Two weeks ago, we used Psalm 137 to talk about those times when we desperately need God’s help and yet no help seems to come. Last week, we used Exodus 33-34 to talk about those times when we doubt God’s care for us. These can be very different experiences, but what they have in common is the pain that they cause.
This week, I want us to broaden our thinking a little bit. My wife and I are currently reading Samuel Chand’s excellent book Leadership Pain. Chand argues that pain is the price of admission to leadership. Furthermore, he contends that we need to stop seeing pain as our “enemy” and start seeing it as our “friend.”
These provocative assertions got me thinking. Could Chand be right? How should we view the spiritual and emotional hardships that we endure, and what role do they play in our lives? Is suffering really that important?
Not surprisingly, the Bible has a few things to say about pain. Let’s survey some of the most important lessons we learn from our interactions with Christian Scripture.
Pain Is NOT an Ultimate Good
Pain is not an ultimate good. In fact, pain is probably not even a good. What do I mean? Simply this. Pain does not, in and of itself, increase the quality of human existence, and it is not a criterion that we use to assess the moral value of an event or action. Pain may have some utility in terms of protecting us from harm, forming our character, etc., but it is not something that we desire on the basis of its own merits. For example, my friend had a car crash recently and endured a lot of physical and financial pain. His insureance premiums went up because of his accident, I recommended that he look into Money Experts comparison service. If you’re interested, get more information here.
So, how do we know that pain is not an ultimate good? First of all, we know it because we have experienced pain and so are acquainted with its character. Physical pain is, in some circumstances, a good analogue for the kind of psychological and spiritual hardship that we are discussing. When I put my hand on a hot stove, I value the pain that my action causes, but not for the pain itself. I value it because it prevents me from experiencing a worse ill—the destruction of my hand.
Second, we know that pain is not an ultimate good because it is explicitly excluded from the eschatological future. Revelation 21:4 says that there will be no “pain” (????? for all you Greek scholars) in the new creation. Moreover, it implies that “pain” belongs to the way things are done now and associates it with other relics of the old age, like “death” and grief.
Of course, the seer isn’t talking about whether it will hurt if you stub your toe on a rock. He is talking about the kind of pain that really matters, the inner torment that shatters hearts and shrivels souls. He is talking about the pain that is an unavoidable part of our world because our world is immersed in sin and in the death that sin inevitably brings. By the time we get to Revelation 21, death has already been thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14), and the seer’s point seems to be that, when death is dispatched once and for all, “pain” will go with it.
God Is Bigger than Our Pain
Pain is not an ultimate good; in fact, pain is a tool that the Enemy uses to accomplish a lot of evil. Nevertheless, we do not have to be prisoners of our pain. From first to last, the message of the Bible is that God is bigger than anything that we will experience in this world, including pain.
In fact, God is so big that He is able to take one of the Enemy’s favorite tools and beat him over the head with it. The point of Romans 8:28 is not that God endorses whatever evil may befall us. And it is certainly not that God causes it to happen. Rather, it is that, when our world is falling down around us, God is still working. He doesn’t run for the hills when everything we have worked for and everything we love goes up in flames. No, God is still on the job, devising ways to use our sorrow for the good of the creatures and the creation that He loves.
I recognize that, in the context of Christianity’s claims that God is all-knowing and all-powerful, this can be a difficult teaching to accept. The wounded heart cries out, “God is God! He knew that this was going to happen to me, and He could have stopped it! He could have done whatever it is that He wanted to do with this horrible event some other way!”
We need to remember, however, that God is engaged in a careful dance between His prerogatives as creator and sustainer of the universe and His commitment to invest human actions with meaning. Only God has the wisdom to choreograph that dance. Believe me when I tell you that I am not always satisfied with the results of God’s direction. Sometimes, I wish for a little more providence and a little less free will. But I hope that I am learning to appreciate the difficulty of God’s task—and to recognize that it is not a task that I am able to do.
Redemption Requires Suffering
There is another reason that God works through pain. As we have already noted, pain is a ubiquitous element of the human experience. It is a natural outgrowth of the sin that so easily ensnares all of us. If God’s redemptive purposes are to have any relevance for us, they must somehow deal with the suffering that we experience.
Perhaps God could have done this in some other way, but His love for humanity drove Him to share humanity’s experience of pain. Jesus lived as a wandering preacher, with no home, no wife, and no children to call his own. He felt the sting of betrayal; he knew the pain of loss. And, in the end, he took upon himself the torment and humiliation that we so richly deserve.
But Jesus didn’t suffer so that we don’t have to. Instead, Jesus invites us to know him—and, by knowing him, to know the Father and the Holy Spirit. Knowing God requires pain (cf. Mark 8:34-38 and parallels). Of course, we are all familiar with Paul’s admonition to put to death all of those parts of us that give expression to sin. Dying almost always requires pain, and we have to accept that pain if we are to find new life in Christ.
But there is another reason that we must embrace the pain that comes with being Jesus’ disciple. We cannot know our God without knowing the love that motivated Him to accept the pain of the cross, and we cannot love our world without sharing in its pain. When we hurt, especially when we hurt because of things that other people have done, we gain a new appreciation for the love that stands at the heart of Cod’s character and the empathy we need to minister that love to those around us.
Struggle and Resolution
The third verse of Graham Kendrick’s beautiful hymn “Knowing You” has always troubled me. Knowing the power that raised Jesus from the dead certainly has an appeal, but knowing his pain and sharing his death are not nearly so attractive. If I am honest with myself (and with you), I came out of the womb with an aversion to pain, and nothing that I have experienced in this life has done anything to diminish that natural inclination.
Nevertheless, I hope that I have finally at least begun the process of coming to terms with the pain that I dread. Is pain our friend? I don’t think so. I think that people are right to say that it shouldn’t be this way and to avoid pain when they can. But I also think that we cannot know God or love the world without participating in this essential aspect of human life. I’m not going to be asking God to bring me more pain any time soon. I am a wimp, and I am not ashamed to admit it. But I’ll tell you what I am going to do. I am going to ask God to use the pain I experience to help me know Him, and I am going to ask God to bring meaning to my pain by using it to help others. I hope that you will do the same.