PURPOSE IN OUR PAIN
Have you ever had a “meltdown?” I have a friend who did. It happened following some negative experiences in his work. He is the vice-president of his company, with several departments reporting to him. Last summer, the members of one department were indifferent to some of his ideas on improving their work. The head of another department severely criticized my friend for proposals he had made regarding their work, and the sharp confrontation that followed between the two gave the first signs of the impending meltdown. Then a few weeks after that, following a confrontation with two employees in a third department, my friend went into a downward emotional spiral.
He felt as if he had a “target” on his back, and that people were “throwing darts” at him. He was discouraged and doubted his leadership abilities. He was angry and defensive. But more than anything, he was emotionally depleted and defeated. He felt disrespected and untrusted.
My friend’s experience is not unique. We have all felt the pain of hurtful words or actions that lead to discouragement. But what my friend failed to see – and what we often fail to see – is that our disappointments and discouragements do not have the “final say” in our lives. They do not have to permanently keep us down. Our perspective and response to our difficulties and pain can make the difference in the outcome of these circumstances in our lives.
A theme that runs through the Bible is that God is doing good things in the circumstances we think are bad. The life of Joseph illustrates this. Sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, framed for a crime he did not commit, and kept in prison unjustly, Joseph knew pain. He had been separated for decades from his father who loved him. He suffered fear, loneliness, and imprisonment through no fault of his own. Yet, he came to see the big picture – that God had purposes in his pain beyond what he could see, and was sovereignly guiding the events of his life to bring about a greater good. Listen to his God-focused perspective when he was reunited with his brothers:
“You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result – the survival of many people” (Genesis 50:20 CSB).
Joseph learned to make a distinction between the plans of people and the purposes of God. And so should we. Our painful experiences – those times when we are attacked with “darts” of painful words or actions – may be intended by people to cause us pain, but God plans a greater good to come from them.
The apostle Paul reminded suffering Christians in Rome that God’s loving purposes will not be thwarted.
Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or anguish or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . For I am persuaded that not even death or life, angels or rulers, things present of things to come, hostile powers, height or depth, or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Romans 8:35, 38-39 HCSB)
Whatever our trial or pain or suffering, God is working out his sovereign purposes. God brings good out of evil. He renews strength in our times of weakness, and he heals in our times of brokenness.
One of the things God is doing is using our pain to bring encouragement to others. We encourage others because we have been encouraged in our suffering. We help others “make it” because God has enabled us to “make it.” God . . .
“. . . comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4 ESV).
The apostle Peter even told believers that they should expect suffering.
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (2 Peter 2:21 ESV).
This means that, in one sense, our lives are most like Christ when going through painful experiences, because it was through the crucible of unspeakable suffering and pain that Christ accomplished his mission.
“But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5 ESV)
The piercing, crushing, chastisement, and wounds prophesied by Isaiah were the experience of Jesus Christ when he was beaten and nailed to the cross. Yet it was the sovereign purpose of God that through suffering would come salvation. So it is for those who follow Jesus.
The 2005 film End of the Spear tells the story of five missionaries who were killed in 1956 while attempting to reach the Auca Indians in Ecuador for Christ. The tribe was very violent, and had great expertise in using poison-coated spears and darts to kill, and as the movie title indicates, the missionaries died at the “end of a spear.” It was a tragic loss of five men’s lives. But this tragic experience did not dissuade the surviving family members from the original mission. “The widows of the five missionaries . . . continued to study the language of the Aucas and to pray for access to the tribe. Within three years . . . a Christian church was established among the Aucas.” [http://www.cowart.info/AucasTheWorstPeopleOnEarth.htm]
Steve Saint, producer of the film and the son of one of the martyred missionaries, was baptized a few years later in the same Curaray River where his father’s body was found. And the pastor who did the baptizing? Mincayani, one of the natives who took part in the attack, and who was now an Auca pastor. Out of tragedy came a remarkable witness of love. The missionary families continued to love the unlovable; they forgave the unforgivable.
We too face attack with “darts” and “spears,” but of a different kind. We may face malicious speech – gossip, rumors, hateful words. We may endure hurtful actions – being lied about, cheated, stolen from. These “spears” and “darts” are painful, but the only poison they have is the poison we put it there. We put the “poison” of resentment or anger or retribution – or even discouragement or fear – on the “spears” and “darts” that hit us, and the antidote for this poison is found in our own perspective and response.
Our perspective must be that God has a purpose in all our difficult experiences. This requires faith. Joseph believed God had a higher purpose in his trials. The families of the martyred missionaries held on to the purpose of God in the salvation of the Aucas. And Jesus saw beyond his suffering to the purpose of God for the salvation of all who believe. Paul wrote that faith is the weapon given to us by God for this very purpose:
“In every situation take up the shield of faith with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:16 CSB)
Our response to our painful experiences must be that of self-sacrifice and love. Remember, God will not waste the pain we endure, but will redeem it in our lives by giving us the chance to help others going through similar pain. We must be willing to endure personal hardship and suffering, even to the point of death to our pride and reputation. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The God who leads us into suffering is also the same God who stays with us through it, comforting us with his gracious presence as we go through it, and bringing about good beyond our ability to imagine.
Rusty Rabon has served as Pastor of Grace Chapel in West Columbia, SC since January 2012.