The phrase “excruciatingly beautiful” first appeared in an email from a friend in Ohio. He told me he had been through a painful betrayal and that God was teaching him how to forgive. “It is excruciatingly beautiful,” he wrote.
I’ve never seen those two words used together anywhere. When I typed ‘excruciatingly beautiful into my search engine, our podcast from two years ago by that name was the first listing. However, other listings defined excruciatingly beautiful as “something so beautiful it hurts,” often used in art forms such as a movie plot or musical score. There’s nothing about how it applies to life.
I would define excruciatingly beautiful as “something beautiful produced out of excruciating pain,” such as the birth of a child or healing from trauma. It can also be true of any pain in our lives that moves us to behold God’s beauty more significantly.
If you’ve never been there, it is hard to imagine how pain can give way to beauty. And yet, I’m so grateful it does. Many see the suffering of our world as proof that a loving Creator cannot exist; I see the beauty he weaves into this fallen universe as proof of a loving Creator spilling redemption into human chaos. No doubt, there is excruciating agony in the selfishness and darkness of our world, and yet there is also exquisite beauty as well. And they aren’t always unrelated. My life’s most remarkable transformations and joys have often come through the most challenging times.
Two years after my friend’s letter to me, that phrase continues to crop up regularly in my conversations, as it did this week talking to a man in a years-long, gut-wrenching crisis. He continues to share with me what he is learning about himself, the Father’s love, and how to engage others more authentically. He described it as beautiful, even while his crisis deepens. Let’s be clear; God is not the author of his situation; it results from how others treat him. God didn’t give him this pain or “allow it” to teach him a lesson. The pain was coming anyway; God is simply working his goodness into the tragedy to make it part of his redemption for my friend and others around him. This is how we become part of his redemption story.
What amazes me is how easily he could cut himself away from his pain and run from it, but he does not. Most do in his situation, which is why many of them don’t get to the beauty that would lie behind it for them, too. He’s sometimes felt like it, but God keeps revealing stuff to him that keeps him in it.
If we’re going to discover his beauty in our circumstances, we can’t run from ‘excruciating.’ No one enjoys pain, but rather than trying to deny your grief or disguise it beneath temporary amusements, it would be far better to sit with God in it. Embrace him in your pain and disappointments, and you will discover what he wants you to know that will soften your heart and transform your thinking. This can take some time—months even—but let his work be perfected in you, and you will discover the mystery of excruciatingly beautiful as well.
That’s what Paul wrote in I Corinthians 4:16-18:
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
When the temporal things we think are so important give way to the eternal things that truly are, we behold a beauty more incredible than we could dream. On the one hand, it is sad that it often takes difficult times for us to gain that perspective. On the other, aren’t you grateful that our Father can use anything that happens to us to move us more deeply into the things that matter most?