While I’m thinking about pain and suffering, I’ve just remembered this piece as well: “You Will Call I Will Answer, which the Anchoress posted a bit ago and which I’ve been wanting to write about.
It seems to me that what Nagai is saying can be misconstrued a bit and this interview with William Stuntz, who is another sufferer from chronic pain and also dying of cancer, pushes back in a way I like against that possible misinterpretation:
I hear a lot of people talk about suffering in two ways. Suffering is the discipline of a loving Father—or suffering exists solely so that God can be glorified as He removes it. Both imply some kind of blame on the part of the one who is suffering. If suffering is discipline, then I must have done something wrong to deserve discipline. If suffering exists so that God can remove it, then why has He not removed it? I must not be praying in the right way.
I do not think that my suffering is God’s discipline. It’s not that I am under the illusion that I deserve better than life has given me. I do not believe that. I have never believed that. But I don’t believe the discipline story is consistent with a God who is eager to bless.[. . .]
It’s impossible for me to hear and absorb those messages and then also think that the God of the universe actually loves me. I got close at some points to losing my faith, to seeing God as having declared Himself my enemy. It’s hard to worship your enemy.
Or perhaps it is Nagai who addresses Stuntz’s concerns? I think Nagai’s metaphor of cancer as a bitter medicine prescribed by a loving physician avoids both the errors that Stuntz rejects, though there is a superficial similarity between the idea of cancer as a discipline and cancer as a medicine.
Stuntz seems to say that, while the cancer itself is not a blessing, it is the medium through which he has become aware of or open to many blessings which God has bestowed upon him:
My experience of cancer especially is that God is just so eager to bless. I find blessing all over the place, not in the cancer itself but all around it. It would almost be easier to answer what blessings I have not found.
Since my cancer diagnosis, I have experienced more friendship from more people than at any other time in my life. I’ve experienced not just a quality of medical care but a kind of medical care, humane medical care delivered by humane and decent people, that seems Christ-like to me. I don’t know the religious convictions of all the people who have treated me, but I certainly believe that they are used by God in ways that are really quite extraordinary to bring blessing to people who are in circumstances that lead them to hunger for blessing. I do hunger for blessing in the midst of these medical conditions, but I regularly find that hunger satisfied.
He also says that while initially the chronic pain made him more bitter and isolated in the long run it’s effect was to change him for the better:
Over the past few years I have become less arrogant, less confident of my own judgments and insights, and better at listening to others.
As a result, I’ve become a better husband and father than I was. I love better than I did before. I am certain that’s true in my family, and maybe even generally beyond my family. I think I am actually better at my job.
And then there’s this, my favorite passage from the interview, one which I’m still chewing on:
Chronic pain and cancer both make life more concrete. In times of good health, when our bodies are doing everything we want and expect them to do, there is a tendency to think of spiritual life as something that is anything but concrete. That’s not possible, I find, in my present circumstances. My medical conditions, independently and together, are inescapable. Perhaps that’s the key feature. They are there all the time. There is no time when I am not aware of them. I hurt all the time. I’m exhausted all the time. There is no escaping either of those states of affairs. I simply never feel like I used to feel virtually all the time.
What I find when I think back to the way I used to feel, I see that my life then was so much less concrete. It was not that I felt physical pleasure back then—in fact, I think I feel more physical pleasure now than I did when I was healthy. It was just that I did not feel very much of anything. My body was nothing more than a vessel carrying me around. I think that sensibility extends to other areas of life. It leads to a life that is more abstract, less personal, a life that is up in the clouds and not down where the rubber meets the road. The abstract life, I find, is impossible to live when your body is broken down.