“Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened by existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness, whether pursued or attained.”
— Malcolm Muggeridge
Count it all joy, my brothers,when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
–Letter of James 1:2-4
I felt the muscle pull. It resonated from my upper thigh to my ear with a dull “snap.” Guided by the instructor, this last stretch was too much. I yelped.
The trainer did a quick examination. “Likely a pulled hamstring,” he said. What was needed, he commented, was ice. A few days of icing it, he assured me, and I will be much better.
A few days later, I wasn’t.
Pain that would not go away
No, the pain persisted. It ached and grabbed at me when I walked. Sitting made it worse, and with bad timing. My trip to teach in Brazil was two weeks away. Try sitting on an airplane for 12 hours with a stinging ache at the hip joint.
Still, I was confident I could make it better.
Three months later, the injury no longer shouted, but it spoke firmly. It changed my life. My usual spin class was out (you sit on a bike). Weight training was entirely about my upper body. Golf was a no go. Sitting at my desk for more than an hour was impossible.
A nurse practitioner friend at the gym, noticing my grimaces of pain, inquired about the cause. She recommended an x-ray and physical therapy. Finally, I relented from my self-confident attempts to make myself better.
Pain still needed
Fortunately the x-ray revealed no serious injury. The physical therapist took an hour to examine me thoroughly. With deep hope, I asked if there was a treatment plan. He said, “Yes, but I will need you to come back. I have not yet discerned the precise nature of the injury.”
After an hour of examination, I wondered if I had the right person as PT. How complicated could this be?
I also asked if there was anything I could do to get relief from the nagging pain. “I have no treatment plan yet,” he responded, “but there are a few things I can give you to do that may help.” Then, he insisted, I not take much pain medication. The pain, he assured me, was valuable. It would lead him to the real problem.
I wanted to end the pain, not learn from it
That is not what I wanted to hear. This man had impressive recommendations from others. He charged a hefty fee. I assumed he would get me fixed quickly. But instead, he encouraged me to allow the pain linger for a few more days, until our next appointment, because he needed it to make a more accurate diagnosis. Pain was a gift to his assessment.
Four years later that mix of throbbing ache and a sharp sting is a remote memory. Why? Pain led him to the problem.
Who likes pain?
About now, you may be pushing back. Like me, you think pain is an unmitigated evil, to be avoided and treated. Pain, in realty, is a gift.
Many years ago I read a book that asked the question: Wouldn’t it be great to have a pain free life? The answer, to my surprise, is that there are some people who have such a life. They are called lepers. A leper’s body has lost the ability to sense burning heat, sharp objects, the scraping of skin, and the laceration of flesh1. Because their bodies do not send them warning signals, their lives are filled with unintentional self-harm. The fire that burns the skin does deep damage because the pain signal, which calls for withdrawal from the fire, is not sent. Pain is a gift.
God shouts in our pain
C S Lewis examined The Problem of Pain. He concluded that pain can be a gift from God. He insists that God shouts in our pain but whispers in our pleasure.
My own life tells me that is quite accurate. The only way God can get my attention is through pain. It awakens me out of slumber. Scripture is rather unsentimental about this. God uses afflictions of all kinds to get our attention so he can work in us.
In my last post, I encouraged you to lean into your pain. That is counter intuitive, until I bring God into the picture. Relational pain is one of his most effective tools. The inward strain of alienation, the flashes of anger and despair in the face of deep hurt, are pointing to something that needs to be addressed.
The pain of conflict is the design of a good God
When people experience the sting of strained relationship, they are tempted to think ill of God. I call them to embrace the wisdom of God, the rule of God over the details of our lives, and his absolute goodness (fully revealed in Christ). I help people trust him. Trusting God, the master surgeon, when you are under the knife, but without anesthesia, is our part in maturing through conflict. Trusting him means believing that he is taking pains over our lives because he loves us.
When I help people bring resolution to conflict and reconciliation to broken relationships, I always start with the same question and same principle:
The question: Do you think your God is good and wise and knows why he has brought you into this situation?
The principle: Your faithful and good God has custom designed this situation for your good and his honor.
The perspective that drives me to those questions and that principle are what makes Christian conciliation distinct. As a Christian I live in the presence of God. Everything about my life is personal and relational before my God and Father.
Quick fixes versus true healing
When I went to physical therapy I wanted a quick fix. My PT refused. He wanted to make me well, not just feel better. He asked questions. He listened. He sympathized. And he refused to yield to my demands.
So it is with a ministry of conciliation. Almost everyone comes to me wanting the pain to end quickly. I call them to walk the whole path from beginning to end and not accept quick fixes. Most people choose to endure.
James, the letter writer of the New Testament, calls us to endure, “Let patience do its complete work” (James 1:2-3). The idea here is a call to accept the trial and submit to the trial while it probes and works in our lives to bring the healing God desires.
Slow cooking changes us deeply
I grieve with people in relational pain. Few forms of suffering are worse. But my observation and experience is that a prolonged trial of alienation and conflict with others works a profound change in those who embrace it and trust the good hand of God in their lives.
Slow cooking penetrates the depths of the food with flavor. Slow walking through relational strain changes us deeply. As we trust God, cry out to him in anguish, with eyes open to what God is revealing and ears attentive to what he is saying in Scripture, he does a beautiful work.
God is never in a hurry
Just this morning I finished reading the story of Joseph, the son of Jacob, in the book of Genesis 37-50. The favorite child of his father, he faced the bitter hatred of his 11 brothers toward their “spoiled brat” sibling. When they had Jacob alone and unobserved by anyone else, they sold him into slavery in Egypt and made up a cover story that he had been mauled and killed by an animal. That is relational pain.
The arc of the story is that God sent Joseph to Egypt to be the rescuer of his brothers and father when a famine came years later. Between the evil act of his brothers and the day when he rescued them from starvation, Joseph prospered for a season, then spent years in prison after he was condemned by a man he had honored for something he did not do. That too in relational pain.
For fourteen years he was left to stew in the juices of being treated wrongly and with injustice. God eventually reversed his humiliation in some fantastic ways. He became the second most powerful person in Egypt. Through his efforts Egypt was rescued from the severity of the famine.
But what is most to the point is this: this slow cooking of relational pain sent by God produced in Joseph a man of a magnificently generous heart. When he had opportunity to avenge himself on his brothers, he refused. Rather, he forgave them. He endured the pain and allowed the fires of the trial to refine him. 2
Relational pain, endured with trust in God, produces beautiful people. Let the pain do its work.
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- The disease can affect the nerves, skin, eyes, and lining of the nose (nasal mucosa). The bacteria attack the nerves, which can become swollen under the skin. This can cause the affected areas to lose the ability to sense touch and pain, which can lead to injuries, like cuts and burns. https://www.cdc.gov/leprosy/about/about.html
- When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” 16So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: 17‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” 19But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. 21So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.