THE PLACE OF
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.
"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!"
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
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!"
God Uses Our Pain to Build Christlike
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.
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.
Pain Reminds Us of Our Weakness
& His Strength
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.
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
"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
Pain Prepares Us to Minister
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
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.
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.
Pain Makes Us Appreciate Heaven
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.
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?
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.