Physical pain hurts, ugly things look bad, nasty smells smell nasty. What do these basic realities have to do with one another?
I’m pretty sure the conventional response is: not much. Ugliness is an aesthetic judgment, and aesthetics seem somehow not quite real – a kind of ethereal sensibility that one cannot possess absent a measure of training and refinement. Pain, on the other hand, is reality itself: as hard as the ground underneath one’s feet. It is the reality into which all other realities collapse. The more you hurt, the more you do nothing BUT hurt. No training is needed to absorb that lesson.
But I think these two spheres are much more closely linked than first appears. Spend some time in hospitals, and you’ll see the point. We recoil from pain, turn away from it – as though it were . . . well, ugly. Job – the book of the Bible that is centrally about pain – makes the link clear as can be. In Chapter 1, Job suffers the death and destruction of nearly all he holds dear – which is a pretty clear signal not to stand in Job’s vicinity: suffering, like the ugliness that follows in its wake, is catching. Then in chapter 2, Job himself gets boils so bad he sits scraping his own dead skin with broken pottery, “as he sat among the ashes.” Death and dirt and disgust are joined in equal measure, and all attach to Job’s person. Job hurts, Job is repulsive, and – last but definitely not least – Job is repulsive BECAUSE he hurts.
My back and right leg have hurt, nonstop, for several years now. Since the surgery to remove the tumor, my gut hurts worse than either. And I cannot shake the sense of ugliness. It clings to me, like a stain that cannot be cleansed. My friends and family members may not see the worst of it, but I see – and even I’m repulsed. God only knows how repulsive it must be to one who can see more clearly.
Which is why I’ve come to believe that the sweetest sentence in the English language is not “I love you”: that one’s too simple; love is too often utterly blind. No, far sweeter are the words “you are not ugly to me.” I hear those words and think: really? Nahh, it isn’t possible. Too good to be true.
And then I read the rest of Job’s story, and I think: Far from being this awful tale of a cold God gambling over his creatures’ pain, this may be the kindest, most loving story I’ve ever read, short of the gospels themselves. For what happens at the tale’s end? God wraps His arms around the ugly one, the one who picks at his sores in the ashes. He calls him “my servant Job” – makes him a member of the divine Household. Beauty and ugliness are turned upside down, inside out.
I think this is an important piece of redemption that contemporary Christian culture mostly misses. We’re very big these days on the idea that Jesus died for my sins – and He did, and that matters enormously. But more is going on here than a transaction involving the Creator, lots of individual creatures, and a balance sheet. Supreme ugliness entered the universe a very long time ago, and attached itself to us and to our world in the deepest ways imaginable. Inexpressible Beauty could have turned His back on all of it, but He didn’t: He wrapped His arms around it – more amazing still, he dove into the worst of it, swam in it, emerged with it dripping from His very pores. And, somehow, the ugliness itself was changed. A line from The Shawshank Redemption captures the point remarkably well. Red describes Andy Dufresne’s escape, which required him to crawl through a long sewer line to get out of the prison complex. “He crawled through a river of shit, and came out clean on the other side.” That gets it right, I think. Times like this, I see myself, just a little, as Andy Dufresne, looking up at that cleansing rain. Only I'm not the one who crawled through that nasty river. Someone else did it before me, and for me.