I saw her in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. In that small, fluorescent-lit room full of nervous energy and quiet, patiently waiting patients, she came in crying.
No, wailing. It wasn’t a gentle cry, but one of a deeper, desperate origin.
She was in pain—an agony that appeared to far surpass the basic stimulation of sensory receptors. The sound of her voice, the crease in her forehead, and the way she weakly held onto her partner signaled something far deeper than a mere physical injury.
In that moment, I felt paralyzed by her presence, and everyone around me appeared paralyzed too. As if in unison, we all looked down, looked away, pulled out our phones or magazines, and tried to politely ignore the scene unfolding before our eyes.
What a helpless feeling, I thought. This woman, this stranger, was so clearly in a state of desperate agony—and in the discomfort of a public place, no less. I longed to do more than simply stare at my phone and pretend not to hear or see her. I wanted to jump up and give her a hug. And after a cursory scan of the faces of those around me, I’m certain I wasn’t the only one with such thoughts.
The Fellowship of Suffering
The whole scene left me shaken and uncomfortable and thinking a great deal about pain. What is the purpose of pain, and what does it mean to walk with someone in his or her pain?
The conference we attended earlier this month focused a lot on story and the power our stories of hurt and redemption possess. To walk into someone’s story is to stand on holy ground—it is an honor to be invited into the middle of a person’s pain. To suffer with another is truly a privilege.
I used to scratch my head at some of Paul’s words regarding Christ and His sufferings. In Philippians 3:10, for example, he writes: I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings (NIV).
It wasn’t until recently that I realized Paul wasn’t expressing a desire to partake in Christ’s suffering simply for the sake of suffering—rather, he desired the fellowship that arises when we partake in another’s suffering. In general, we all love to blast our happy, polished, photo-shopped selves into the social media vortex … but our pain? Our struggles? Those things that keep us up at night? Those things that make us who we really are? Those we typically reserve for a very select few—those with whom we have real and genuine relationships.
Paul understood this, and he experienced firsthand the sweet, intimate fellowship that comes when we follow Christ in the dark as well as the light. None of us would choose pain, but the sweetness of sharing in each other’s suffering provides a soft cushion to ease our discomfort.
Driving Us to the Cross
The concept of pain has also been on my mind lately because I’ve experienced my fair share of it in recent weeks. Basically, ever since we returned from our trip a couple weeks ago, we’ve been hit with all kinds of pain: emotional, physical, and spiritual.
Our daughter breaking her arm in two places (I don’t have to explain to you how miserable ERs and X-rays and doctor’s offices are for toddlers!).
Old marriage and relationship issues bubbling up to the surface again.
A 3 ½ day long migraine that would not let up or let go, no matter what I tried.
On the third day of that monster migraine, I felt utterly wiped and exhausted, laid out before the Lord. I was desperate to understand why He would allow such physical pain—when I knew He could wipe it out in a moment.
I didn’t receive the answer I expected or desired (e.g., an instant lifting of the pain!), but as He so often does, God ever so gently reminded me of the immense importance and purpose of pain in our lives.
The simple, difficult truth is, pain—if we allow it—drives us to the foot of the cross like little else in this life can. In the shadow of the old rugged cross, we are stripped of our false sense of control. The illusion of self-sufficiency vanishes. Pride and false humility find their replacement in a spirit that’s genuinely still and humble before God. In this state, we are ready to hear God speak.
Pain of any type or magnitude is a pointed reminder of how much we need God our Father, who holds all things in His hands—and He wants nothing more than for us to run to and lean into Him. As Jesus so beautifully said:
I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5 NIV).
Birth provides a poignant metaphor for us all: without pain, there can be no new life. Life, breath, new beginnings … all of these glorious, desirable things are born of pain.
God used my pain to remind me that He is the giver and provider of new life and restoration—these are not things I can bring about in my own strength. He illuminated rough edges in my heart and reminded me of my utter need and dependence on His strength. Pain has an uncanny way of pulling back the curtain and giving us a peek at our own frailty.
What is God trying to teach you through your pain? If you aren’t sure, then ask Him. I believe He will be faithful to answer, every time we ask, because He longs for us to bring all our cares, pain, and suffering to Him rather than carrying it on our own as we’re so apt to do.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28 NIV).
Go to Him and surrender. Surrender your pain and surrender to what that pain has to teach you. As you do so, not only will you find rest for your own soul, but you will be far better equipped to walk with others in their pain.
Our Heavenly Father loves you, and He loves me. He jealously pursues us, sometimes through the difficult avenue of pain. Whatever He’s trying to teach you? Well, He’s not going to let it go, because He loves us that much.
Surrender into His loving arms, knowing that we never suffer in vain or without purpose. And as you wait in that place of surrender—in quiet anticipation at what new life can be born of your pain—may you feel the comfort of His presence in the very midst of your discomfort.