The opioid addiction epidemic in our country — and in our county — has reached a frightening level.
Recent data shows one in four babies born in our city is born from a mother addicted to pain medication. This means these babies are beginning life in a compromised family setting that puts at great risk their success at healthy development and a full life.
What does religion have to do with this epidemic? Everything!
Pain is at the heart of our salvation story, both physical and emotional. Our pain, as sinful humans trapped in a hopeless predicament that required ultimate consequences to atone, encountered the cataclysmic event of God the Father’s pain on our behalf. In incredible response, God endured the pain of Jesus’ death that finally broke the cycle of sin and death.
Much of the church has, however, gradually moved away from a strong sense that pain, per se, has anything to teach us. Overwrought parents seek to prevent their children from suffering any pain — physical, mental or emotional — in a misguided effort to demonstrate love to their children. We have inadvertently taught our children and ourselves that if we suffer, if we endure a moment’s psychic anxiety or physical discomfort, then it is a wrong circumstance and must be immediately relieved.
We are losing hold of the reality that one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is to convict our hearts of sin, to give us sleepless nights and to have worried minds so we will be driven to quiet times for serious and honest reflection on our lives.
We have taught our children that failing is something to fear rather than something from which we can learn and grow. This has caused us to be fearful of pain and to have no capacity for enduring it or learning from it. Instead, it has driven us to anesthetize ourselves against it.
How can the church intervene?
First, the church can continue to offer opportunities for individuals to talk honestly to a minister or in small faith support groups about how they are suffering. Bringing our pain into the light is an important step in authentically engaging it.
In addition, this sort of confession acknowledges any individual suffering has an impact on the welfare of the whole community.
Next, we can consider whether the pain we are experiencing is the result of our own sinful behavior. This consideration happens during prayer.
If it is our own fault, we can pray for the strength to change our behavior and seek reconciliation. If, during prayer, we can find no direct connection between our behavior and our suffering, we can give thanks to God for the circumstances that are driving us to pray and deepen our empathy for others.
Finally, we can challenge ourselves to rise above the temptation to focus all our energy on our situation and act compassionately toward others, offering our pain to God.
When we believe God is able to redeem all things, even suffering, we can trust God is at work in our suffering to use us as a witness of love to a suffering world. Jesus showed us that complete restoration with God and each other comes when we see ourselves in the entirety of our situation, including our suffering circumstances.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park is the associate rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.