What would it be like to have a story free of pain? To live a life without suffering of any kind? In all the stories we hear in COR@9, pain plays a part. It could be physical pain — like a chronic illness. It could be emotional pain — from abuse or neglect, depression, or unfulfilled longing. It could also be spiritual pain — experiences in the church that harmed rather than healed, or deep wrestling with whether God is real or good. Whatever form it takes, whether expressed or under the surface, pain is a recurring character in our stories.
We don’t usually get to choose what form pain takes in our lives, and we certainly don’t get to choose whether or not we experience pain. However, we do get to choose how we respond to the pain we experience. And how we respond to pain plays a major part in the shape our story takes. When we encounter pain, we have a choice — a choice that will keep us stuck in pain, or a choice that will lead us on the path towards healing and redemption.
We can ignore, numb, or run from pain, or we can choose to feel it, process, and move through it. Pain actually serves a very important purpose — it tells us that there’s something wrong. In the very rare cases where a person is congenitally unable to feel pain, big problems can occur. Imagine burning your hand and not realizing it until you had third degree burns, or getting appendicitis but not knowing it until it was too late! Pain alerts us that there’s something going on to which we ought to pay attention. Just as with physical pain, when there is unprocessed emotional and spiritual pain in our lives, it too causes problems — addictions, depression or anxiety, perfectionism, relational dysfunction, the list goes on. The only path to healing is the path that runs through the pain. When we try to go around it or avoid it, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to grow to be more like Jesus. When we refuse to feel the pain, we refuse to experience the healing.
We can blame others for our pain, or we can name and accept the truth in all its complexity. It’s true that sometimes other people and events are primarily responsible for the pain we experience. A child is not responsible for abuse suffered at the hands of an adult. But sometimes, we can get stuck in a pattern of blaming others for our pain in a way that masks the broader truth. When we blame others, we don’t have to take responsibility for our own part in what occurred; we become the innocent victim while the other becomes the villain. But the truth often lies in the middle. When we blame others, we also lose sight of the fact that they are human — broken and finite. Sometimes, those who hurt us were also just doing the best they knew how. On the other hand, sometimes the “other” we blame is ourselves, and we need to accept the truth that we, too, are broken and finite, sometimes sinning and sometimes just coping the best we could. Naming and accepting the truth about our pain requires that we hold these things in tension.
We can allow pain to define us, or we can choose to take ownership of our own story. We’ve probably all known people who were defined by their pain, whether that’s physical pain that turned them angry and bitter, or an event in the past from which they’ve never recovered. The more we try to ignore or run from our pain, the more that pain rules us, because we become enslaved by our need to not encounter that hidden pain. On the flip side, we can also make the error of nursing and rehearsing our pain, writing our story as a tragedy in the midst of other people’s happy endings. But in the stories God writes, pain never gets the last word. God’s work in our lives gives us the ability to take back the pen we surrendered and begin to co-write a different story with His guidance — a story in which pain gets put back in its place as a supporting character rather than an author and narrator. We are not victims, neither are we invulnerable superheroes; we are human beings. We suffer, but we can experience God’s redemption through the pain, not just in spite of it or once we get past it.
Pain serves a purpose. But in God’s Story, pain does not get the last word. As we prepare for Advent, that season in which we remember that Jesus became a human being and entered deeply into our experience of pain and suffering, let us pray that we might receive grace to become more like him through our pain, and allow His healing and redemption to write and re-write our stories.