“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed.” Peter 4:12-13
During the 1968 Summer Olympics held in Mexico City an athlete from the United States dashed across the finish line in the 880 yard race. His chest was still heaving from the long sprint when a news reporter thrust a microphone in his face and asked, “What do you do with pain?” As you run that long, grueling race we call life, I might very well ask you the same question. How do you handle it? What do you do with the pain?
The fact is, we live in a broken world. People are broken— greed, hatred, murder, injustice, war, divorce, birth defects. Creation is broken— drought, plague, cancer, tornadoes. And sooner or later we each will rub up against a jagged edge and get hurt. This should not surprise us. One may fairly expect it!
Man is born in pain. He cries his way into this world. He lives in pain. Fear, anxiety, difficult problems, poor health— we experience all of this and more in a lifetime. And not only are we born in pain, not only do we live in agony, most of us will die in pain— cancer, heart attacks, war, starvation— My God, how hard it is to die! Job had it right when he said, “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward” ( Job 5:7). The Book of Acts is correct when it states, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
The real question is not, “Will I suffer?” Indeed, we all shall. The question is, “How will I suffer? What do I do with the pain?”
The Christian faith is qualified to answer this question because it is a faith well acquainted with hurt. Jesus, in the prime of His life, became a victim of hatred and injustice. He died in agony on a cross with nails driven through His flesh. Most of the original apostles were martyred. Early Christians were a persecuted minority. Some were banished. Others were torn apart by lions in the arena. And still others were burned as human torches in emperor Nero’s garden.
Today, Christians still suffer. They still get cancer. They still fall victim to this abnormal world’s disorders— earthquakes, famines, deformities, and tornadoes. And, as if the torture of natural order is not enough, Christians still suffer from man’s inhumanity to man. Some believers suffer economic oppression and live in a ghetto. Some are murdered, raped, or beaten. Many know what it is like to be overwhelmed by the ravages of war. And persecution still rears its ugly head— sometimes in the classroom as ridicule, sometimes in the streets as martyrdom.
The amazing thing about Christians historically is that they seldom run from pain. Quite the opposite! They seem to go where pain is. You will find true believers ministering in prisons, hospitals, inner cities, jungles, the battlefields of war, broken homes, orphanages, famine stricken nations and elsewhere. Where the afflicted are, there is the church!
So the Christian faith is not foreign to suffering. Instead, it is well acquainted with grief. Let us, therefore, look and listen while the faith answers the question, “What do you do with the pain?”
The first means of dealing with pain is to get the right perspective. St. Paul said, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24). Paul saw his pain as a participation in the sufferings of Christ for the redemption of the world. It is like a woman giving birth to a baby. She has great pain in the delivery. But the suffering is not totally meaningless. It has a purpose. She hurts for the new life that is on its way. Christians suffer like that, too. There is a new world coming. But right now we are in travail. This abnormal world of conflict is giving birth to a normal world of harmony. Speaking of this very thing in John 16:20-23, Jesus Christ said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world. So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
If a man has a “why” for his life, he can endure most anything. The apostle Paul embodied this. He was working with God to bring about a new creation! When his feet hurt, Paul rejoiced because he had been traveling for God. When he was imprisoned, he was there to proclaim the gospel. When he was ill, it only gave him that much more opportunity to prove that God’s grace was sufficient, His power made perfect in weakness.
Several hundred years ago, when St. Paul’s Cathedral was being built in London, a newsman stopped and asked a workman what he was doing. The worker grouchily answered, “I’m lifting these stones and carrying them over there.” Another workman, whistling while he worked, was asked the same question, “What are you doing?” He replied cheerfully, “I’m helping Sir Christopher Wren build one of the most magnificent cathedrals in the world!” One man with a limited perspective could see only stones and back-breaking work. To him it was agony. But, to another with a greater perspective, his labor was ecstasy. He could see a marvelous cathedral! What do you see in your pain? Are you an insignificant biological accident suffering agony in a God-forsaken universe? Or are you a workman of God hard at the task of helping build the kingdom of God?
Not only does the Bible teach that one’s perspective is important in coping with pain, we are also told in Scripture that suffering is an excellent time to learn. The book of Hebrews teaches that Christ leaned from His sufferings. “Although He was a son, He learned obedience through what He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). And the psalmist likewise affirms that he was tutored in his trials. “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn thy statutes” (Psalm 119:71).
Astronomers say that some things about the universe can only be studied during an eclipse. The sun simply outshines many facts. Only in darkness can one discover what is beyond the sun’s glare. This is why scientists are so busy during a solar eclipse. Can we learn in our dark times, too? C. S. Lewis said, “God whispers in our pleasures, but shouts in our pain!” As a Christian I have found this to be true. Oh, the lessons I’ve learned in defeat, in utter despair, in loneliness and in illness! How often I teach in health what I learned in sorrow. As a pastor, I’ve found this to be true in other people’s lives as well. Lessons, truth, that I have tried to teach from the pulpit have gone unlearned in affluence and health. But when a man’s on his back in a hospital bed, I’ve found some of those same lessons well-heeded, truth coming in loud and clear!
I strolled a mile with pleasure,
He chattered noisily all the way,
Yet he left me none the wiser
For all he had to say.
I walked a mile with sorrow,
And not a word said he,
Yet, oh, the things I learned from him
When heartache walked with me.
George Washington, the patient statesman, learned from the snows of Valley Forge. Sir Walter Scott learned from lameness. Abraham Lincoln, the liberator, learned from his early poverty. George W. Carver, the black agricultural genius, learned from human prejudice and backbreaking toil. Roosevelt, the disciplinarian, learned from his asthma. Edison, the inventor, was deaf. Helen Keller, life’s inspiring example, was blind and deaf. Beethoven, the musical genius, went deaf early in life. But he did not grow bitter and quit. He still composed some excellent musical pieces. In fact, his famous Ninth Symphony was composed when he was completely deaf!
So many people owe the grandeur of their lives to what they learned in suffering. And your life? What are the special torments that you face? What can you learn from them?
Not only is the experience of pain a time to put things in perspective, not only is it a time to learn, the Bible teaches that suffering is a time for creativity. When Christ was dying on the cross, He was also creating the way of forgiveness. When Job was crushed by satanic oppression, he worshiped (Job 1:20). When Paul was in prison, he wrote letters, much of the New Testament. When David fled for his life from mad King Saul, he wrote Psalms. Joseph, betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery, became the prime minister of Egypt and created a food storage plan that saved the Near East. Surveying his agony and his triumph, Joseph said, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (Genesis 41:52). If we will but cooperate, the Lord has a way of turning our pain into pluses, our crosses into crowns. Or as a little boy put it, “God can turn our lemons into lemonade!”
Consider the oyster. A tiny bit of sand gets into its shell. It begins to cause irritation, pain flares up. And how does this sea creature respond? Does he try to run from it? Does he raise his fist to the sky and complain, “There is no justice!” Does his heart grow cold and bitter? Does he rage against the impersonal elements like Shakespeare’s King Lear? “Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” No, the oyster does not respond in any of these ways. Instead, it slowly begins to coat the painful foreign object with a milky substance. Day after day it deals with the problem until it has made a pearl. From the ugly, the painful, has come the beautiful. Man can learn a great lesson from the example of the oyster. When you begin to hurt, look for chances to be creative.
Romans 5:3-5 teaches that “suffering produces.” It is creative. It is never neutral, never barren. Negative or positive fruit results and we get to choose which!
Just like everything else in life, there is a right way and a wrong way to do suffering. If one suffers the wrong way, bitterness, cold, hard loneliness, and destruction can result. Sometimes I think man is far removed from the instinctive creativity of the oyster. When life irritates us, instead of a pearl, we make kidney stones! We take our little irritations and blow them up into family fights, bad character and wars. But there can be a noble side to our predicament of suffering. Romans 5 teaches that “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” The Christian response to pain is always to look for that way to grow in character and create something of benefit for all.
John Bunyan was thrown in jail for preaching without a license. While in prison, he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress. Homer and Milton were blind. St. Francis was poor. A man in one of my churches suffered from arthritis in his hips. He didn’t just sit down and give up. He started a drug store, became a pharmacist, and ministered to others in pain. Franklin Roosevelt lost the use of his legs yet still became President of the United States and served longer than any other President. And your life? What can you create out of your own special agony? Can you make something beautiful out of an ugly pain? Can you build a life out of a broken home? A friendship out of a quarrel? A faith out of despair?
A further response to trials and tribulations, to pain and heartache, is discipline. In I Timothy 2:3 we are told, “Take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” Like soldiers we expect training. We expect discipline. And suffering and hardships, wounds, are all a part of our duty. But we go right on being disciplined in spite of our hurts.
What are the disciplines of the Christian life? They are the things like worship, Bible study, prayer, obedience, walking in the Spirit and fellowship. And it is because we grow close to the disciplines of the faith that we don’t grow weary in the long struggle.
I have a house plant that is a favorite of mine. It is a jade plant. Last summer in an accident the entire plant was broken off to a stump at the roots. I started to throw the whole thing out, but hesitated because I hoped the root system might still be good. I continued to water it, and put it in the sunshine, and now it has sprouted and is again spreading its branches above the ground. Our lives are like this, too. When forces chop us down to the ground, we can quit and die, or we can faithfully hold on to our roots. Some people experience pain and immediately abandon their roots. They stop worshiping. They take Job’s wife’s advice to “Curse God and die.” These people forget in the darkness what they learned in the light. They forget Bible study. They forget prayer, praise. They forget fellowship. They simply go home, draw the drapes, and wither away in self-pity. Such a response is sub-standard for the Christian. Why should it surprise you when suffering comes upon you? We live in a broken world! Christ hurt. The apostles hurt. And the Bible warns that you can expect to hurt as well. Life itself is a crucifying experience! My Bible tells me that it’s first the storm, then the rainbow; first the cross, then the crown; first the grave, then the empty tomb!
Paul encourages, “Take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” Expect to suffer. Discipline yourself for it. Then when pain comes, don’t forget in the darkness what you learned in the light. Stick with your roots. If you can walk, then walk in prayer. If you cannot walk, then crawl. The psalmist said, “Wait for the Lord, and keep to His way, and He will exalt you to possess the land; you will look on the destruction of the wicked” (Psalm 37:34).
“Wait for the Lord, and keep to His ways” of Bible study, fellowship, and obedience. You stick with the roots and eventually you will have the fruits again.
Let me get personal and thrust this question to you right now. Answer please! What have you been doing with the pain? Are you wallowing in self-pity? Is your complaint bitter? Have you cut yourself off from the very disciplines that give you strength? What have you been doing with your pain?
What it eventually boils down to for all of us is this: either we handle our pain or our pain handles us. Either by Christ’s strength we take charge of our sufferings, or our sufferings will take charge of us.
Consider a pot of boiling water, if you will. Into that same pot one may place both a potato and an egg. After twenty minutes, however, one finds two entirely different responses to the same scalding. The egg has become hard-boiled, while the potato has become soft and malleable. Same treatment, different response. And people are no different, either. One man suffers and grows hard-boiled, while another hurts and grows sensitive, humble, and wise. And the differences is all in how one chooses to suffer either in or out of the spirit of God. For one let his pain handle him. The other handled his pain in Jesus.
Lord, fill my life and teach me to live like Jesus. Amen!
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