s suffering – that suffering is a reward which shall be further rewarded, that God chooses people who are worthy, and God uses them as examples to increase the faith of other people. The idea is that some people have the privilege of being martyrs.

I do not believe any of these answers. Once I was called on to conduct the funeral for a very small child. After the service, a well-meaning but very ignorant woman said to the father, “God is punishing you for the sins you have committed.” I completely rebelled against that idea and I have been rebelling ever since. Illness is never God’s will.

Suppose you were to stick a pin in your finger and felt no pain. Immediately you would become very disturbed and seek medical help. The ability to feel pain is one of the most protecting gifts we have.

I like the phrase “the agony and the ecstasy.” Actually pain and pleasure are part and parcel of the same experience. The same nerve that carries the messages of pain to the human brain also carries the messages of pleasure. Over the same telephone wires you can send a loved one a message of joy or a message of sorrow. If someone does not want to hear the message of sorrow, then the real solution is to cut the wire. But when you cut the wires, then communication is destroyed and that is not what we want.

We all must feel some sorrow or pain. The worthwhile accomplishments of humankind are generally preceded by a long history of struggle. The pleasure is often not possible without the previous painful process.

Walk through a great museum such as the Louvre in Paris or the Sistine Chapel in Rome. As you gaze upon the magnificent artistry, you need to remember the long, difficult hours that were spent in creating those masterpieces.

Perhaps the supreme example of pain that leads to joy is childbirth. Nine months of waiting, of wondering, of anxiety, and then often, excruciating pain. Childbirth has been thought of as agony, but then comes absolute ecstasy.

We often make a wrong assumption when we claim that the problem of evil and the problem of pain are synonymous. Many times evil and pain have no association with each other. A person can suffer without evil.

Sooner or later every serious person who lives on this earth will identify with the cry of Jesus Christ from the cross, “My God, my God why. . .?” We blame God over and over when we do not understand. Many of us believe that “Hamlet” was the greatest play William Shakespeare wrote. In that play Ophelia, the sister of Laertes, was driven insane by cruelty. Laertes listened to her insane screaming. Finally he could stand it no more and cried out, “Do you see this, O God?”

Through we cannot always answer the question “why?” we affirm the fact that we do not need to simply resign ourselves to living the rest of our lives in that valley. I heard a man once say, “If you can’t have a piano on earth, you can have a harp in heaven.” But my theory is, if you want a piano, you can keep working and at least try to get one. The idea of a harp in heaven does not take the place of a piano on earth. Heaven is not an opiate to deaden the pain that ought not to be. All suffering is not the result of sin, and neither is all suffering the will of God.

I am inclined to agree with the words of William Faulkner in his “Requiem for a Nun”. He said, “The salvation of the world is in man’s suffering.” Along the same line, Graham Greene, in “The Living Room”, said: “We always have to choose between suffering our own pain or suffering other people’s. We can’t not suffer.”

Bob Mueller is the senior director of mission and stewardship at Hosparus. The views in this column are those of the writer.