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When Hurting Helps

November 4, 2015

I live much of my life either avoiding or being controlled by emotional pain. I’m an expert at fleeing, denying, or being overwhelmed by it.

I know in theory the truth of Romans 5:  suffering can produce endurance and endurance produces proven character, and proven character leads to hope.  I’ve had opportunities to learn this through physical experience, such as through a near fatal accident that left my body bearing  a 6 inch scar (the remnants of a splenectomy).  Yet more typically, when pain–especially emotional pain–assaults me, I either flee or drown. My amygdala trumps my prefrontal cortex. And when pain is only a distant memory, I all too quickly lapse back into my old ways of living. I may be able to write the truth about hurting sometimes helping, but living it is another deal.

“There comes a time in our following Christ where our own hurts may actually help us. Well I know how my own personal hurts have helped me—a near fatal accident, a near fatal illness, failures in ministry and in relationships, and confrontations with my own flawed ambitions, pride and sin—have been invitations to admit my weakness and poverty, to find my life literally in Christ, and to rely more fully on God’s powerful grace and steadfast love. The scalpels of surgeons hurt, but their wounds are for our healing not for our harm. Our hurts can be invitations to allow the Spirit to heal us of our imprisoning pride, our foolish dependency on our own abilities, and our vain efforts to prove our own significance and worth.”  (Beyond Duty: A Passion for Christ, a Heart for Mission. Dynamis Resources, 2013: 121)

Suffering and all other confrontations with our own weakness and inadequacy can be rivers we ride into the presence of God. There we encounter God’s healing and restoring embrace. Our we can let them be walls that cut us off both from God and others–and from admitting our own fundamental humility and humanity. Knowing hurting may help…helps, but that’s not necessarily enough for me to, as Paul says,  “boast in my suffering” (Romans 5:3). Flee or fight suffering yes, but boast…?

The turning point comes when I stop turning away from suffering, and instead slow down, even stop and stand. But stand where? We’re not called (nor wise) simply to stand in our suffering. Otherwise, it can overwhelm us. Rather, “We stand in the grace of God” (Romans 5:1-2). We stand in God’s goodness, presence, and love.

Suffering reveals our frailty, weakness, and vulnerability–and this can serve as a loud reminder not to trust in our selves, but to “boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God”.   When suffering strikes–rather than flee it, God’s invitation is for us to ride it into God’s gracious presence. Suffering can serve as a call to prayer–a tangible, undeniable, visceral invitation to draw close to God. Our fragility is surrounded by God’s solidity, our weakness by God’s strength, and our frailty by the beauty of God’s goodness.

When pain comes (and even when I cause pain to others), I am wise to stop rather than flee, pray rather than avoid, admit rather than deny, and ask for the Spirit to pour out God’s love into my shaky, quivering heart. After conversations with people about this for 30 years, a common theme is emerging. The most powerful vehicle to drive God’s grace from our heads (as a nice spiritual concept), into our hearts (as a life-shaping embrace)–is some form of suffering. Hurting can indeed help.

It shouldn’t be a difficult choice, should it?

The options are clear–proven character shaped by love–or a life of avoidance squandered in fleeing and fighting. Every morning in the shower I’m reminded of this by that 6 inch scar. All of us bear scars of some sort. The Spirit works to transform them into signs of God’s powerful, solid-making, glory-creating love.

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