1 min read

Pain’s scars and the difficult hope they demand

The tension of pain and hope is hard-wired into the human condition.
A close up of the face of a bruised and bloodied cyclist with a large bandage on his forehead.

When I felt a twinge in my lower back at the age of 30, little did I know that this would lead to chronic pain for over 20 years and counting. Defined as persistent or recurrent pain that is present for more than three months, chronic pain can lead those of us who battle it to struggle to carry out daily activities or to socialise freely. Research shows that up to 15 per cent of the UK’s population live with pain that is moderately or severely disabling. Whether discal, muscular, arthritic, or related to auto-immune or other conditions, medical researchers inform us that we are facing a silent epidemic of chronic pain in our society. 

In the past 20 years, pastoral work has opened my eyes to the fact that those of us who face the ignominy and anguish of chronic pain cannot claim a monopoly on suffering. No stranger to significant hardships himself, psychologist and Auschwitz-survivor Viktor Frankl suggests that all suffering should be taken with utmost seriousness, however brief or minor it proves to be. The “size” of suffering, after all, is relative. It is, he claims, like releasing gas into an empty chamber – it doesn’t matter how much gas is released, it will fill the chamber completely. In other words, it does not matter how great or small our sufferings are, they will always hold the potential to darken our hearts completely. 

Behind even the brightest smiles and the most cheerful demeanours are the scars of a thousand cuts.

Suffering and struggle have been particularly marked in our society in recent years, with the twin-tribulation of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis leading to so much grief, illness, depression, loneliness, poverty, and isolation. Some years back, I undertook hydrotherapy at the local hospital. With each patient having endured various injuries, many quite serious, I was struck by the plethora of scars in the pool each week – on backs, shoulders, arms, knees, and ankles. The many years of struggle and pain in that pool was all too visible, but, as I undertook my aquatic exercises, I recall thinking to myself: if we could peer into the souls of those around us, how many more deep-seated scars would we notice? Behind even the brightest smiles and the most cheerful demeanours are the scars of a thousand cuts. 

Neither should we fall into the trap of believing suffering merely impacts us as we age. While it is true that there is a correlation between age and bereavement, illness, and disability, the dark hand of suffering is not partisan to age or circumstance. Many children and young people go through all manner of serious trauma and illness, often hidden to those on the outside. Research is showing a sharp rise in chronic pain in young people, for example, while teachers bear testament to the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of so many of their pupils. Moreover, when I was a university chaplain, I saw how deeply young people were affected by incidences and events, even those that, to others, may have seemed trivial. Younger generations are certainly not immune to life’s struggles. 

Like that tenacious and resilient tree breaking through the harsh concrete, we witness hope and promise shining out of the pages of his letters. 

Christians, of course, have always been aware of the philosophical questions surrounding the existence of suffering. The book of Job in the Old Testament details one of the earliest attempts to consider theodicy, while numerous scholars down the ages have grappled with the “problem of pain” (C.S. Lewis) and the question of “where is God when it hurts?” (Philip Yancey). Their musings are well documented and discussed, but, as a Christian with chronic pain, I have become less interested in the “why?” of suffering and more concerned with the “what now?” In other words, I am increasingly interested in how faith responds when confronted with the crippling and dehumanising personal impact of pain, grief, illness, disability, relationship break-ups, depression, loneliness, poverty, or anxiety. 

During a particularly acute flare-up of back pain recently, I took short walks around our immediate locality. We live in a concrete jungle – there are houses, streetlights, cars parked down both sides of the road, and vehicles driving up and down, especially at school drop-off time. In my pain, I was struggling to see any hope in the incarceration of a city. Then I noticed something on our road that I’d walked past on many occasions. It was a small, solitary tree, which is about twice my height. For a brief moment it lifted my heart and I thought to myself how wonderful that someone had planted that tree, just to give some greenery to this urban sprawl. But then I noticed that this beautiful little tree had not been planted at all. Rather, it had broken through the hard, unforgiving concrete, desperate to reach up to the sunlight and take in the oxygen in the air. That small tree is, in many ways, an apt metaphor for the Christian response to personal suffering. 

From the book of Acts and his letters in the New Testament, it is clear that St Paul had walked the gruelling path of pain and struggle. He faced prejudice, persecution, and prison, not to mention his battle with a personal affliction, which he called a “thorn in my flesh”. Scholars posit this may have been an illness or a disability, such as blindness. Yet Paul does not allow his letters to become dark, depressing diatribes of fear and hopelessness. Like that tenacious and resilient tree breaking through the harsh concrete, we witness hope and promise shining out of the pages of his letters. Here was a man who knew suffering, but, through his vivid encounter of the person of Jesus, he had also grasped the profound meaning of hope. When we attend a funeral or a wedding, we will quite often hear uplifting passages of hope and joy written by him. Discussions around the tension in Paul’s epistles between “flesh” and “spirit” are well worn, but, when I read his letters, especially in light of the life and death of Jesus, it is the tension between “suffering” and “hope” that is most conspicuous. 

“I have seen the light – it flickers on and off like a badly-wired lamp”.

Andrew Motion

This tension, of course, is not just prevalent in the Christian scriptures. It is hard-wired into the human condition. Just take the years of the pandemic, when people were either isolated, lonely, stressed, and anxious themselves or were journeying alongside others facing illness, grief, worry, and fear. During that period, I was a parish priest and would regularly visit people, standing socially distanced on their doorsteps. Yet, despite suffering seemingly being omnipresent during the pandemic, people did not generally regale me with their miseries. Rather, they wanted to inform me of moments of uplifting hope that had broken through their difficulties – the beauty of nature on their daily walks, the tireless care of the NHS workers, and the joy of meeting with friends and family, on zoom or outside in the garden. They seemed naturally aware that hope and suffering are inextricably linked. This fact is at the heart of our Christian experience – its recognition is one of those things that define Christians as Christian. After all, the very symbol that has come to represent the Christian faith – the cross – is both an emblem of torture and suffering and a symbol of liberation and hope. 

Not that opening our eyes to moments of hope, love, and wonder is easy when we are going through difficult times. In the dark moments when my own chronic pain seems overwhelming and utterly debilitating, I am inspired by the words of the former poet laureate Andrew Motion: “I have seen the light – it flickers on and off like a badly-wired lamp”. There will be times when Christians will see God’s light clearly and its beauty and glory will dazzle daily. But there will also be times of doubt, grief, depression, anxiety, and physical pain. During those moments, we can learn to be sustained by the occasional spark of hope that will come to us, even in the very ordinariness and humdrum of our daily lives. 

And so, in travelling through life’s dark moments, Christians recognise two powerful realities. One of these has long been championed by preachers and spiritual teachers – it is the presence of a kingdom to come in a heavenly future where there will be no more tears and no more suffering. The other one, though, can speak powerfully into the present predicament – it is the presence of a kingdom all around us now, breaking through the harshness and bleakness of life, like that small tree bursting through hostile concrete. Theologians refer to these two realities as “inaugurated eschatology” and they can also help us to recognise profound moments when transcendent hope breaks into our lives. Opening our eyes to compassion, beauty, wonder, and awe can help us transcend our suffering, which so often seems all pervasive, and can lead us into a strange new world of God’s providence. 

In the soil that the broken concrete had revealed were little green, sprouting shoots. Hope had begotten hope. 

So, Christians hold onto the hope of the “not yet”, confident in the hope of life after death. But, as the old Christian Aid advert put it, we also believe in life before death. However dark and long our journey seems, hope is birthed when we take time and space to notice strange and uplifting moments of beauty, grace, and guidance breaking through our daily lives now. In these, Christians find, in the words of theologian Karl Barth, “indications, intimations and parables” of the coming reign of God. 

After 20 years of daily struggle, I have made peace with the fact that I am likely to battle chronic pain for the rest of my life. However, I have also come to recognise that hope is not all about smiles, sunshine, and flowers. Hope is often difficult and demanding. It is about delicately holding the joy and challenge of life in a wonderful balance. For the Christian, it’s about both recognising God’s kingdom in the beauty, awe, and wonder of his created world and glimpsing it in our very earthly, wearisome, and draining lives. 

But there was also something else about that small, resilient tree that was breaking through the hard and unforgiving concrete. On another walk, a few weeks later, I noticed foliage growing around the base of the tree. In the soil that the broken concrete had revealed were little green, sprouting shoots. Hope had begotten hope. And it is certainly true that the more we open our lives to recognising hope, however brief it may be in our struggles, the more it can inspire us to bring moments of light and comfort to others. And thus we live out, in the words of Karl Barth, so many “little hopes”, and, by doing so, we scatter seeds of new life and resurrection as we go, trusting that God will water them and bring his “hope, faith, and love” to fruition in the world around us. 

6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  


The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.