I have my doubts whether any of these thoughts are groundbreaking. Some aren’t even fully formed. But the subject has been weighing heavily on my mind today. If nothing else, I find it cathartic to write them out.
I can’t think of a more universal human experience than pain. I have numerous friends and family who are physically broken. Everyone I know is emotionally wounded. Pain has driven many to repentance and many more to bitterness. God claims both to be the creator of calamity and to work all things together for good for those who love Him. So it would seem that God has a purpose for pain.
But even the physical world has a purpose for pain. Without a doubt, you want to know when you have your hand on a piping hot burner — even if that means experiencing pain — far more than you want irreparable damage to your skin, nerves, and muscles. Pain can warn us when we’re doing something we shouldn’t be doing. Pain is also a teacher, often far more effective than simple instruction. If I am careless enough to place my hand on that hot burner even after being instructed to take care, I will surly learn my lesson after I’ve been injured.
This idea was probably confirmed to you by your high school biology teacher, who likely said something to the effect that pain is necessary for self-preservation, not just for the individual but also for a species. As groups we take action to avoid what causes us pain. Again, it’s a very effective teacher.
But there are certain circumstances in which people will knowingly put themselves in situations where they will likely, or even certainly, experience some physical pain along the way. Such people have determined that the benefits of listening to their self-preservation instinct is outweighed by what they stand to gain. I think of two simple examples, each with very different motivations. A solider puts himself or herself at risk of harm all the time, believing that duty to their country and freedom for their fellow citizens to be worth the sacrifice. Likewise, a prize fight boxer will step into the ring knowing he or she will take a beating but, win or lose, a paycheck lies in wait at the end of the fight.
I don’t think the solider or the boxer stop hearing the self-preservation voice in their head. I think they learn to strengthen a contending voice. The solider goes through intense conditioning in boot camp. Boxers have their own work regimen to toughen up their psyche. Ignoring the self-preservation voice is a choice, one that takes practice and forethought.
Most of us, however, don’t have a vocation that puts us in physical jeopardy. But I imagine all of us have relationships with other people. Every relationship is a calculated risk. The greater the depth and vulnerability, the more opportunity there is for hurt. And just like someone who burns their hand on a stovetop, when we get burned emotionally we learn lessons. But I wonder if we learn the right lessons.
All through elementary and middle school I was bullied. It wasn’t that I didn’t have friends — I had some great friends — but I had plenty of people all too eager to give me hell about the way I looked, how I spent my time, the things I didn’t own, even my last name. Without knowing it at the time, the pain I was experiencing was teaching me lessons, working to form the person I would become. I’ve only just begun to unpack all this on my own. I’m sure I could make a therapist very wealthy.
I know that one consequence is that I’ve learned not to show when I’ve been hurt. Okay, I’ve also matured and know when to let the minor things go. But when it comes to the big things, like when someone I love dies or when someone I know rejects the Gospel or when something I’ve really hoped for goes unrealized, I don’t show it. If you were to see it happen you might think me cold or uncaring. I compare it to stories I’ve heard from some friends who have broken an arm. When the break first happens they’re in a state of shock, so the pain isn’t actually that bad. But that shock soon wears off and the pain becomes unbearable. That happens to me emotionally. In the moment I’m given the bad news I instantly wall up the hurt without even thinking to do it. Somewhere along the way I learned that showing the true extent of my pain only makes things worse. I don’t actually feel it until hours later, upon which time it comes on me in full force.
If that example is any indication, when it comes to relational pain the world has conditioned me toward a self-preservation approach. I’ve learned strong lessons, many of which affect even my day-to-day interactions with people. And yet, as I read the Bible it becomes apparent to me that Christ-followers are called to be more like the solider and the boxer and less like the person living merely on instinct. We’re told to love our neighbors as ourselves. Moreover, we’re told to count others better than ourselves. We’re told to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us, to give without expecting repayment. If I ever become a husband, I’ll be under the command of Scripture to love my wife as Christ loves the church and as I love my own body. I could go on.
None of these point to a life of relational self-preservation. The Word of God seems to say that the glory God will receive through Christ’s followers loving other people well is more valuable than for those followers to strive to live in complete emotional safety. The risks are worth taking. To make this choice I need to be conditioned, to be transformed by the renewing of my mind. I need people around me who will call me out when I’m not making that choice.
None of this will be easy. When I’m insulted, when I’m slighted, when I’m heartbroken, all I want to do is pack it in and stop trying. But something I’m starting to learn is that nothing in this world worth having comes easy. Even those of us who have received grace from God, though the gift came free to us, were bought at a price. I want to trust God with the condition of my heart, with the amount of pain I’ll endure, and believe that He’s given me eternal comfort and good hope, even if I’m driven to despair of life itself like Paul. And I want to have Paul’s attitude, too. “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.”