Embrace Your Pain and Be Blessed! (Part 1)
William Gaultiere, Ph.D.
"Rejoice in your trials!" we're told again and again in the Bible. Oh, but it's so hard! How? Why? A little boy named Jamie gives us a clue. He tried out for a part in his school play. He practiced, gave his all in the audition, and prayed. His heart was set on getting a part! Finally the list was posted. Jamie didn't get a part. He pressed his lips together and dropped his head in disappointment. But suddenly his head popped up again, his eyes brightened, and he rushed to his mother and exclaimed, "Guess what Mom? I've been chosen to clap and cheer!"
More than just a cute story, Jamie shows us how to find and act on the good in the midst of a painful situation. The Bible is full of real life stories of God's people responding to pain by deepening their trust in God and growing spiritually. One of my favorites is the story of Jacob.
JACOB WRESTELED WITH GOD IN HIS PAIN
That night to sleep you go out alone away from the noise and stench of the animals and away from the safety of your caravan. You're alone to pray and to sleep under the stars. Then in the middle of the night someone accosts you! He's fighting you! Surely, it's Esau come to murder you! What do you do? Scream for help! Plead for mercy! Better yet, you run! No. You realize it's an angel and you wrestle him. Yes, you fight an angel! And the angel wrenches your hip. You scream out in pain. He tries to get away, but you won't let him go! You keep wrestling him until daybreak!
What's going on? Is Jacob crazy? He's scared to death. He's in pain. He's getting beat up by an awesome and imposing creature from another world (Angels are not cute, chubby cherubs floating on clouds as they softly sing sweet songs; they are glorious and powerful creatures, warriors as well as ministers, that people are always afraid of at first.), but he keeps fighting! He wants to know the angel's name and he won't let go until he's blessed. Finally, the angel gives in and the wrestling match ends with Jacob being given a new name. No longer is he Jacob, "The Cheater," but now he is Israel, "The Overcomer," because he has struggled with God and prevailed.
Jacob is never told the angel's name, but he is blessed by God and so he names the place of his divine encounter Peniel, "The Face of God." In his painful trial when he was so scared of his brother's revenge he pleaded for God's favor and protection, he clung to God's promise to his father Abraham and to him to bless their family line. The angel wounded him in the wrestling match, but even with his heart crying out in fear and his hip screaming out in pain Jacob wouldn't let go of the angel until he had the blessing of seeing God's face and receiving his new name from God.
The rest of his life he'd walk with a limp… and a smile.
LEARN THE MEANING OF YOUR PAIN
The Bible has so much to teach us about pain, so much that is hard to understand and even harder to bear. How do we rejoice in trials? (James 1:2-4). How do we experience peace in trouble? (John 16:33). What's the blessing of being sad? (Matthew 5:4). Why does it seem that God is distant when we hurt the most? (Psalm 13:1). We have so many questions because we experience so much pain that we can't get free of.
Like Jacob, we need to understand the source of our suffering before we can know how to experience the blessing that God can give us in the midst of our pain. It made a big difference whether Jacob's painful wrestling match was Esau seeking murderous revenge, God punishing him for some sin in his life, or a trial that God was using to grow his faith. Since Adam and Even sinned and were kicked out of the Garden of Eden all people, all of creation even, has been subjected to the pain of being separated from God and the frustration of yearning for a reconciliation with God that we cannot effect ourselves. Only God can re-connect us with Him so that we enjoy his love and live the glorious life He created us for (Romans 8:20-22).
More specifically, I believe that there are four reasons for pain, four different types of pain that we experience in life outside the Garden of Eden that we were made for. As I'll explain later, understanding the reason for the pain you're in is crucial because it changes how to best respond.
I've learned that there are two polar tensions involved in the cause of pain. The first involves control. We experience pain either because of our choices or because of events that happen to us outside of our choosing. And the second polarity has to with morality in that we may suffer because of sin (ours or someone else's) or a stress that is separate from moral issues. It nets out as mapped in the table, "Four Reasons for Pain in a World Separated from God." (Of course, life doesn't always fit neatly into these four boxes so keep in mind that there may be overlap between the areas.) Four Reasons for Pain in a World Separated from God
1. We experience pain when someone chooses to sin against us.
A number of years ago a Christian minister who did marriage seminars around the country asked me to co-author a book with him on marriage because I was a published author and a Christian Psychologist. We discussed our ideas for the book and decided that I would write the book using material from his seminars and my counseling practice. But after I completed much of the first draft he changed his mind and decided he wanted to write the book on his own, even though we already had signed a contract together with a publisher. Of course, the publisher wouldn't let him alter the contract so he decided to pressure and guilt-trip me out of any royalties.
I felt violated. I sought support and input from my mentor and prayed about it. Then I calmly confronted the man with what he was doing and how it wasn't right. He wouldn't budge in his angry insistence that I bow out, not only of the writing, but also the royalties. I went back to my mentor and to prayer. I decided to compromise by letting him take control of the book and accepting only half of the royalties that were due to me. It hurt the way he treated me, I missed the chance to help write that book, and I lost a few thousand dollars. So I experienced pain from being sinned against.
An incest survivor, a wife of an adulterous husband, and a man who is verbally abused by his wife are obvious examples of people who are in pain from being sinned against. Many times in your life you also have experienced pain of varying degrees from someone violating you.
2. We experience pain when we choose to sin.
A few years ago I came to terms with the fact that I had been slandering a colleague of mine in some of my conversations with friends. He didn't know it, but it was still hurtful to him, to me, and even to those who listened to my criticisms. I was envious over the success of his ministry and criticizing him distracted me from dealing with my own feelings of frustration and inadequacy. Part of my problem was that he had hurt me previously. I need to work through my anger and hurt. I learned to forgive him and to pray for God to bless his work and I started focusing more on being myself and doing the ministry that God has given me to do and doing this with contentment.
The pain that we experience from own sins is harder to identify and talk about because often we don't want to admit to our responsibility and are ashamed of our sin. And as Christians we certainly don't want to make the mistake of judging and condemning other people so we tend to avoid this area. But often people suffer because of their sins or being irresponsible. The Bible teaches that we reap from what we sow (Galatians 6:7-10) and that when we sin God disciplines us, like a loving Father, to teach us and help us to grow spiritually. He may send a prick in our conscience, a rebuke from a Christian friend, or a painful hardship in our life circumstances (Hebrews 12:4-6).
Here's a few examples of people suffering painful consequences for their sins: a worker who is fired for being chronically late, a teenage girl who is punished for stealing from her mother, or a husband who suffers a divorce because to avoid conflict he went ahead and married his charming girlfriend who was abusive and unreliable.
3. We experience pain from tragedies and losses that happen.
We live in a fallen, imperfect world where stressful events occur. Recently, I experienced a painful accident. The trunk of a liquid amber tree that I had cut down over a year ago was laying in my side yard. I finally got sick of looking at it and decided to chop it up into logs for our fireplace. At one point I had cut half way through a section of the wood and thought I could save some time by stomping down hard on the log and breaking it. When I did half of it flew up and hit me in the mouth!
Immediately I cried out in pain, ran into the house, looked into the bathroom mirror and was horrified to see blood pouring out of my mouth and my tooth knocked loose. The next thing I did was the one smart thing I did: I screamed out, "Kristi!" But what followed that is a machine gun fire of shouts that I'm not proud of: "Oh I'm so stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! I'm going to lose my front tooth! How could I be so dumb! Why didn't I listen to Kristi when she told me to just throw the wood away?"
By this time, of course, Kristi had come running to the bathroom. Hanging up on the call she had been on, she looked into my mouth and then dialed the number to page our dentist. Then she turned to me tenderly and pleaded, "Bill, if I had hurt myself like that you'd have compassion for me. It was an accident. You need to be kind to yourself." She was right. It was a reminder for me to cooperate with God's care for me. I was fortunate that in the end that lesson only cost me a few days of pain and inconvenience and a hundred bucks, as my tooth was saved.
You've probably experienced painful circumstances much worse than my tooth accident. I have. And we know other people who have. A wife loses her 55-year old husband to cancer. A husband and three small children lose their mother to a car accident - no one was drunk or driving recklessly; it just happened. A woman in her 50's never got to be a mother even though she and her husband tried and prayed and went through years of getting help for their infertility.
Painful things that nobody intended and which weren't directly connected to anyone's sin just happen in life outside of the Garden of Eden. This is NOT God punishing you! Jesus made it clear that God allows undeserved tragedies not as punishment for sin, but as agents of spiritual change (Luke 13:4-5). And he allows undeserved disabilities not as punishment, but as opportunities to display his glory (John 9:1-3). We all go through trials to one extent or another and these are opportunities for spiritual growth (Romans 5:3-5) and may be ways that God is pruning us to bear even more fruit then we already are (John 15:2).
4. We experience pain when we choose to deny ourselves a desire.
There's a fourth reason for pain that you may have never thought of: Choosing pain. No, I'm not talking about masochism, a sick way of getting pleasure out of harming yourself. I'm referring to someone who chooses pain or stress for healthy reasons. Like recently, the night before Briana, my seven-year old girl, was to run a jog-a-thon for her school fundraiser she declared, "Daddy, I know I can run the most laps of anyone in my class because I can push through the pain!" And she did. Her determination paid off. Anyone who exercises does the same thing. They stress their muscles and endure pain in order to get stronger and fitter.
We can do the same thing spiritually. For instance, this year I returned to regularly practicing a spiritual discipline that I had neglected for years: fasting. Some people go without food for health reasons or to lose weight, while these are valid reasons it's not what I'm doing. I go 24 hours without food in order to feel the pain of hunger. Why? Because whenever I feel hungry I'm reminded of my deeper hunger for God and I go to prayer and I meditate on Scriptures like Jesus saying that we don't live for bread alone, but for God's Words (Matthew 4:4) and that his food is to do God's work (John 4:34). Fasting helps me to feed on Jesus as the Bread of Life (John 6:35).
Tithing money works the same way. So does letting go of worldly pursuits or even secondary priorities that are good in order to purse what is best, to seek God with a whole heart. Anytime a Christian endures persecution for doing what is right or for living as a Christian they are choosing to suffer. Missionaries are obvious examples of people choosing loss, stress, pain, or even martyrdom for spiritual reasons.
Suffering persecution may include being sinned against, but it's different type of pain because your ability to love is greater than your need for justice and there is an important opportunity for the offender to receive a Christian witness. Clearly, if your soul is being beaten down into a place of shame and fear then you need protection and care. And often offenders need to be confronted and held accountable. I believe these situations are different than a call for someone to endure the mistreatment of persecution for Christ's sake.
PAIN THAT'S DENIED IS BAD
It's natural to want to avoid pain. And yet, ironically, once pain has already come your way to avoid it at that point is a problem. Any pain that is denied or anesthized or bandaged without being cleaned will only makes things worse for you. It means a warning isn't heeded, a hurt isn't healed, a lesson isn't learned, and the blessings of spiritual growth and God's presence are missed. Let's consider each of the four reasons for pain and look at how if we don't deal with the pain then it becomes bad pain that accomplishes no good for God or our souls.
1. When someone sins against you. It's natural and helpful when you've been violated to feel angry and scared of it happening again and so to set boundaries to protect yourself from further injury. But often we deny and defend against our inner pain, muffling our anger so that it becomes depression or turning it against ourselves and feeling ashamed for something that's not our fault. Or we may go to the other extreme and take the victim stance, getting stuck in blaming our offender and feeling sorry for ourselves. Then we'll become resentful and anxious. These are bad pains that serve no good purpose. They actually leave us open to be sinned against in the same way again and again.
2. When you sin. It's appropriate when you've sinned to be sad about the hurt you caused and to appreciate better your inner emptiness and vulnerability to temptation. But, here also, we tend to avoid these painful and humbling feelings and adopt either a proud, legalistic posture ("I messed up, but I can do better if I try harder.") or license ("I messed up, but it doesn't much matter, as I can do what I want and things will be okay.) We end up feeling guilty and condemning ourselves or running to one pleasure after another trying to escape the bad feelings. This also is bad pain that is harmful to us and to others. (For instance, someone who is feeling guilty is often self-absorbed and not empathic at that point.)
3. When tragedy strikes or an accident occurs. Unforseen stressors and pains come our way in our imperfect world. Sickness, injury, and death may seem random and cruel. We don't want to accept that our world is so imperfect, so riddled with pain and problems. To defend against this painful vulnerability we may become pessimistic and soured on life or idealistic and wear roles-colored glasses. Life is depressing or fake and empty (hidden depression). We may get lost in despair and helplessness. Withdrawing into negative feelings about yourself and your world is a dead end. A depression like this is no good.
4. God asks all of us to deny ourselves. "Take up your cross and follow me," Jesus challenged us (Luke 9:23-24). God is our Creator and Lord and He owns us in a sense. He is the Righteous Judge to be feared. Especially as Christians we realize this because not only has He created us, but also He has "redeemed" or bought us out of slavery to sin and has "set us apart" to be His special treasure. He's the Lover of our Souls and when we turn to anything but Him and what He provides we're committing spiritual adultery, betraying Him, testing His patience and arousing His anger. But even many of us Christians don't seem to see things this way. We tend to see God as either harsh and mean or soft and easy. Either way, life will be increasingly anxious if we're living in our own strength for our own purposes. We easily become consumed with trying to make our lives work better, pursuing empty pleasures, anxiously striving for control and success. Our goals may be good and yet if they're not inspired by God and carried out in His strength then they are distractions or idolatries that are taking God's place in our hearts. This kind of anxious living is bad pain.
LEARN TO EMBRACE YOUR PAIN FOR SPIRITUAL GROWTH
Prince Martinette of Grenada was heir to the Spanish throne at the turn of the 18th century, yet because of treason he was sentenced to a life of solitary confinement in Madrid's prison known as the "The Skull." The prison was dark and diseased infested and it was considered a death sentence. Upon entering the prison; the prince was given one book to read, the Bible. After 33 years of imprisonment, he died. When they came to clean out his cell, they found some notes he had written using nails to mark the soft stone of the prison walls. Some of the notations were: Psalm 118:8 is the middle verse of the Bible; Ezra 7:21 contains all the letters of the alphabet except the letter J; and the ninth verse of the eighth chapter of Esther is the longest verse in the Bible. Instead of developing a relationship with Jesus Christ and relying on his help to embrace his painful ordeal he became an expert in Bible trivia!
How can the pain of a torturous imprisonment be good? How can pain which starts out bad because it originates in sin (yours or someone's sin against you) become a force for good? How does denied pain that has only made things worse by creating resentment, guilt, pessimism, or anxiety be transformed into good pain?
Let's look at how all four types pain gone bad can become good. Like Jacob we can discover a blessing in our pains. If we persevere, speak the truth, and rely on the grace of God (often through the Body of Christ) over time.
1. Resentment and anxiety over violations can be replaced by assertiveness. To take positive aggressive action when we're sinned against is to respond to the natural feelings of anger and fear (god pains) and to move forward to deal with the situation. The Bible speaks often about how we need to be assertive when we've been sinned against. When we're wounded and weakened we need to first put our assertive energy into seeking safety ("A prudent man sees danger and takes refuge, but the simple keep going and suffer for it." - Proverbs 22:3) and then asking for care and help to get our needs met (Matthew 7:7-11). We're to "speak the truth in love" to one another (Ephesians 4:15) and to "rebuke our neighbor frankly" so we do not share in his guilt (Leviticus 19:17). With perpetrators we're to set limits on their sinful behavior and to confront them with the help of godly people (Matthew 18:15-20). And we need to engage in the process of forgiveness again and again (Matthew 18:21-22). If appropriate we may seek to reconcile with our offenders (Matthew 5:21-26) or even try to help them to change (Galatians 6:1).
2. Guilt and self-condemnation over our sins can be replaced by sadness. To feel sad when we sin (what Paul calls "godly sorrow" in 2 Corinthians 7:10-11) is good and helpful, so different from condemning ourselves and pridefully trying to do better to make up for our wrong. To realize that we've hurt ourselves, someone else, and God (Psalm 51:4) can move us to say we're sorry, to empathize with how we've hurt someone, and to change by seeking forgiveness and learning to respect God's rules. God changes our hearts so that we want to live by depending on Him. We discover the freedom to be our true selves (Galatians 5:1).
3. Depression over our difficulties can be replaced by grieving. Grief is good pain. It is a pathway to healing that is part of all emotional and relational healing. The heart of grieving is to verbalize your sadness to someone who offers comfort. And the blessing that is behind all the pain is greater intimacy with God, a deeper appreciation for Him and the life that He offers. Eugene Peterson translated Jesus famous beatitude this way, "You're blessed when you've lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One who is most dear" (Matthew 5:4). It's a subtle shift, but makes all the difference in the world if instead of isolating in depression in response to tragedy we feel the reality of our vulnerability to events we can't control and we embrace our sadness over painful tragedies, trusting in God's sovereign control and relying on His gracious comfort.
4. Anxious living can be replaced by revering God and hungering for Him. Part of revering God is to feel a certain fear and awe of One so powerful and holy. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 9:10). This reverential fear is a good pain because it's right and it can lead us to seek to please Him above all and to discover that His perfect love drives out our fear (1 John 4:18). But when we look to Him we don't always feel loved (Psalm 13:1). Especially in times of pain, we often long for more of Him than we're able to see or receive (1 Peter 1:6-9). Our hunger for God is also a good pain because it presses us onward to deeper intimacy and greater service (Matthew 5:6). Our desire to please God above all things motivates us to endure persecution in order to share Christ (Matthew 5:10-12). When, like the Apostle Paul, we choose to give up our "rights" and privileges we find Christ (Philippians 3:10-11) and discover that just as the sufferings of Christ flow into our lives so also does his comfort and resurrection life (2 Corinthians 1:1-3).
WRESTLING WITH GOD FOR HIS BLESSING
Like Jacob we need to wrestle with God when we're in pain by searching for God's face in our struggle and learning the new name he gives us. Forgiving those who sin against us, confessing our own sins, persevering in trials, and choosing to suffer for Christ's sake are each, in different ways, opportunities to deepen our intimacy with God and to live out our calling to serve him with our unique talents. This is what the Bible teaches. It's the kind of persevering faith that the Bible heroes in Hebrews 11 lived out and that Christians today, like many of those I've counseled, also live out. By identifying the type of pain we're in and responding with the kind of faith that is appropriate to what's going on we can discover joy of the Lord in the midst of pain.
Like Job, who had family and servants murdered and wealth stolen though he did nothing wrong, when God allows us to suffer because of someone else's sins we can remain faithful to him as we struggle to forgive our offenders and to heal and learn while we wait for God's response.
Like David, who suffered so much pain in his family and his kingdom because of committing adultery with Bathsheba and murdering her husband, when we suffer because of our own sins we too can cry out for God's mercy, trusting him to turn our lives around and bring about a deeper intimacy, joy, and Christian service then we've known before.
Like Naomi, who suffered the undeserved tragedies of losing her husband and two sons before eventually holding her daughter-in-law's boy (the ancestor to Jesus), we can trust that God will eventually replace our broken dreams with better ones of a deepening intimacy with our loving Lord and a growing faith, both of which will blossom for eternity.
And like Paul, who chose to put himself at risk of many torturous beatings and imprisonments and hardships as a missionary, we can choose to give up pleasures and privileges in this life for eternal reasons, to accept pain in order to gain Christ and live out the life and calling he has given us.
But we can't do it alone! We need the encouragement and teaching of Biblical heroes like these and the love of "Christ's ambassadors" (2 Corinthians 5:7) in the Body of Christ. We need to depend upon our Good Shepherd who is with us in the valley of the shadow of death even when we don't feel Him. Our Shepherd will leads us in the right path and provide us what we need.
William Gaultiere, Ph.D. offers "Christian Soul Care" as a Clinical Psychologist and Spiritual Director in Irvine, CA. He is also the Executive Director of the New Hope Crisis Counseling Center at the Crystal Cathedral where he's trained over 1,000 people in Christian counseling skills. He offers free encouraging articles on Psychology, Family, and Christian Spirituality and a monthly e-mail devotional that you can sign up for at his website, ChristianSoulCare.com.