Don’t Run from the Pain

Last week I wrote about the agony of God for the brokenness of his Creation and how our sufferings can be a way of fellowshipping with his inside of ours. Once we see that the presence of Jesus and personal pain are not at opposite poles of the universe, we can find the freedom to explore his wisdom and power inside the challenges that this age hurls against us.

For me, that has been a major transition. I see God holding all the cards of the universe, and thoughts of him always go to victory and triumph over his enemies. That day will come, most certainly, but it misses the fact that on this day, God is also in our pain with us as he agonizes with the broken Creation and the devastation it brings to people he loves. To find our rest in him inside our suffering is not a natural response for most of us. We are taught to avoid pain at all costs, not learn how to share it with our Father.

Our innate aversion to pain is a good thing.  The heat of the stove will compel you to pull your hand away without a conscious thought, and the pain of a sprained ankle will remind you to keep weight off it while it heals. Emotional pain is different, however. While it can alert us to pull away from circumstances or relationships that are toxic, more often, it’s an invitation to self-discovery. Why are we in pain? Is it coming from without or within? Am I contributing to it with my actions? Will it lead me to a different strategy in my circumstances?  Emotions like grief and sorrow especially need to be tended to, not avoided. Running from them or repressing them will only drive the darkness deeper and blind us to God’s freedom.

This is where the impulse to run from pain doesn’t serve us well. The wisdom you need will come inside the pain as Jesus makes himself known there. If you try to run, you’ll miss him.

As I was writing this article, I received an email that contained this paragraph:

As an optimist, I shove trauma and suffering down deep, choosing to ignore it rather than deal with it. Father has been saying to me for years to “Be still and know….” But I knew that I would need healing, which would be painful. It was easier not to go there. I know His consuming fire is actually His love, and I know He will not necessarily take away the suffering, but I need to start the process, knowing He is in me, beside me, bearing what I bear.

“Shoving it down deep” is a classic way to avoid the pain that can open the door to greater freedom. It’s like fearing the dentist so much you won’t go deal with an infected tooth. Instead, you’ll just bear it hoping it will go away soon. Emotional healing begins when we own our pain and find a way to sit with him in it. When Sara was gone last year, my soul was in deep pain, and I spent many days and endless nights sitting in my grief and confusion.  There, Jesus sustained me, encouraged me, and shaped in me the emotional base I would need to support and soothe Sara when her trauma emerged.

Knowing he is in it with you makes all the difference; he can bear with you what you cannot bear on your own. He can chart you a course through it to whatever healing or freedom he wants to do in you. So, instead of thinking he is ignoring you until you find the faith to get out of your painful circumstances, let yourself hurt with vigilant eyes for how he wants to reveal himself to you. If you try to ignore your suffering or demand that God make it stop, questioning his reality or love if he doesn’t, will only prolong the pain and confusion. I don’t believe for a second that he orchestrates our pain, even as a trial or a lesson. We get a steady dose of it just by living in a world out of synch with its Creator. However, he does promise never to leave us alone in it and to work wonderful things in us through it. Every writer of the New Testament celebrates the deep work God can do in our pain.

Richard Rohr told about his friend Dr. Jacqui Lewis, who received some wise counsel from her friend in a time of personal need.  “Stay where the pain is,” she was advised. In an incredibly difficult year, she was “very low and frankly so weighed down with grief, I didn’t really know how to move forward. I kept throwing myself into work, running fast to do something about the pain.”

That’s when her friend, Lyn, encouraged her with these words:

Wait, stay right there. Stay where the pain is, where the suffering is, where the struggle is. Stay there. That’s where it’s going to come. The insight. The knowing. The wisdom. Right there, Jacqui. It’s not here yet, but it’s coming. And when it comes, I’ll midwife it with you. It will come, we will do it together. Just wait for it. It will come.”

Read those words again. This is powerful counsel for those who struggle. Suffering in him allows us to probe the honest realities of our hearts and find the wisdom and power of God that will lead us forward. That’s why Ecclesiastes 7:3 speaks of the value of sorrow: “Sorrow is better than laughter; when the face is sad, the heart grows wise.” Holding God in our pain will tenderize our hearts and slow us down from the rat race of life to be more vulnerable to what’s true. It will be easier to see him there, as he exposes our illusion that we are in control of our circumstances. He can show how we contributed to that pain and provide the wisdom and courage to follow him through it to whatever freedom he has in mind for you. 

And that part about having someone midwife it with you? That’s precious, too. I don’t know how I would have survived last spring without loving and faithful friends who made space for my pain and held my heart through it. Everyone wants someone to hold them in the darkness, but they aren’t always easy to find for reasons we’ll explore in my next post.

Learn to fellowship with God in the shared agony of a fallen world, and it will not only lead you to freedom, it will also equip you to be a safe person for hurting people.