The Gifts of Pain

 

A headache built slowly as I continued to chat with friends and play with the kids. When it reached the stage where I could no longer laugh at old jokes or clear plates from the table, I retired to the coolness of the basement guestroom where I was staying. As more hours passed, the dull throbbing in my temples turned into exquisite agony, not just behind my eyes but over the entire surface of my head. The medication which usually helped my migraines couldn’t touch it. To lay on a pillow or lean against the wall was impossible because the pressure was too excruciating. Around midnight I began to vomit, so sleep was out of the question anyway.

Perhaps you think that’s a strange opening for a blog about the gifts of pain. However, that long, sleepless night, spent alone and in anguish, is one of the sweetest experiences I’ve ever had of the Presence of God. He gave me many assurances of His love and care for me as I sang hymns (maybe I only sang inside my head, I’m not sure) and rocked myself through the small hours. Telling the story reminds me that God is at work in all my experiences of pain, even when He is not comforting me supernaturally as on that night.

Here are a few of the gifts pain has left for me in its wake, like beautiful, costly presents found under a black and twisted tree.

  • Pain strips us of our superficial concerns. It is hard to worry about having a bad hair day when you have to focus on walking from the car to the office without falling or crying out. It’s hard to care about the latest celebrity scandal when you are preparing for the next operation.
  • Pain reminds us of our frailty. We all have the tendency to believe we are “fine,” that we can do this thing called life on our own, that we don’t need help from anyone, not even from God. Pain reminds us: this is always a lie. As Tim Keller wrote, “You don’t really know Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.”
  • Pain causes us to pray. I pray more times a day related to my physical struggles than I do for any other reason. I wish it were not so, but in the end, I spend much more time with my Lord than I would otherwise, and I cannot wish that away.
  • Pain has the power to give us empathy. If we allow it, our own tenderness can give us a tender heart for others. The key is to remember the subjectivity of pain and to assume that others suffer in significant ways, even as we do.
  • Pain gives us a truer picture of the cross. No one can suffer as Jesus did (physically, psychologically or spiritually) when He bore the sins of the world in His final agony or compare their pain to His. But our temporal suffering gives us a small window into the sacrifice He made for our sakes. Pain can be a place of worship.

The psalmists felt their pain was an appropriate sacrifice to bring before the Lord, and ours is, too. We can only give God what He has given us. If we believe He gives us good health and earthly blessings, then we must also believe that He withholds them, leaving us the pain which colors each of our stories in a different way. It can be a curse suffered wretchedly and in anger.  Or pain can be an opportunity for grace, a means of knowing Christ better and a place of worship.


The box quotes throughout this post have been contributed by real sufferers. Please contribute your own thoughts and ideas, especially if you live with chronic pain, by clicking the “Reply” link at the top of the page or the “Comment” box at the bottom.


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Living with Chronic Pain


John Kennedy. Renoir. Benjamin Franklin. Lucille Ball. Herod the Great. These are just a few of the individuals throughout history who have suffered great pain (some of them coped better than others). Even today, pain affects more people than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined, and chronic pain is the leading cause of long-term disability in the U.S., affecting one out of every four Americans. I am one of those people, having experienced some degree of pain from the time I was twenty-two. Physical suffering is also a spiritual and a psychological issue, famous for making people ‘stronger,’ and famous, too, for destroying lives. The next few blog posts will feature some reflections on pain and some practical suggestions for living with it. I would love to have your feedback and ideas along the way, especially if this is a problem you face.

Let’s start with some medical and theological basics.

The presence of all kinds of pain is a direct result of the fall. Both Adam and Eve are condemned to suffer pain (See Gen. 3:16, 17), which is probably a sign that all of us will struggle with some form of pain in our lives. It will be our curse until the day all tears cease (Rev. 21:4). We can find examples of pain throughout the Bible, particularly in the books of Job and Jeremiah. Psalms and the letters of Paul speak of pain, too, but they largely refer to emotional pain. Surprisingly, science has begun to show that emotional and physical pain are intimately related, sharing the same area of the brain. (As a result, acetaminophen can actually help relieve sadness!) Physical pain often causes emotional pain, and it can work in the reverse, too. So, it seems likely that many of our ideas about pain can apply to either variety.

Pain is not a punishment. At least, not for those in Christ. Pain is a result of the sin which caused the fall, and that sin belongs to all of us. But what has been decreed as punishment for all has been redeemed for some. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). Sin does have consequences, and we sometimes, though rarely, suffer pain because of our specific sins, but God promises to transform all our pain into something good for us (Rom. 8:28). Punishment comes from anger and says, “I will make you pay.” Discipline comes from love and says, “I will make you beautiful.”

Pain has good purposes. Fire burns, tigers bite and men bleed. Pain is the body’s early warning system, the physical alarm to wake us from carelessness, and woe to those few who cannot feel it. I am alive because a small, troubling pain in one knee alerted my doctors to the presence of cancer while it was still treatable. Pain has been the motivation for the development of many curative medications and procedures, and pain also helps us grow. Without wishing suffering on anyone, it is generally true that the wisest, strongest, most patient people we know are some of those who have suffered. For example, the bravest person I know is someone who faces down many kinds of suffering every day. Pain holds the potential to teach us much about dependence, humility and strength in weakness; it can be a useful tool in the hands of a master carver who is in the business of sculpting beauty from ashes (Is. 61:3, Jer. 18:4-6). We tend to think the breeding ground for discontent is hardship, and pain, but it may actually be a comfortable life.

The same degree of pain can seem to be worse depending on its cause. Pain can feel more severe and be harder to bear when it is maliciously inflicted. Which could you tolerate more easily – receiving a life-saving vaccine or being deliberately stabbed with a large pin by a spiteful sibling? Unexpected pain can be worse than expected or chronic pain. Doctors know that it is important to give patients a realistic description of pain following surgery in order to increase their pain tolerance. Pain is also more debilitating when we do not know its source; it becomes a focus of worry, and we find ourselves sensitively attuned to the slightest changes.

Pain can turn us TOWARD God or AWAY from Him. Contributing to our discomfort is the modern, Western entitlement to physical well-being. When we assume we shouldn’t have pain (physical or emotional), pain becomes a place of frustration and anger. The story of the Bible calls us each to follow Christ in our own way, to enter “the fellowship of His sufferings” according to that which is given us. Christ has shown us how to bear great pain and has promised to be with us in all circumstances so that our suffering can draw us closer to Him in intimate relationship. When the pain has chased away every other succor from our conscious existence, then it has driven us straight to the cross. In my very real experience, God is the only thing which can co-exist with overwhelming pain because He is indeed everywhere and in everything, having overcome every tribulation of the world by His own suffering (John 16:33).

If Christ is our example, then pain is to be born in humility rather than anger or entitlement. Certainly, we should seek out the remedies available to us, but when God has not made an effective therapy available, we must look differently at the life He has given us. Where are the opportunities for grace? Where can we find wisdom, strength and love in a different degree than we might know without our pain? Where is there room for service, worship and the gifts of the Spirit inside the circumstances we would shed in a heartbeat?

We do not have a choice about struggling in this life. The thing we do here which cannot be done in Heaven is struggle, so it must be that we need it. We will all suffer in various ways, and we cannot choose to avoid all of it. We can only choose whether we do it with God as Great Physician, Friend and Comforter – or without Him.


The box quotes throughout this post have been contributed by real sufferers. Please contribute your own thoughts and ideas, especially if you live with chronic pain, by clicking the “Reply” link at the top of the page or the “Comment” box at the bottom.

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Thorns

Rose thorns

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.”  (Gen. 3:17b-19)

Thorns are thick on the ground this week. People close to me have been wounded, and the garden seems foreign and menacing. This dimming of the world’s beauty has taken me by surprise, and I am tempted to raise my fist in anger. I’d forgotten about the thorns. Oh, I’ve pricked my finger on a hybrid rose and pitied myself for a moment, but I’d forgotten about the real thorns, the wild thorns, the brutish kind they used for Jesus’s crown.

Dangerous barbs grow side by side with luscious fruit and lovely flowers in God’s kingdom. I used to think they wouldn’t grow here, shouldn’t grow here, and in those days I did raise my fist in anger. But now, in my head at least, I know that the world doesn’t magically change its character when the Gardener King adopts me. We live in the now-and-not-yet that theologians talk about, that space between realizing we are royalty and taking up all the privileges of royalty. And in that space the thorns continue to thrive.

So what advantage prayer? What advantage faith? If I was in control, I would arrange things for my children with partiality. But in God’s garden the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. So, too, the thorns. What difference, then, between our lives before belief and after? Two things, at least, two things I’ve been holding onto this week.

First, the thorns are no longer futile. They are good for something. That’s not what I want to hear when a thorn has been driven deep and the blood is flowing, but later, when my heart is still, it helps to know that there is purpose even in disaster, that in some mysterious, future way, the pain will reap a harvest of beauty – a glory that will be specific to us and our story (Rom. 8:18). We don’t have a choice about the thorns. Our only choice is whether our wounds have value or not. It helps me to believe they do.

Second, we don’t suffer the thorns alone. I want someone to go with me to the hospital when I’m in pain. God promises to go where even humans cannot go, to comfort, strengthen and watch over us in our need. We don’t have a choice about the thorns. Our only choice is to suffer them alone or never to be alone again.

pruning shearsNo, the world doesn’t magically change into a verdant, fairy tale meadow. It is and stays a fallen place filled with entangling vines, muddy pits, biting insects and giant thorns. God’s kingdom comes first in our hearts (Luke 17:21). Our job is to create beauty in the midst of the mess, and that’s what God is doing, too. He has planned this fallen abode to weed out the thorns in us, to produce the most beauty in and through us (and sometimes despite us). Does He answer prayers and bring sudden good from certain disaster? I believe He does – but rarely. In general, His good grace walks us through the suffocating mire and the slashing briers so that we become more than we are and prove our faith to ourselves. But this week I remembered that it hurts like hell.