The Gift of Pain

“Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” 1 Peter 4:12 (NIV)

“When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives… don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends!” James 1:2 (JB Phillips Translation)

It’s not a matter of if; it’s when. At some point, it happens to everybody.

The realities of living in a broken, twisted world will pounce on us without warning. Probably more than once. Suffering will strike us and the people we love. I’m not talking about minor irritations or momentary discomfort. I’m talking about heart-wrenching, life-altering, faith-testing trials that bring us to the end of our resources.

Here’s my definition of such a trial.

A trial is a season of unexpected and open-ended pain that tests our capacity to trust God.

Are you in a season like this? If so, take heart! The pain you feel is not random or purposeless. We don’t choose our trials, but we are free to choose how we respond to them. When your trial comes, what will you do? How will you respond?

Fire Comes in Many Forms

These fires burn through our lives in many different ways. Physical suffering—whether illness or disabilities—is one fire. Emotional suffering—childhood trauma, mental illness, losses of various kinds—is another kind of fire.

Then there are the relational difficulties that pierce our hearts. When we are betrayed, insulted, gossiped about—when we are sinned against—this is something that happens to us. We did not ask for it. In fact, we perhaps never imagined it. It is a trial, a test. It is a burning fire that will either destroy us or refine us. It will either break us down or break us open.

We don’t get to choose our struggles, but God has given us the freedom to choose how we respond to them. “Life happens,” as they say. It can be very ugly, horrid, evil stuff, or it can be seemingly minor frustrations and unmet expectations. Both, however, are opportunities for spiritual growth. When “life” happens, God is present in ways that transcend our ability to grasp. He is also present to lovingly refine and/or purge us. It becomes part of the process of transformation, just as Jesus himself was formed through his suffering (Hebrews 5:8–9).

Pain’s Purpose

Paul the apostle taught about the purpose of pain in Romans 5:3–5:

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.

God uses suffering to build our perseverance, shape our character, and increase our hope. Perseverance in the Bible means steadfast adherence to a course of action in spite of difficulties and testing. As we go through trials, we develop greater perseverance (or endurance) to deal with life’s challenges. As the Spirit helps us to deal with more hardship, he brings out character (or resilience). In essence, character exposes the quality of what’s being tested. Pain unmasks our true nature.

Dallas Willard said that we experience pain whenever we “bump into reality.” When I bumped into the reality of my mortality when I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, I had some choices to make. Will I surrender to the purifying power of pain and be transformed, or will I fight against it and drown in a sea of despair? Will I let God expose my arrogance in assuming that I will live a long life? Will I trust the incredible wisdom that God revealed to Paul in Romans 5 about the purpose of suffering, or will I lean on my own wisdom? Everyone will face these choices—probably several times when it’s all said and done.

In the heat of suffering, God gives grace for us to endure. A goldsmith uses heat under a smelting pot to bring the impurities to the top so they can be skimmed off, leaving only the pure gold. In the same way, God uses pain to bring out the impurities in our lives so they can be removed. Character that is sanctified by the Spirit becomes progressively more stable and is therefore able to focus more attentively on the things of God.

But the process doesn’t end with solid character. The Spirit unleashes hope in suffering. Hope is the confident, joyful expectation of what the Lord has promised. As disciples of Jesus, we must embrace the hope of the empty tomb and remember that nothing is impossible with God. The same power that raised Jesus from the dead resides in us (Romans 8:11; Ephesians 1:19–20)!

God may not take your pain away, but he will use it for redemptive purposes if you surrender it to him.

Also see: The Problem of Pain

Suggested Reading:

The Problem of Pain

by C.S. Lewis

In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis, one of the most renowned Christian authors and thinkers, examines a universally applicable question within the human condition: “If God is good and all-powerful, why does he allow his creatures to suffer pain?” With his signature wealth of compassion and insight, C.S. Lewis offers answers to these crucial questions and shares his hope and wisdom to help heal a world hungering for a true understanding of human nature. BUY NOW.