Let me generalize, here. I’m going to say, for brevity’s sake, that there are 4 ways people deal with pain: By pretending, by dwelling in it, by running, and by trusting.
Cue drum roll.
Maybe you’ve tried this one. You might pretend that you are beyond pain’s grasp (no one is), or that you’re too strong for it (nope), or that because of your winning smile and sense of humor you are impervious to suffering. You might drift off into a fantasy world. Video games, TV shows, alcohol, and shopping can all serve as bubbles to slip yourself into, pretending as though guilt or grief or fear or anger aren’t really out there on your doorstep. The problem? Well, there are probably several, but here’s one: Even if your pretense does lessen the sting, whatever was causing the pain is still there. And if it was harmful before you started trying to pretend it away, your pretending hasn’t done a darn thing to change that fact. If in response to the pain of your crumbling marriage you decided to binge watch NetFlix to pretend the sting away, your marriage will still be in the same mess it was once season 2 of Homeland is over.
You might re-play your hurt in your mind over and over and over (and over). Live in it. You might always be savoring the bittersweet flavor of whatever hurt (or is hurting) you, like some kind of poisonous piece of candy. This “strategy” for dealing with pain is the default method for a lot of hearts. Some just fall into it unconsciously, like breathing. Whatever pain befalls them will become the soundtrack of their day, their week, their decade. And the harder and harder that sort of a heart gets, the more difficult it is to shatter the lie that this posture is (usually) built on. Oh, and what lie is that? Glad you asked. The lie that you are owed something better than what you have. You’re not. And neither am I. The Gospel involves the News that sinners who are owed nothing but Hell are offered everything including Heaven. The Gospel cannot jive with choosing to dwell in or choosing to mentally replay and replay pain. Or with the bitterness it produces.
You might run from whatever is causing your pain, without weighing the cost of doing so. Now of course if you have weighed the cost, and certainly if the thing causing the pain is sin, running is good. But that’s not what I’m categorizing as “abandoning.” That kind of running would actually fall into my “trusting” category below. It would be gutsy running. But to leave a marriage, a job, a relationship, a church, a neighborhood without Biblical reasons or without carefully and prayerfully considering not leaving is the sort of fleeing hurt or hardship that we don’t even want our children to exhibit on the baseball diamond or at the homework table. Christians should want to do what’s right, not what’s easy. Certainly the right thing isn’t always the very hardest thing, but it’s almost always hard, and so if we train ourselves to run simply because something hurts, we are training ourselves for everything but righteousness. The life of the man who has truly trusted in Jesus will be a life that involves, at some point and in some measure, persecution and hardship. If we’re used to abandoning ship at the first hot stab of pain, we won’t be able to confirm our election and see the face of God.
And here we are. You knew I’d get to the good one.
There is a kind of person who can know that the God who created and sustains and governs the universe is for him. A kind of person who is free to live without fear of death or condemnation or abandonment. It’s the person who has trusted in the God of the Cross. Pain cannot paralyze or destroy someone who knows the One in control of it is working all things together for the good of the family he’s been made a part of.
We all have people or things we trust when the water is rising up around our necks, but the sanity of that trust is measured by the ability of the one we’re trusting in to deliver what we’re hoping in them for. If I trust my mom to be able to deliver on a tuna salad sandwich, I have a reasonable trust; if I expect her to win a Stanley Cup, I do not. And there is only One who is worthy of our deep, uniquely human hope for deliverance. There is only One who can give what we most long for. In the throes of suffering, it’s not ultimately and finally helpful to trust your spouse or your positive thinking schtick to be able rescue you for good and for all. Only Christ can do that.
And there’s another thing about trusting Christ: He is the prize. Knowing Jesus and the power of His resurrection is the most beautiful thing any human soul could ever enjoy. It will eclipse any and every pain we could ever experience. The grace, power, beauty, holiness, and majesty of God are indescribably greater than our hurts here on the old earth.
When we truly trust God, we’ll enjoy Him, and when we enjoy Him we’ll be better equipped for the world’s stiffest pains.
So how do you deal with pain? I know I’ve probably done all four in the very recent past. But if you’re stuck in trying to pretend your pain away, dwelling in it, or abandoning ship, I can commend to you with all my heart that trusting Jesus of Nazareth is the only way to really successfully and finally deal with pain.
He is the King. The only wise God. And in Him all our sufferings become a little less agonizing and a little more meaningful.
Stifter once said, ‘Pain is a holy angel, who shows treasures to men which otherwise remain forever hidden; through him men have become greater than through all joys of the world.’ It must be so and I tell this to myself in my present position over and over again – the pain of longing which often can be felt even physically, must be there, and we shall not and need not talk it away. But it needs to be overcome every time and thus there is an even holier angel than the one of pain, and that is the one of joy in God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing to his fiancé from Nazi imprisonment
I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me… The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
Philippians 4:12-13, 23