The Mathematics of Misery

One of the many memorable lines from the classic The Princess Bride says it admirably. In that film, the then-mysterious Man in Black says to the Princess, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” This is not cynicism, but consensus, for it expresses a universal feeling. Life is filled with pain and loss, with sickness, bereavement, and death. And, to put it in historical perspective, let us remember that most of human existence was lived without the benefit of an anesthetic. If you think that a visit to the dentist is bad enough now, think of your ancestors’ solution to dental pain—or to diseased limbs. Even apart from disasters like earthquake, plague, famine, and war, life is filled with suffering and it is not surprising that the poets described human existence as a vale of tears.

Children learn this early enough, and recoil from pain. One of life’s earliest inquiries is the question, “Will it hurt?” or it’s more detailed variant, “How much will it hurt?” Note the sophistication of the latter query: the enquirer already knows it will hurt; he or she just wants to locate it on the pain scale. The question presupposes an experience of pain and simply desires to know its comparative intensity. The Man in Black was right: life is pain.

That is why the Christian message is Good News. In our comparatively brief sojourn in this vale of tears (for what’s eighty years give or take compared with ages of ages?) we do a lot of crying, and that is why the Lord promises that He will wipe away every one of those tears when we finally emerge from this dark valley of the shadow of death and arrive on the other side. Let everyone who has ever lost a child know this: those who land on that bright shore will hunger and thirst no longer, and the sunstroke of suffering will afflict them no more. The Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd and guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Revelation 7:16-17). Before the throne, sorrow cannot survive. With the Lamb as our shepherd, there is only reunion, and peace, and joy.

And the Good News gets better. What finally awaits us at the resurrection, when we have passed through the river of the fire of God’s judgment, is an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4:17). The Greek word here usually translated as “weight” is the word baros, meaning “burden.” A “weight” might mean anything from a pound or two upwards (like the tiny weight I might lift if anyone could persuade me to try my hand at weight-lifting). A baros is different; it is the word used by the day-laborers in the parable of Matthew 20:12 to describe their back-breaking work in the scorching heat. And such is the weight of that glory that Saint Paul affirms that the sufferings of this age are but “a slight momentary affliction” by comparison. Whatever terrible things we might endure in this life, the glory to come will make them seem insignificant. The final joy will undo all the mathematics of misery which mark us in this age. Until then, life still holds the promise of pain. But rather than focusing on the present and asking, “How much (or worse yet, “how long”) will it hurt?” let us focus on Christ and the age to come. Here pain is as predictable and constant as the multiplication table. But a day is coming when all that agonizing arithmetic will be forgotten. Let us fix our gaze on that, for every day we hurtle closer towards it.

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