My mind has been plagued by “What if?”s lately. What if this hadn’t happened? What if I had not said this? What if? What if? WHAT IF?

We are told to not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about it’s own things; sufficient for the day is its own troubles. We aren’t told anything about worrying about yesterday and wondering what things would be like if it had been different. But something about this thought process strikes me as wrong and flawed. There is something quite contrary to the notion that we are to always be in positive action that clashes with a mind caught in the past and what has happened.

There is also something that reeks of ingratitude about it. In the prayer of thanksgiving, we give thanks for every condition, in any condition, and concerning every condition. But a thought process devoted to wondering what if the past had been different does not give thanks for the past conditions. It is the very essence of ingratitude. It is defiantly telling God, “I may say I trust in Your will and that all that You do for me is done for the best, but I still think I could have worked it out better.”

This thought process also robs us of our ability to rejoice, and we are told to rejoice always. When caught in what has been and what could have been, there is no room left to rejoice in the present moment. There is no room to give thanks for now. There is no room to live.

There may not be an express warning about getting lost in the “What if?”s of yesterday (that I know of, if you have any please share) but the very thought process contradicts several of the commands we are given. I cannot submit my present will to Him if I cannot accept His past will for me. Time to leave “What if?” in the past.

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How long, O LORD ? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and every day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, O LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;

my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing to the LORD,
for he has been good to me.

– Psalm 13

When I was younger I often struggled with one particular question endlessly. I asked everyone I could for an answer, parents, friends, Sunday school teachers, priests, bishops, anyone and everyone I could reach. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how one could go about living Christian love, a love that endures and gives and gives even to those who hate us, without getting hurt. All my attempts at living this love ended up with me sorely hurt and terribly afraid to try again (although through His grace, I always did try again.)

“Where do you draw the line?” I would ask over and over again. And every time I would never really get an answer. I grew even more upset and frustrated. All I could think was, so basically, if I live a life of love then I am guaranteed to get hurt endlessly for the rest of my life. Where do you draw the line? It didn’t seem right. Christ didn’t say come to me all you weary and feel even worse. After all, joy and peace are just two of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

My answer came one day some time ago in a lightening bolt-like moment when I was reading over this part of the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

The answer plainly looked me in the face. He says nothing at all about drawing any lines, therefore one cannot be drawn if one intends to live His words and commandments. I could not love and give and serve to a certain point and then stop once I hit my line in the sand. No, in fact, He tells us to go two miles when we are asked only to go one, give to those who ask, and never turn away one who wants to borrow.

So if one can’t draw a line, then it’s a lifetime of hurt and tears?

No, not quite… You see, I was having what I have now come to refer to as an application confusion problem. This can be better explained by giving another experience of mine where I asked about the now-false proverbial line between love and pain. During a rough patch in life, I ended up going through what at the time seemed like a gross betrayal of trust (things are always so big in the moment and so much smaller in hindsight.) I went back and forth with my father of confession about it, me declaring that I couldn’t trust this person any longer and falling into the depths of my line-drawing despair, when he promptly stopped me and said, “You don’t have to trust her to treat her with love and respect.”

And so my lightening-bolt moment was really when what he had said to me and the excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount collided to create understanding. Since then, I have learned to put my heart in the hands of few, in the hands of those who reflect the Godliness I want in my life. To live a life of Christian love, one does not need to hand one’s heart away to every person along the path, more often than not people will be callous and careless with it. Instead, I learned that it meant to open up my heart to every person along the path. And the only way the heart can remain open to everyone and yet remain protected is when it is placed in the hands of God. He simultaneously shields it and multiplies its love and strengthens it. So ultimately the heart is made of extraordinary mettle, strong yet gentle like its Creator and Perfecter.

We all hurt. We all feel pain. We all experience sorrow and loss. Even those who seem to have been born with a golden spoon in their mouths, whose every wish and whim is fulfilled, experience the ache. Even those who seem to have permanent smiles on their faces and endless cheer and joy have tear-soaked moments. (Ironically, the ever-happy seem to experience the most pain.)

I’d like you to pause for a moment and quickly recollect what you’ve labeled as the most painful experience of your life thus far, emotional or physical or perhaps the emotional pain so great that your very body physically ached. Once you have it in your mind’s eye, answer a question: What does the world around you look like? Who’s around you?

Chances are you can’t recall the world. You can’t recall much of anything. It just hurt and that’s all there is to the moment. The world with its day to day hustle and bustle, your clothes, your food, the news, your car, your job, your classes, your studies, the time, the day, the dishes, the dog, dinner, laundry, everything just simply disappears. In that moment, you have broken free of the world so to speak.

In her book, The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry articulates this notion quite eloquently and succinctly when she writes the following: “The absence of pain is the presence of world; the presence of pain is the absence of world.” The first time I read that quote I remember my mind reeling with thoughts. I had often thought about the issue of pain. Why we felt it, why it was so awful, why it seemed to be what stood out in our memories over the joy and the laughter. The thoughts stretch back in time as far back as I can remember actively thinking about my faith in Christ in order to deepen and expand it. In their most simplistic form, my thoughts went a little like this:

God = Love, happiness, joy, hope, and all the good stuff out there.

pain = all the crappy stuff out there, no joy, no love, no hope.

It seemed that God and pain could not coexist. So you stick close to God and you shouldn’t ever feel any of the bad stuff, right? No, not so much. It’s not flawed reasoning to think so because God is our shield and our protector. He gave His only begotten Son for us that we may have eternal life and not perish. So it is true, pain and God do not coexist. But this is an incomplete picture, and an incomplete picture leads to incomplete reasoning.

The Book of Revelation helps complete the picture. In it St. John writes of Christ’s second coming: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4). The notion that God’s presence wipes away pain is reaffirmed but here it is qualified–all the former things have passed away. The world with its 1,001 worries, distractions, temptations is gone, and only God in all His glory is there. How can there be pain and suffering? It’s not possible.

But we live in the world. We cannot escape it. In effect, there is no way out till we breathe our last. The worries, distractions, and temptations are simply a fixture of our corporeal existence. And as long as we are trapped in this world and simply focused on our corporeal experience and only concerned with the body and what will satisfy it, then we will never come to experience the joy of God’s presence for all of eternity. So now Scarry’s theory comes in to clarify things. She writes that the only thing that can shatter the hold of the world on us and break us out of its grasp and, in a way, out of ourselves is pain.

In order to look above and beyond to Him, we must experience pain and sorrow. The world is no more when we hurt. And when we see beyond the world we can see God and all of His comfort and mercy. Although we remain planted here physically, as the world melts away in the face of our struggles and only God remains, we are comforted by Him. In his most painful moments, David the prophet and the king writes “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning…Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing: thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness…” (Psalm 30:5, 11).

We feel pain so that we may see Him. When we see Him we are engulfed in His warmth and we are comforted. And we have the His promise of second coming when all the former things have passed and the pain itself no longer exists.