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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Everything Happens to Everyone

Duke Divinity Professor and public Christian, Kate Bowler, was only thirty-five years old and a new mother when doctors made the terrifying discovery that she had Stage IV colon cancer spreading through her abdomen. When she published an account of her faith and ongoing medical battles in The New York Times, she received responses telling her, among other things, that her cancer was caused by unconfessed sin or that acai berries would cure her. Her book, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I Have Loved, is her attempt to answer those well-meaning critics, to answer that universal, human question when faced with tragedy: Why? Kate Bowler’s answer is that there is no why, there is no order or reason, and we had better put our energies toward enjoying the good we have today.

While I sympathize with her response, and I agree with her outlook on present blessings, I have another perspective, forged in a similar fire: everything happens to everyone, and it happens for a reason.

No, I don’t mean every tragedy and every blessing possible happens to each and every person on the planet. What I mean is that you cannot single out Christians and say they get more blessings (or curses) in their lives than the average Joe. Just look around you. Christians and non-Christians get cancer in the same proportion as everyone else (though outcomes may be slightly better). They lose children in the same proportion as everyone else. They get divorced in the same proportion as everyone else, and that’s a behavior-related problem! If they didn’t then someone would have noticed, and surely everyone on the planet would be calling themselves a true believer. Christians also get rich, attain their dreams and live long lives in approximately the same proportions as everyone else. You cannot look at a person or their beliefs and predict or explain what happens to them. Everything happens to everyone. 

In contrast to Dr. Bowler, however, I believe these statistically random events do happen for a reason. I can’t tell you that reason, not beyond a generic response such as, “for God’s glory.” And I suspect the individual reasons may be many and varied. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. We can examine any story in the Bible and find there are reasons for the tragedies therein. Joseph was sold into slavery and accused of a crime he did not commit so as to put him in the right place at the right time. Jonah was nearly drowned because of his disobedience (there’s a behavior-related problem for you). Mary and Martha grieved the death of their brother so the faith of many, including Mary and Martha, would be supernaturally strengthened. Paul and Barnabas had a bitter fight so that many more churches could be planted and discipled. Jesus died on the cross, an innocent man crucified like the lowest of criminals, so that all His brothers and sisters could live forever.

To all who struggle and hurt, who crave answers, who might even be willing to suffer if you knew it meant something, here is what Scripture says to you:

  1. God is in control. I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things (Is. 45:6,7).
  2. God has His purposes. I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose, calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.’ (Is. 46:9-11) 
  3. For you who love the Lord, those purposes are good. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).

Because we can’t, at times, understand the last point, we tend to doubt the others. Some might even call it heresy, profaning God, to say that a young mother with cancer could, in any sense, be good. I don’t pretend to understand it, either, and I am not trying to give you the answer. I am just repeating God’s assertion that there IS an answer. If God could take the greatest disaster that ever occurred (the murder of His only Son) and turn it into the greatest good that ever happened (the eternal salvation of all who believe), then, surely, He can do that for our little tragedies, too.

Most of the time we must wait our turn for a personal audience before we can “know as we are known,” but occasionally, we do get glimpses of God’s glory shining through the darkness. In my own case, if I had to do it all again, to live through years of cancerous gloom in order to get to the place of faith and ministry where He has brought me today, I would do it willingly, gladly. I truly believe there is a similar happy ending to all the stories, even the ones where young mothers aren’t healed, but faith means believing that without seeing it.

We serve a God who does not discriminate in the gifts and catastrophes He allows upon the earth during our era of brokenness. But we also serve a God who controls the sparrow in the sky and the hairs on our head with love and with purpose. Everything happens to everyone – and it happens for a reason.


Related Material:

Why Me? – Dear Christian Counselor
When God’s Sovereignty Scares You – The Gospel Coalition
On God’s Sovereignty in Painful Times – John Piper
A Few Examples of Reasons We Suffer – Focus on the Family
Kate Bowler’s Original Article – New York Times

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, a book review

Why do bad things happen to faithful people? It’s a question which drove me to despair as a young Christian struggling with the devastating effects of stage 4 cancer. It’s a question which has caused my friends and clients great dismay over the course of my counseling ministry. When I needed answers, I was able to find books dealing with either the theological tangles (most notably for me, The Sovereignty of God by AW Pink) or the emotional process of suffering (e.g., A Grief Observed by CS Lewis or Holding On To Hope by Nancy Guthrie). Now there is a book which attempts to include both the intellectual questions and the practical strategies in one volume, Tim Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (Random House, 2013).

The book is divided into three parts. Simply put, the first part defines the questions inherent in suffering, the second part wrestles with those questions and the third part offers some Scriptural strategies for coping with suffering. That means two thirds of the book is intellectual in nature, a preponderance concealed by the title. And yet, that was the crux of the matter for me. When I was able to discern a little logic, a little purpose in the universe which included suffering, it eased some of the exhaustion, anger and depression I carried with me like a dead weight. Keller also deals with the heavy intellectual emphasis by including personal stories at the end of each chapter in the first two sections, a practice I wish he had continued into the third part, as well.

I liked this book – but I like Keller, and I like theology. Before recommending it to someone else, I would want to know whether they are ready for a gentle exercise in philosophy. Part of the reason I enjoyed the book was that it confirmed some of my own beliefs, for example, that God is in control, that the world is a broken place and that suffering is and will be redemptive. Everyone must come to their own conclusions about the meaning of life and the purpose of suffering – I don’t think being handed a mantra on a silver platter solves anything – and this book allows room for that kind of wrestling. It also attempts to provide some practical strategies for dealing with pain, largely from the Psalms, but there is something about those final chapters which falls short, remaining too academic for me. Coping with suffering, like everything else we do, can be worship – should be worship – and at its best, worship is a passionate undertaking. For that you will have to read something else.