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The joy of pain

July 27, 2013

sad consumersWe live in an analgesic society. We have come to believe that when we feel pain we should do something to medicate it. We have tablets for everything. Got depression? Take some more anti-depressants. Over-stressed? Binge out on food, sex or drink. Long ago we lost the ability and the belief that sitting with pain can be a good thing. Please note that I am not saying things like anti-depressants are always a bad thing. Many people suffering the debilitating effects of depression and other mental illnesses need medication. The point I am making here is that our society is too quick to dole out tablets when other options can be more beneficial.

One of the pains we feel a lot in Western society is the pain of an empty soul. Many call it the God-shaped hole.We all have it, though many of us don’t feel it because we constantly cover it over with some sort of medication. Usually that medication involves immersing ourselves in the busyness and “wiredness” of daily life.

Our greatest fear in life seems to be the fear of missing out if we don’t always feel good. We are terrified of feeling pain, let alone sitting with it for periods at a time. We believe it is pointless, even masochistic. Why would anyone in their right mind want to consciously not get rid of pain they are feeling?

Life is painful a heck of a lot of the time. There are many days when we don’t feel good, when we don’t feel the pleasure that life can bring. We see others around us laughing and smiling. Are they really happier than us? Do they really have it more together than us and we are just struggling too much and need to get our act together? Or are these people in denial? Are they medicating their pain and not growing as a result?

And speaking of growing, when was the last time you heard anyone say that personal growth was a noble goal in life, rather than always trying to feel good? Unfortunately our churches are also often places where we are subtly (and not so subtly) given the message that life is about feeling good. We call it “the joy of the Lord.” If you’re not smiling all the time, if you’re struggling, you’re not right with God.

The problem with this message is that it doesn’t fit with the reality of life. It is also not psychologically healthy. And for those of us who call ourselves Christian, it is not biblical. Job in the Old Testament is a great example of this. He dealt with the pain in his life in a way that was noble and healthy. Hebrews 11 talks about the great ones of the faith. They saw that it was better to forego the pleasures of hedonism because they were focused on a better goal.

That is the consequence of Christian hope. It gives us…well…hope. It allows us to forego the constant medication of pain now because we know a better day is coming when the pain of life now will have all been worth it. In allowing us the motivation and power to forego constant medication now, we are also able to live lives now that are emotionally and relationally more healthy. And this is backed up numerous studies on happiness.

Living life to its full is about learning to live with pain. It is about learning to live life on life’s terms rather than demanding that life come through for us and getting upset when it doesn’t. Personal growth brings maturity. Along with maturity it brings contentment. It is the type of contentment that St Paul spoke about when he said that he has learned to be content whatever the circumstances. And it is the joy that Jesus spoke of and knew on his most painful night on earth, the night when he knew he was going to die soon, when his best friends abandoned him, and when he was unjustly accused. That is what the joy of the Lord really is. I wonder if we can ever really know what the joy of the Lord is unless we learn to sit with pain.

The problem with pain in my life is that I think I’m missing out if I don’t medicate it. I think that I’m wasting my life if I just sit with the pain and don’t do something to make myself feel better. But, as Larry Crabb says, every time we don’t submit to the temptation to do something to make ourselves feel better, our character grows and we become more loving, more Christlike.

Jesus was known as a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He knew suffering. St Paul says that if we really want to follow Jesus we will suffer. Life is so much richer when we are able to sit with the undeniable and inevitable pain that accompanies it. The paradox of life is that we enjoy it more when we learn how to deal with pain. We enjoy it less when we constantly try to get rid of pain. For some reason they are just some of the facts of this strange thing we call life. Accepting it is the key to living life abundantly.

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