An incident recorded in St. Matthew’s gospel set me thinking recently. Before being nailed to the Cross, Jesus was offered “vinegar to drink mingled with gall”—presumably to dull his pain—and “when he had tasted thereof, he would not drink it.”
What a contrast to the modern wold, where the smallest headache is the signal for TV commercials promising faster and more effective pain relief than the world has ever known, as our just reward for the stressful lives we lead!
What concerns me is that pain is not without a purpose in nature, nor is it necessarily an evil. Pain is the signal from the body to the mind that all is not well: a warning light hat some part of the body is being mistreated. Sometimes the mistreatment comes from outside ourselves, as when we put our hand onto a hot stove. In such a case, pain warns us to remove ourselves from the source of the injury, and our body is preserved. Sometimes, however, the mistreatment comes from the inside. We may fill ourselves with worry, overwork and stress, with suppressed hate, resentment and the like and end up with painful physical symptoms. At this point, pain in our body can be telling us to clean the garbage either out of our minds or out of our lifestyles, because it is causing us injury. To suppress such pain with alcohol, aspirins or tranquilizers, rather than dealing with its cause, is the modern version of ‘shooting the bearer of bad news’, and the very height of unwisdom.
I wonder if we are reluctant to feel pain, because anger naturally follows pain, and it has become almost a commonplace of Christian thinking that anger is sinful. However, the Sermon on the Mount only renders us liable to judgement if we are angry with our brother “without cause”. Ephesians tells us to “be angry, but sin not”. If God is to be our example on this subject, literally hundreds of Bible references refer to the “anger” or the “wrath” of God. In some cases we are told that this anger is “slow”—but in many, many of them, no doubt is left at all that it is “fierce”.
Perhaps the lesson from this is that God feels and reacts to the pain caused by the sins of humankind very acutely. To feel anger, understand it and express it makes it possible to face a problem, to reconcile and forgive. Read the Psalms, and one sees how often the Psalmist’s relationship to God is established after a phase of anger. And to take the question further—is it not possible that that loud desolate cry of Jesus from the Cross “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” was a cry, not just of pain, but of anger: the anger of Isaac, of Job, of all those saints of God who have been tested to the limits of their obedience, by a God who seems not to care: a God who originated the downfall of humankind by placing a snake in the Garden of Eden?
Of course, the Passion story does not end there. It ends in resurrection, redemption, reconciliation. But these treasures of the Easter message may perhaps never be ours to enjoy, if we do not first go through the experiences of pain—and of anger.