Pain, Emotion, and God

Elisabeth Elliot coined the most memorable definition of human suffering that I have ever heard:  “Suffering is wanting what you don’t have — or having what you don’t want.”  These words came to mind often as I read Between Pain and Grace, because Gerald W. Peterman and Andrew J. Schmutzer have initiated a fresh conversation which does not claim to be the last word on suffering, but is characterized by the scope, depth, and fidelity one would expect from two of Moody Bible Institute’s theology professors.

My attention was arrested immediately by the authors’ careful distinction between pain and suffering.  Consider this:

Pain  — “primarily objective, external, and typically social or physical as opposed to personal and mental.”
Suffering — “primarily subjective, internal, and typically mental or emotional.”

This distinction is important because not all pain is received as suffering — just ask an Olympic gymnast or a brand-new mum.  Conversely, those with leprosy or diabetic neuropathy would welcome pain as a means to alleviate the suffering that occurs when they injure their insensitive extremities.  Dr. Eric Cassell chimes in with the succinct conclusion that “the only way to learn whether suffering is present is to ask the sufferer.”

A biblical theology of suffering must include the truth that Scripture provides a voice for those who suffer; it acknowledges the reality of innocent suffering; and, without moralizing, it affirms the presence of God in the midst of pain.   I never tire of hearing the truth that God is fluent in the language of lament.  He has graciously appointed “script writers” in the psalms and prophets, and throughout Scripture, honest expressions of grief are portrayed as a “natural exhale of worship.”

Because a lively faith is open to the uncomfortable questions and painful stories of those who suffer, the church gathered must be clear in its identity as a safe place for the expression of grief and disappointment. Counselors, individuals dealing with dysfunctional families, and  those who have experienced sexual abuse or who are dealing in some way with mental illness will appreciate the authors’ frank discussion of these topics as they relate to what the Scripture says about pain and suffering.

The term “relational ecosystem” runs as a theme throughout Between Pain and Grace, affirming the fact that there is no such thing as a private or contained sin.  The relational ecosystem of God’s creation has been shaken to its roots by sin, and this is seen at every level:
God with mankind;
man with woman;
humanity with animals;
and humanity with the ground.
Brokenness abounds and the outcome is alienation.  Anger sends out generational shock waves that are amply illustrated in Old Testament family dysfunction.  Peterman and Schmutzer refer to David’s family life as a “relational debris field,” acknowledging that we all are part of “interlocking relationships” that surround us “like the rings of a tree.”

Our relational ecosystem, tangled as it is in personal weakness and sin (another fascinating distinction that the authors delineate), demonstrates the efficacy of the redemption that comes to us in the midst of our brokenness.  Because God Himself chose a path of vulnerability for His Son, the record of Scripture is that God experiences pain and “a theology of a suffering God is evident throughout the testimony of Scripture.”  God’s transcendence is balanced by His immanence, as evidenced in His compassionate love, His relatedness with His creation, and His willingness to risk relationally.

Looking at The Lord’s Prayer through the lens of pain gives it a fresh application, for in Matthew 6, Jesus provides a model for prayer in a suffering world, a challenge to transcend our worries and pain by focusing first on “God’s honor, God’s good, and God’s moral requirements.”

Opening one’s life to spiritual leadership roles also opens the door to some unique forms of suffering — rejection, hopelessness, and discontentment.  We follow a Savior who entered into suffering voluntarily.   Peterman and Schmutzer assert that leaders have likewise made that choice, but then offer the encouragement that tears shed are part of the leader’s path to Christ-likeness.

Since suffering is unavoidable on a fallen planet, this question is also unavoidable for the thinking believer:  What needs to happen in the space between pain and grace?  For most people (including the Apostle Paul!), it holds a journey of acceptance, a yielding of expectations, and most important of all, a commitment to receive the gift of suffering from the hand of an all-wise and sovereign God.


This book was provided by Moody Publishers in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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35 thoughts on “Pain, Emotion, and God”

  1. What a fascinating read this must be…you’ve tempted me! This is SO SO true: “a journey of acceptance, a yielding of expectations, and most important of all, a commitment to receive the gift of suffering from the hand of an all-wise and sovereign God.” I now look back on the mental and emotional anguish I’ve been through as an incredible gift. I’ve experienced God’s love in a deeply personal way, amazing freedom from the release of past sin and from the absence of terrifying fear and shame in seeking forgiveness now, and can empathize with others so much better now, and am much more sensitive and open to God’s leading than ever, ever before.

    And the process of transformation that began with suffering continues even now. Just this week I finally dared to openly share of just how terrifying my walk through PTSD truly was and how close I came to taking my own life. The triggers: hearing of a friend of a friend suffering from PTSD and wanting her to know she is not alone and should not be ashamed of what she is going through, a friend noticing that my writing lacked true depth of emotion, as if it was still veiled and God encouraging me to look back and see His hand present, where I’d never noticed it before. And here’s where what you shared on weeping with those suffering is SO vital: that kind of ministry is absolutely essential to removing the shame of suffering. The biggest gift I experienced was when a woman I’d only just started getting to know through Bible study heard me share about my struggles and invited herself over that same afternoon. She sat there and just wept and wept as I poured out my heart. I can not tell you what an INCREDIBLE gift that was to me: right when shame hovered over me.


    1. Thank you for opening your heart here, Anna. Not an easy thing to do anywhere, and I’m sure that you are right — this is part of the healing. So glad that you are learning to trust and to take the grace and help God is bringing into your days.


  2. The term “relational ecosystem” is a meaningful one for the scientist in me. Our actions do not take place in a vacuum; they affect ourselves, others, and God themselves.


    1. Yes! I underlined every single occurrence of that word in the book and wanted to make sure I mentioned it in the review because it was a new term to me and it speaks so loudly about our fallenness and the groaning of life on a fallen planet. Thanks for reading, Hayli! I love “the scientist in you.”


  3. And one last thing: there is still SO much stigma attached to mental suffering, even in the church. Often people don’t know what to say and remain silent, or they downplay it, thinking you’re exaggerating things/ creating the problems yourself. I think in many ways I thought the same until I went through it myself. I’ve thought about getting involved in starting a ministry for mental health sufferers at church. Our church is great at caring for the physically ill, but the mentally ill so easily fall through the cracks, because their suffering is less visible and less understandable (unless you’ve been through it yourself).


    1. Yes. We’re very uncomfortable with what we don’t understand, and those of us in the church are quick to put a label or a band aid on everything. There’s so much more to this than we can address with a quick fix.


  4. Wow, Michele. You are into some deep reading, friend! I love that Elizabeth Elliot quote. I never thought about how pain doesn’t necessarily involve suffering. I’ve had a challenging year, but I know God has my good and His glory planned. This helps me more than I can say.


    1. I’m blessed that anything I offer could be of help to you, Betsy. I hope you keep sharing and writing about what God is doing in your heart through all the changes and adjustments in your home and your ministry. The other distinction the authors made was between personal weakness and sin. I didn’t make the review even longer by going into that, but I think it’s an important distinction because we often add to our suffering when we get the two confused.


  5. The Lord is teaching us to trust Him fully in every circumstance, no matter how painful. It’s hard to imagine that joy comes from pain. A mother giving birth is the most painful time, but when her precious child is born she no longer thinks of the pain she endured, now she is filled with joy at the new life that’s come into this world.
    I haven’t read the book you mentioned, but I’ve heard of Jim and Elizabeth Elliot….even read some amazing quotes by them. It’s easy to get stuck in painful circumstances, but if we look to Jesus and see He is allowing these things to train us up in the way we should go, oh the joy and thanks giving that will flood our souls.
    Thank you, Michele, for sharing this. ((((much love and hugs)))))

    Philippians 3:10-11
    that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

    Hebrews 5:7-8
    who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered.

    Romans 8:18
    For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.

    Acts 14:22
    strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.”


  6. A dear friend and I were just talking about this a couple of months ago after hearing about our former pastor’s wife committing suicide. Two church splits really threw her for a loop and few knew what she was going through since she was a master at keeping a smile on her face. This is another great review, I’m going to be sharing it with a friend who is working with children and DFCS. Thanks for sharing with Thankful Thursdays.


  7. “God is fluent in the language of lament.” I was reading Paul’s letter to Timothy, amazed at his level of suffering and deep faith and steadfast purpose to spread the gospel. This looks like a great book that really causes you to think. Love your review!


  8. Hey Michele,
    I found your post today on Grace and Truth, and I always am pleased to “run into you.” What a thoughtful book review and fascinating topic. Thank you for sharing it with us.
    I hope you and your family are doing well.
    Blessings to you~


  9. “Because a lively faith is open to the uncomfortable questions and painful stories of those who suffer, the church gathered must be clear in its identity as a safe place for the expression of grief and disappointment.” This is so true, and often the church is not a safe place for that kind of expression. I pray that we will all recover lament as part of our worship. Blessings to you! I’m your neighbor at #GiveMeGrace today!


  10. Michele, God is so “fluent in the language of lament” and I truly believe embracing this truth makes all the difference in journeying gracefully through it. This is one of my favorite posts I’ve read of yours! I look so forward to wondering what book you are going to feature:)


  11. What an interesting book! I loved how they said that David’s family was a relational debris field. So true! Relationships bring suffering. They are not perfect. They do bring emotional and mental pain. But what is awesome is how as a Christian, they bring us closer to God’s grace. Super cool book review. visiting from coffee for your heart #37


  12. Wow! This book sounds like a very deep and thought provoking read! You are amazing, Michele! I’m thrilled it addresses mental illness. It is still such a topic that needs awareness and education!
    Blessings, my friend!!


    1. I was happy to find that it not only addressed mental illness, but also family dysfunction and sexual abuse: prevalent roots of suffering and pain in our fallen world. Lori, it’s always a treat when you visit here.


  13. Thank you for informing me that this book is published. I am a 2011 alum of MBI and I heard Dr. Peterman’s first presentation on the theology of emotions (in fact, I wonder if my question I presented during it made it into this book… what was that question now…?).

    I went for a jog with Dr. Schmutzer’s son in October and he gave me some of the working thoughts for this book. I will have to buy a copy of this. It will surely be of great benefit for pastoral ministry.

    Thanks for this review!


    1. What fun to hear about your connection to these authors. I positively loved this book, and want to re-read it. You will definitely enjoy hearing the authors’ voices come through the text.


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