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Pain Avoidance or Hope

Embarking Blog

...on the journey towards restoration of all things

Pain Avoidance or Hope

Tom Elenbaas

I don't like pain.

I'm guessing that you don't, either. Pain is something that we avoid and something we like to work around. Sure, there are some good types of pain, like the muscle pain and fatigue that comes from pushing yourself physically to accomplish something extraordinary. I remember when my wife ran the Chicago Marathon. But mostly I remember the months of training leading up to it. She experienced two kinds of pain. The one she almost reveled in - the long runs, pushing herself to more miles and greater stamina. Then there was the other pain - the pain of an injury she sustained just weeks before the actual run, and the pain of even more injury the day of the race. 

But there are other pains in life that come uninvited. Pains that we sustain not because we have chosen a hard path, but because we have been chosen - or we have not been chosen to be spared. It is in these pains that we find ourselves inadequate, needy, reaching out to someone, anyone who can help us, or we spiral into the sad loneliness that comes from self-sufficiency. Few of us know the deep discipline of facing pain with hope in the context of loving community. Listen to what writer Henri Nouwen says:

Our culture has become most sophisticated in the avoidance of pain, not only our physical pain but our emotional and mental pain as well... We have become so used to this state of anesthesia, that we panic when there is nothing or nobody left to distract us. (from Reaching Out)

The difficulty is that one of the things I've learned is that pain is often the doorway to significant growth. In fact, it's probably true that without the experience of pain in life, our maturity can be stilted. I have watched people who have come through tremendous pain - the death of a child, the loss of a spouse, the loss of a dream, the impact of a debilitating disease. And I have watched God do miraculously powerful and amazing things through the pain. I have seen resurrection and restoration. I have seen long-suffering turned to joy. Here is what Paul says: 

...we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. [Romans 5:3-5]

This summer, my family and I had the meaningful experience of spending a week at a camp with families dealing with childhood cancer. I was moved deeply at a soul level by the agony of the fight these parents endure. I tried to put myself in their shoes as they travelled this out of control battle of life and death. Imagine pumping poison into your child's bodies to kill the cancer, hoping is won't hurt them more than helping. Who would, in any normal circumstances, make such a choice? And yet in those circumstances, the only way to kill cancer is to go to the brink of personal destruction and fight a return to health with everything you've got. Asher was the boy in treatment in the family we adopted for the week. He's one of my heroes. Though I've only known him for a brief time, I've watched him suffer, persevere, build character, and now live with tremendous hope - not only for a full life, but a true hope in the only One who can save him - Jesus the Christ, the miracle worker.

So, this Jesus. This Jesus. He gives us a picture of this himself. This Jesus, "...for the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." [Romans 12:2] Jesus is the ultimate overcomer; he stared pain in the face and endured it, knowing that there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God [Psalm 46:4],  where every tear will be wiped from our eyes because there is the tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. [Revelation 22:2

There is pain. There will be pain.  It is foolish to choose pain when it is unnecessary, but it may be just as foolish to avoid it at the times when facing it will build our faith and shrinking from it will leave us worshipping no one who is bigger than anything and giving us nothing to hope for.  I would prefer to put my faith in a God who is bigger than my challenges, bigger than my pain, and bigger than anything I could face in this world who can give me strength to stand, help to hope, and faith to fight.

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