Is it possible to get used to suffering? What happens when I meditate on truths like Romans 8:28: “For we know that in all things God works to the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purpose” or “it was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees” (Psa. 119:71)? Does the application of a higher law ease the pain that springs up in my life from time to time like clusters of weeds?
I don’t think so. We can go about all day long discussing how pain is good and necessary, a reliable barometer that helps guide us when sin blurs our vision, but that doesn’t take any of the punch out of our pain. If pain didn’t hurt anymore, it wouldn’t be pain.
I just finished Philip Yancey’s book Where is God When it Hurts? In characteristic Yancey style, the author scours the entire spectrum of pain—what it is, why it is part of our world, what it accomplishes in our lives and how it fits into the broader context of God’s plan.
In discussing the necessity of pain, Yancey tells stories about people who have a rare genetic disorder called anhidrosis, which deprives them of the ability to feel pain. It sounds like one of the handier congenital defects to have until you hear about people who lose fingers because they didn’t know when to stop playing the guitar, or people who developed skin cancer because their bodies didn’t tell them they were burning as they slept in the sun.
Yancey discusses how attempts have been made to synthesize a warning system for sufferers of anhidrosis. There have been some marginal successes. Some of these involved attempts to create a bodily alarm system that was merely informative and not painful. The result? When the sounding of the alarm wasn’t painful, it was too easy to ignore.
There seems to be no way of softening the impact of the pain in our lives. This was the position I found myself in recently as I went on a much-needed prayer walk. It was a long one that evening because I needed it. In spite of all the good things that have happened in my life, all the breakthroughs I have had with God in the last two years, I was in excruciating pain, and I didn’t immediately understand why. But as I prayed, I realized that I was in a “plowing season,” a time when God was insisting that I tighten the screws down some more—in this case by eliminating an idol in my life.
We love our idols. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be idols. When it comes time to say goodbye, it hurts. When a doctor cuts a gangrenous foot off a person, he has to use anesthetic, because as dangerous as that foot is to the rest of his body, it is still connected in by veins and ligaments and tendons and nerves. The body doesn’t let it go without a great deal of pain.
So it was with me, and I hurt so badly that I felt as though I didn’t love God anymore. I was in so much pain that at that moment, I didn’t recognize the value of my existence. Fortunately for me, my response to that kind of pain, after the years of floundering and tumult that have gone before, is to pray. And in the process of praying through it, what happens is basically a wipe/reload. I forget about all the non-essentials and meditate on the one thing that matters most: my relationship with Christ.
“Before I was afflicted, I went astray, but now I obey your word,” the psalmist wrote (Psalms 119:67). Before I got solidly connected with my Savior, I responded to cataclysmic pain by questioning the essence of creation. My vision became so black that I thought the very fabric of all existence was bad rather than good. But God finally worked it into my heart that pain, sorrow, misfortune and calamity are not basic realities of life but an indication of misalignment in my life. When I go through these trials, I have to admit that the reason for my anguish is that my life and focus has gotten turned away from Jesus, the True North. I hurt because I am not experiencing the reality of who God is and how much He has done for me. The fault lies with me, and the only answer is to confess my self-serving ways and ask God in His mercy to help me trust and obey Him. It is a prayer that God never fails to answer.