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THE PLACE OF
PAIN
IN THE PLAN OF GOD
by Michael Gowens

"My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into diverse temptaions; knowing that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing." James 1:2-4


"Never morning wore to evening but some heart did break." It's true, isn't it. Ours is a world of pain. Broken dreams, the tragic loss of a child, a sudden disaster, unemployment, divorce, cancer, an illegitimate pregnancy, the death of one's life companion, child abuse, bankruptcy, personal failure, loneliness, misunderstanding - these things intrude into our lives startling us with painful surprise like a blow in the solar plexus. The pain, most of the time, seems to us indescribably savage and brutal. It is an unwelcome thief, come to steal our joy and rob us of our peace. We hate it. We despise it. We will do anything, virtually anything, to get away from it. We have a right, we are told, to a pain-free existence. No one should have to suffer.

We are living in the "aspirin age." It's an era in which the pursuit of personal comfort and pleasure is the supreme good, and the temporary alleviation of discomfort is valued above the radical cure of the disease. Hedonism, this "Disneyland mentality," produces a kind of short-term approach to life, a "live-for-the-moment" perspective, that makes self-gratification the goal of existence. Modern western man, in other words, is soft and overly sensitive to pain. As he has lost the Biblical emphasis on God's holiness and a personal sense of his own sins, he has come to expect VIP treatment from God all the time. He, in the words of J. I. Packer, cherishes "shockingly strong illusions about having a right to expect from God health, wealth, ease, excitement, and sexual gratification."1 When he receives, on the contrary, pain, instead of pleasure, he reacts in bitterness toward the Almighty, takes an aspirin to block the pain, and proceeds in his own mad rush to pleasure and self-fulfillment. The cause of the pain is never discovered. That would require too much time and effort. He instead opts for the quick-fix; then it's "back on the road again."

To minds conditioned to think in pleasure-oriented terms, the words of James sound admittedly strange, maybe even convoluted and repugnant. James challenges his readers to welcome pain as a friend, rather than to resent it as an intruder: "Count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations." He then counsels them further that once they have welcomed suffering, they should resist the urge to cut the process short, to escape the pain: "But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing." Such advice goes cross-grain to our natural inclinations, doesn't it? By nature, the initial reaction to pain is the desire to escape from it. No one likes to hurt. Personal discomfort is not pleasant. But James encourages the Christian to allow the process to continue to completion, not asking the question "How can I get out of this trouble?" but "What can I get out of this trouble?" On what basis would he advise a person to endure the pain? Was James some chirpy optimist, like Carlyle said of Emerson, who "standing well back out of the least touch of the spray, throws chatty observations on the beauty of the weather to a poor soul battling for his life in huge billows that are buffeting the breath and the life out of him, wrestling with mighty currents that keep sweeping him away"? Did James, like proponents of "mind over matter," suggest that pain was merely an illusion, a figment of the imagination? No. Rather James is a realist, a realist whose realism springs from faith in God. He did not deny the reality of pain and suffering. Real people who live in a real world have real problems. Neither did he minimize their troubles, attempting to convince these believers that suffering is pleasurable. It isn't. But neither did he lose sight of the reality of God, the God who stands in back of our pain and uses it as His school of spiritual maturity. Undoubtedly, like James, the poet knew something of the spiritual benefit of suffering:

"I walked a mile with Pleasure. She chattered all the way, But left me none the wiser For all she had to say. I walked a mile with Sorrow, And ne'er a word said she; But, oh, the things I learned from her, When Sorrow walked with me!"

As foreign as it sounds to our comfortable culture, pain is beneficial. God uses it as a means to very valuable ends. Even in a strictly natural sense, pain is something positive. Pain is a human being's natural defense mechanism against potentially harmful external stimuli. Pain is a God-given signal that danger is near. What would happen to a little child who touched a hot stove, for example, if he could feel no pain? The sensation of pain triggers a reaction that literally spares the child from serious personal harm, maybe even death. The pain of a scraped knee, fingers pinched in a door or cut by a knife, and a stumped toe all serve to promote caution and self-discipline in a child as he grows older. Head pain, muscle pain, joint pain, chest pain, and back pain are all signals of a more serious problem. The pain is intended to alert its victim to the unhealthy activity or harmful disease that is behind the pain so that steps can be taken to remove the stimulus. Even emotional pain is healthy. The pain of a failing grade is intended to help a child learn to complete his homework assignments. The pain of embarrassment and public exposure may halt a child's bent to mischief. All forms of godly and biblical discipline operate on the principle that there is such a thing as "healthy pain." Used properly, it can produce beneficial changes. Maybe that's what my seventh grade track coach meant at the completion of each lap, when he said with unmerciful sarcasm, "Hurt's sooo good!"

Though we are tempted to cry out "Lord, take away pain," we need to ask ourselves, would we want a world devoid of heroes? Were there no pain, there would be no hero rising from the desperation to triumph in faith. Would we want a world devoid of compassion? Were there no pain, there would be no pity that knit heart to heart in tender sympathy for the sufferer. Would we want a world without love? Were there no pain, there would be no need for self-sacrifice, the very essence of love. Would we want a world without hope? Were there no pain, there would be nothing better to hope for. Would we want a world without the cross of Christ? Were there no pain, there would be no need for the cross. Granted, heaven will be a world without pain (Rev. 21:4 - Ah! wonderful prospect!), but until sinful mortals are glorified, we cannot conceive of glory except in contrast to suffering. The pain of life, consequently, "with it's solemn, unsmiling, and sometimes deeply-lined face, is a great servant of God"2 teaching us some of the most valuable lessons of life. God will not allow suffering in our lives to exceed His sovereign control (I Cor. 10:13), but will use it to our good and His greater glory in several ways.

God Uses Our Pain to Build Christlike Character

James says a desire to endure rather than escape the trial produces spiritual maturity: "But let patience [i.e. patient endurance] have her perfect work, that you may be perfect and entire [i.e. fully mature], wanting nothing." Paul teaches the identical truth in Romans 5:3-4: "And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also; knowing that tribulation worketh patience [i.e. endurance or perseverance], and patience experience [i.e. character], and experience hope." Grace, like the roots of a tree, grows best in the winter, albeit such character development is obscured from the observers gaze. Even so, the pressures of life provide an opportunity to persevere. In such patient endurance under pressure, the roots of Christian character strike an equivalent beneath the soil to the visible portions of the tree on the topside of the earth. As character develops, so does hope.

The writer to the Hebrews explains this principle further in terms of the pain of Divine chastening: "If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?...For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure, but He for our profit that we might be partakers of His holiness. Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous. Nevertheless, afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them who are exercised thereby" (Heb. 12:7, 10-11). Why would a parent cause pain to a child? Because the parent was cruel? No, on the contrary, because of love. Parents who really love their children discipline them, that is, they train them to grow up to duplicate the parents behavior. By the same token, the Father disciplines His children, both from a loving motive and in a loving manner, so that "we might be partakers of His holiness." The parent/child relationship is a discipling dynamic in which the parent not only tells the child what is expected but demonstrates the teaching by example, thus training the child to be like him. This is frequently a painful process, involving time, energy, ingenuity, exertion, sweat, tears, and correction. But the gain in the end is worth the pain: "...nevertheless, afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness" to those who submit to the lesson.

Why does God permit His children to suffer pain? So that they might produce fruit: "Every branch in me that beareth fruit, He purgeth it that it might bring forth more fruit" (Jno. 15:2). It is through the sufferings of our lives, the discipline of endurance (as well as through the other spiritual disciplines of Scripture intake, prayer, fasting, worship, etc.), that the Holy Spirit makes us into loving, joyful, peaceful, gentle, kind, faithful, self-controlled, and self-forgetful people (Gal. 5:22). It is in the school of suffering that we learn, like our Savior learned, obedience (Heb. 5:7). In what sense did Jesus "learn obedience by the things that He suffered"? He learned both the practice and the cost of it. Even so, we learn the value of obedience to God, making it the priority of our lives, through our pain: "Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now have I kept Thy word...It is good for me that I might be afflicted that I might learn Thy statutes" (Ps. 119:37, 71).

I maintain that the heart of every compassionate person was forged in the furnace of pain. Those who live without great pain are strangers to empathy, kindness, patience, and understanding. The "Greathearts" in Christ's kingdom were once in the ranks of the walking wounded whom they now serve. Perhaps A. W. Tozer had this in mind when he wrote, "I seriously doubt that God will ever use anyone greatly, until He has allowed that person to be hurt deeply." Pain produces character.

Pain Reminds Us of Our Weakness & His Strength

Someone once said, "Man's extremity is God's opportunity." Paul knew this fact firsthand: "Because of the abundance of revelations, there was given unto me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure" (2 Cor. 12:7ff). That Paul was in some kind of pain (probably physical pain by virtue of the use of the word "flesh") is evident by the metaphor he selects - "a thorn in the flesh." If you were to ask Paul, "What does it feel like?", he would have responded, "Like a sharp thorn in my body." What did Paul do about it? He prayed, not once, nor twice, but three times, that God would remove the pain. Did God remove the pain? No, but He gave Paul "grace sufficient" to bear his infirmity. Paul says, "His strength is made perfect in my weakness...I will most gladly therefore glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me."

Paul's pain taught him his own weakness. Strange, isn't it, that we need to learn and be reminded of our own frailty: "Lord, teach me to know my end, the measure of my days, that I may know how frail I am" (Ps. 39:4). That's an appropriate prayer. Why is it important to remember our own weakness? Because it is only in our weakness that God will demonstrate His strength.

Paul's pain was an opportunity for God to exhibit His power. Every time that He sustains someone under the burdens of grief, physical illness, family strife, financial reversal, or persecution, the cause of Christ is advanced. It was in terms of the promotion of Christ's gospel that Paul viewed his own sufferings and imprisonments: "Therefore I endure all things for the elect's sake, that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory" (2 Tim. 2:10); "But I would that ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel..." (Phi. 1:12-13). As others watch us under trial, they deduce either that Christ and His power to sustain is real, or that He is not,depending on how we react to our pain. God seeks, through pain, to wean us from the tendency to cling to the earth, to seek our all in Him.

"One by one He took them from me All the things I valued most, Til I was empty-handed, Every glittering toy was lost. And I walked earth's highways, grieving, In my rags and poverty; Until I heard His voice inviting, 'Lift those empty hands to Me.' Then I turned my hands toward heaven, And He filled them with a store Of His own transcendent riches Til they could contain no more. And at last I comprehended With my stupid mind, and dull, That God cannot pour His riches Into hands already full."

Pain Prepares Us to Minister to Others

In His providence, God frequently either brings or allows pain to touch His children, not only to correct yesterday's errors, but to prepare for tomorrow's role of ministry. Experience equips suffering saints to enter into the sufferings of others in a way that others of us cannot enter. 2 Corinthians 1:3 says, "[God] comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort others which are in any trouble, with the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God." Those who have passed down the valley of suffering themselves command a right to be heard by those who are presently there.

Pain Drives Us to Seek Relief

As painful as it is to experience physical infirmity, financial collapse, social ostracization, or interpersonal conflict, perhaps the most acute kind of pain is the pain of a guilty conscience. To sense your own failure, the embarrassment of a public fall - to know to some degree that you disappointed those who trusted you and seriously impaired your credibility with them - to feel the weight of guilt before God and the awareness that you have despised his goodness and mercy to you through your blatant sin - the pain of this experience is unparalleled.

David describes it in Psalm 32: "When I kept silence my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture [lit. vitality] is turned into the drought of summer" (vs. 3-4). Aching bones, a sense of heaviness every moment of the day, a lack of energy and sense of general fatigue - these are the kinds of things a guilty conscience feels.

How should we react to such pain? We should allow it to drive us to the throne of grace in confession and repentance: "I acknowledged my sin unto thee...and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin...Thou art my hiding place; thou shalt preserve me from trouble..." (Ps. 32:5,7). Notice the change of tone after verse five. Repentance brings wonderful relief.

Many people attempt to rationalize sin, or pretend that they did nothing wrong, or shift the blame on to someone else. Modern psychiatry frequently suggests that guilt is not good, that this kind of pain is harmful. It is only harmful if you do not heed the warning. Pain of conscience is God's alarm signaling that you have broken His law. There is only one thing for you to do when you feel such inward pain. In the same way that physical pain drives the sufferer to seek relief, let the pain of a convicted conscience drive you to admit your sin and apply for forgiveness through the blood of Christ. You will find unspeakable peace in His mercy.

Pain Makes Us Appreciate Heaven

Romans 5:4 says that tribulation leads to patience, which leads to experience, which issues in hope. Paul's point is that the pain of life here enhances our desire for the life hereafter. Suffering has a way of helping us to see the transitory nature of earthly things, and the converse weightiness of eternal glory: "For our light affliction worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory while we look not at the things that are seen but at the things which are not seen..." (2 Cor. 4:18). Pain helps us to learn to live in the light of eternity, drawing present comfort from our hope of glory. Pain sharpens one's sense of the reality of heaven and the preciousness of living with Christ forever. The whole creation is pictured in Romans 8:22 as "travailing in pain, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our bodies." Travail is the pain of labor. Labor pain is a different kind of pain. It is a pain that is bearable because of the expectation that something good will come from the pain. Labor pain is the pain of expectation. Likewise, the believer suffers severely here, but he focuses on the glorious day of Christ's return, and consequently, is able to bear the pain in hope.

What basis do we have for hope? Is hope just a pipe dream, mere wishful thinking? No, says Paul, "and hope maketh not ashamed because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us" (Rom. 5:5). The believer is not ashamed to look through his pain to a brighter day in the future, regardless of the hecklers and mockers who ridicule his faith. He is not ashamed because God has given him a witness within, a confirmation through the Spirit that he is loved by God, and that confidence that he is loved, despite the pain he must endure now, gives him the strength to persevere until the end. One hymnwriter put it like this: "Our troubles and our trials here will only make us richer there." Another said, "Just one glimpse of Him in glory will all the toils of life repay." I can't wait. Can you?

Summary

When Jesus came to this earth, he was moved with compassion at the pain and suffering he saw. He eased that suffering by healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, unstopping deaf ears, opening blind eyes, strengthening impotent limbs, and raising the dead to life. But his primary mission was not to alleviate pain. He came to do away with the cause as well as the symptom. At the cross, he suffered the most excruciating kind of pain man or angel has ever known, the pain of separation from God, because of our sin. Through that pain, he conquered and removed our sin. Hence, the day is coming when God will forever shut the doors to His school of pain. But until then, He uses it to educate His children in holiness.

In a sermon entitled "Wearing the Thorns as a Crown," James S. Stewart summarized the proper reaction to pain in the following terms. May we all learn to think this clearly about our pain: "No, God knows best; and the true Christian reaction to suffering and sorrow is not the attitude of self-pity or fatalism or resentment; it is the spirit which takes life's difficulties as a God-given opportunity, and regards its troubles as a sacred trust, and wears the thorns as a crown." Do you have any thorns? Wear them as a crown to the glory of the One who did the same for you.