Concerning the subject of suffering, CS Lewis famously 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.”
Countless people, including my family and I, would affirm the truth of that statement. Pain opens the door to intimacy with Jesus. It’s through pain we grow, mature, and even find some previously unintended avenues for ministry. These are all examples of redemption – the Lord taking the broken pieces of our lives, crumbled under the weight of a corrupted creation, and creating a mosaic of something beautiful from it.
From a scriptural standpoint, there are numerous places we might point that show us the good that can ultimately come from pain. Take, for example, James 1:2-4:
Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.
Suffering produces the good of maturity which, according to this verse, is a key to spiritual maturity, which is a good, good thing. Or take another example from 2 Corinthians 1:3-7:
Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so through Christ our comfort also overflows. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is experienced in your endurance of the same sufferings that we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that as you share in the sufferings, so you will share in the comfort.
Suffering creates an avenue for ministry, for we are able to extend the comfort we receive from the Lord to others. This, too, is a good and right after effect of suffering.
These are just two examples of how it’s supposed to work. But like all things, it doesn’t always go that way. In as much pain and suffering can, in the end, have positive and redemptive effects, there are a number of ways that our pain might have negative effects. Though there are many such pitfalls, here are three:
1. Callousness. If you go back and look at the passage above from 2 Corinthians, you can glean that pain in our own lives is meant to soften our hearts toward the pain of others. We can truly sympathize with what they’re walking through; we can shoulder the burden along with them in a very true and honest way. But sometimes we find that instead of making our hearts pliable and soft, our pain actually causes us to have a sense of callousness toward others. We spend so much time looking inward at what’s happening in our own lives that we find we have little interest, emotion, or empathy left to look outside of ourselves.
2. Entitlement. Pain is the great equalizer. In the hospital waiting room, everyone seems to be on equal (albeit it shaky) footing. That’s because all of us live in a world broken by sin, and because we do, none of us are immune from the effects. But when you suffer and suffer greatly, there is sometimes a temptation to think that you have “paid your dues.” You’ve done your time in the prison of pain, and because you have, God owes you some measure of peace and comfort. In a perverted kind of way, your pain becomes your pride, proof of the fact that you have been tested and tried. Having earned that badge, you are now entitled to live above such things.
3. Comparison. Suffering is relative. A scraped knee isn’t going to mean the same thing to a 35-year-old man as it does to a 5-year-old boy; that’s because that man has been though a lot more life than that boy has. That doesn’t mean, however, that a father can’t stoop low and sympathize with a boy. And yet sometimes the ugliness of comparison rears its head even in the midst of our suffering. We walk through a season of pain and then must battle the temptation to look at what others might be going through and compare their struggle to our own. We look with contempt on the suffering of others, bolstered by a sense of our own superiority because, ironically, of something that we did not control and something that caused us so much grief.
How, then, can we recognize these pitfalls and do the thing that none of us wants to do, but all of us will have the opportunity to do, and suffer in a God-glorifying and honorable way? I’m sure there are 3 or 4 good steps to doing so, but mostly, we can look to Jesus.
Jesus, who suffered more than all, and yet even with the knowledge of His own suffering wept at the tomb of His friend. Jesus who emptied Himself and befriended and had compassion on the dregs even when He was the only truly superior One. Jesus who did not compare the suffering of His cross to the suffering of others but instead willingly took it upon Himself for the sake of others. We can look to Jesus and see a Savior who did it the good and right way, and we can be humbled under the weight of His sacrifice and emboldened to feel deeply for others in light of His compassion.
Michael Kelley is director of groups ministry at LifeWay Christian Resources and the author of Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal and Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Beeson Divinity School and lives with his wife and three kids in Nashville, Tenn. Follow him at @_michaelkelley.