Saturday, March 23, 2013

Why the Pain Does Not Own Me

After church a couple weeks ago, my friend said the most encouraging thing. She told me that my worship is beautiful to God, because even though I have been through a lot and it's not over, I still choose to praise him. What a needed word of encouragement from God that was for me.

Sometimes when I pray or hear others pray for me regarding life with chronic pain, these words are spoken: "We thank you for all the good days."

Indeed, I do thank God for all of the "good" days (ie. "good" as I have rated them: the days with little to no pain, the days when it is not debilitating). But I am learning to thank him on the "bad" days, too.
"This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it." Psalm 118:24

More than that, I am learning to thank him FOR the bad days. And for the pain. Before you start rolling your eyes, please let me explain. :)

It is not easy to thank God for pain, especially the kind of pain that has at any time kept a mother from her child physically or emotionally.

Nevertheless, God uses all things for the good of us who love him. He uses all things, including pain. Including physical pain. 

Sometimes pain is the most effective tool God can use for our well-being.

For he so loved us and wanted us to be with him, that he himself was willing to suffer the greatest pain of all.

While pain is happening to us, we do not often know or understand its benefits, but people have attempted to grasp them. In his book Pathways to His Presence, Charles Stanley quotes C.S. Lewis from The Problem of Pain. "One dynamic benefit of pain is that it shatters the illusion that what we have, whether good or bad in itself, is our own and is enough for us. Without pain, humans revert to an innate sense of self-sufficiency. We find God an interruption, or as a friend of mine said, 'We regard God as an airman regards his parachute; it's there for emergencies, but he hopes he'll never have to use it.'"

Stanley goes on to say, "God is not a parachute. People do not have a ripcord with which they can pop God out of a neatly packed backpack to help with a temporary crisis, only to be refolded and stuffed away. Without a personal, active, growing relationship with God, no one's life is complete. Sometimes, even though it hurts, it takes a dose of pain to help us to remember that."

Sometimes it takes a dose of pain to remember that our lives depend on God.

Have you ever heard someone distinguish being thankful IN all things, from being thankful FOR all things?

It is true that God's Word tells us to be thankful in all things:
"Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus." 1 Thessalonions 5:18

So often when this verse is taught, it is immediately followed by: "We don't have to be thankful FOR all things. God doesn't require that. It just says to be thankful IN all things."

But, while God certainly does not enjoy our suffering, his word does in fact tell us to be thankful for everything.
"Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." Ephesians 5:19b-20

After all, there is always something for which to be thankful. There is always something going on that can be called good, and God does want us to look for those things because he knows that thankfulness is what produces our joy. This is for our joy.

In addition, we don't serve a God who calls us to just "be positive" or "have a good attitude." He calls us to accept the cup he gives and drink it with thankfulness in our hearts, and -- dare I say this -- that cup may include suffering and pain. We can drink it with thanksgiving only because we know that God has a greater purpose in it; if he didn't, being a loving father he would take it away.

We are secure in his love for us. 

On his way to the cross, Jesus was secure in his father's love for him.
"Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, 'My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.'" Matthew 26:39

Coming to a place where I can thank God for even pain. Even accepting pain as a part of his will for me today. This is the hardest thing I've ever done, but probably the most worshipful and God-glorifying. It is what Jesus did.
"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. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart." Hebrews 12:2b-3

Jesus' focal point in high pain was the joy set before him. The joy of our salvation. The joy of knowing that God is bigger than the pain, the joy that comes in believing that God has a plan to make something beautiful out of it. There is no other way to consciously give thanks for pain than to consider Jesus, who endured such painful opposition.

I am not very good at this kind of thankfulness yet, but I am learning it, practicing it as often as the Spirit enables me, and that is the only way I can stand up and still praise and thank God even when the pain goes on. Because this truth I know -- all that he gives me is good.

The treasure of darkness I have now is that God loves me, even when it hurts.

A subtle lie creeps in when we spend our energy distinguishing "give thanks IN all things" from "give thanks FOR all things." Both are true and both are needed. Giving thanks for all things does not mean God enjoys human suffering; our suffering brings him sorrow just as our children's pain hurts us parents. Thanking God for pain is simply our act of faith, in that he is in control of our lives and we trust his good will to be done, that he will not let this pain be wasted.

Granted, most of us fall short of this act of faith everyday. We whine and complain to God about all the stuff that makes us FEEL bad, and give thanks only for the blessings that make us FEEL happy.

There are many blessings in life that don't produce happy feelings, and we need to be careful not to depend only on a good feeling or "mountaintop-experience-blessings" to be able to give thanks.

I can only say this now because I have practiced it. I have not practiced it enough; more often than not I have whined and complained instead of giving thanks. But there is always something to be thankful for, even in the midst of pain/bad feelings, and often without pain the gift would not be possible. I am talking about both physical and emotional pain. Too many times I have had to go to the lowest of valleys to be able to know this truth.

Furthermore, God tells us to endure hardship as discipline. We are quick make sweeping statements like, "What you are going through is not your fault." Sometimes that is true, and sometimes it isn't. No one but God can tell you the purpose of the specific pain you are going through. I am just saying that it's not always wrong to look at pain as discipline, and if that happens it doesn't mean God is a mean dad. It means the opposite: He loves us! What loving parent does not discipline his children? And our father is most definitely loving. Sometimes we have to go through breaking in order for him to get through to us. I am not saying that discipline has been the only reason for the pain I have endured; but God has used it to teach me certain things. And because of that I know that some of the pain has been so that God can discipline me. You can read about this for yourself in Hebrews 12.

This is what I want my friends to know... that our God is loving even when life hurts. That the only reason I am able to stand up and still praise God even when I have not yet been fully healed is because I practice looking for the gifts he gives in the darkest places I have been. I could not worship him like that before. I spent a long, long time in bitterness about having to spend days (sometimes weeks) lying flat in a dark room, and I still struggle with the thoughts that come when pain consumes. The temptation is to think about all that I am missing and how much it hurts. But when I fix my eyes on Jesus... when I purpose to think of SOMETHING for which I can give thanks, even if it is just the bed, and I decide to make those thank-words come out of my mouth even when it is not what I am FEELING... joy never fails. Joy springs up out of nowhere, and I know that God is right there with me and he is constantly giving gift after gift. Even now in this pain, he hasn't stopped giving good things to me and my family, and what more could I want?

This is why the pain does not own me... I am his.

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