How Great Pain Can Point Us to a Great God1
For many, painful circumstances drive us toward one of three, general stress responses: fight, flight, or freeze. To be more specific, some people become combative, defensive, and ready to blame, while others try to escape the hurt through things like drinking, drugs, or with what may be considered less destructive distractions. Still others feel paralyzed by the pain. The only thing they know to do is put up 'walls' inwardly and hope things change.
But what if we added “faith” to that list? It was C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, who said: “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Whether you are hurting now or can recall a difficult time not so long ago, have you thought about what God was saying, or might be saying (or as Lewis put it, shouting) to you, even when the pain seems deafening?
Consider the following verses from both the Old and New Testaments and what God is telling us through them:
The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18) Sometimes a painful season is the thing that makes us sensitive to, even hungry for, the presence of the One who made us. Though the path is hard, there is no greater destination than being restored to our Creator.
“...[For my people]...hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:13c) When a cistern meant to collect rain water is broken, it will send us away thirsty in times of need. In many cases, God uses difficult circumstances to show us that our “best-laid plans” and human solutions are ultimately empty when it comes to real help in times of hurt. Only he is “the fountain of living waters” (2:13b) we so desperately need.
“I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose...’” (Isaiah 46:9b–10) People long for control. We strain and struggle for it. But painful circumstances remind us we are not in charge; that in spite of our efforts, we cannot control things like the timing of a tragic accident or the destructive decision of a friend or family member. It is often in those times, times when we are reeling, that God helps us to see that he alone is in control. God is never not on his throne. Some believe pain is proof that God is not in control. But Scripture teaches us that human beings invited ruin into our world (cf. Romans 5:12), and that God, in light of that ruin, permits painful circumstances now in order to accomplish a greater good, both now and in the end. When we are reeling, he wants us to know he is “the Rock”, and that we can stand firm (Deuteronomy 32:4).
If you, LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? (Psalm 130:3) While suffering can be the result of factors and forces outside our control (including another person's actions), in some cases, great pain is the result (or partly the result) of our own foolish choices. Just as a jail cell can sober a man's thinking about his choices, so too can times of pain and loss. God can use such a season to show us the reality, seriousness, and consequences of our sin, of that cancerous me-centeredness that grinds against the grain of a God-centered universe. Even if a medical test or scan is painful, it is worthwhile if our true ailment is identified.
...Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) Sadly, for some the darkest days lead only to despair. But God wants us to know there is a light in the darkness. Our true ailment has not only been identified (i.e. sin), but a cure has been prescribed. Jesus, the Son of God, was sent to suffer for us on the cross, to bear the penalty for our sins. Because of his great pain, we can now know peace in the midst of our great pain, and we can be spared from the great pain our sins deserve beyond this life. How is this possible? By being forgiven and reconciled to God through faith in Christ. Because of his death and resurrection, God's presence and his purpose can be ours at all times, no matter the challenge.
In light of these things, how will you respond? There's an old saying about suffering that goes, “The same sun that melts the wax hardens the clay”. We can either be 'melted' by painful seasons, that is, humbled and made aware of our need for God, or our hearts can be 'hardened' with bitterness and blame.
Even now, all around the world, God is 'shouting' through human pain, seeking to awaken us from our spiritual stupor. Because of his great love and great power, God can use our great pain to reveal the truth about who he is, about our desperate condition apart from him, and about hope in Jesus.
So when painful times come, or even as you suffer now, how will you respond? Fight, flight, freeze, or faith?