Handling Life’s Pain
“Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13:15a, NKJV).
I enjoy God’s people! I find them fascinating. Each is a trophy of God’s grace. As a pastor, I try to never forget that truth. Remembering that fact helps me with the stewardship responsibilities an under-shepherd has both to the Chief Shepherd as well as to the sheep. With God’s children, I almost always find an accumulation of a “story.” Each of us has a story about God’s goodness in leading him to and through faith in the person and cross work of Jesus of Nazareth. The Holy Spirit leaves His thumb print embossed on the believer’s heart and life. He gives his faith a discernment to receive certain spiritually discerned truths of God’s Word and of course an honored collection of spiritual gifts to function within Christ’s body. But in order to grow us in the knowledge and image of Christ, God takes His children through the crucible of life’s challenges. Most of God’s children regularly go through cycles of uncomfortable and difficult times. Solomon said that the problems of life are as predictable as the sparks flying upward from a fire (Job 5:7). God reveals in His Word that He has a myriad of reasons to allow troubles to assault His children.
While trouble is a normal part of living “in faith” and “by faith,” most of us will experience a handful of times when the pain is so dark, the hurt so real, and the loss so deep that these occurrences mark us with scars we will carry with us through the rest of our lives. This kind of pain goes beyond our ability to satisfactorily communicate. It lives inside a separate compartment in our minds. It often becomes almost sacred to us, a private collection of experiences that go to the very essence of who we are. Most of us take these experiences to the grave.
Some counselors propose that we shouldn’t allow these scars to go with us. I’m not convinced such advice is preferable or even possible. I believe God allows these scar-producing blows, first, to break us to such a degree that we must look to Him for strength and significance. God also allows us to go through these life-altering hurts so we can experience a type or level of God’s grace that doesn’t stop at the surface but soaks through to our very souls. But for us to experience a grace that soaks to the very bottom of our souls, we most often must be cut to the bottom of our souls!
The acid test is this: will we submit even our deepest hurts to a trust in the sovereignty, wisdom, and care of a loving God, especially in the most painful details of our lives? Or will we respond in bitterness? Frankly I’d like to say that the test is either a pass or fail. I’d like to say we make either an A or an F. But the reality is that we do believe, but sometimes our faith is weak. I’m reminded of the father’s cry in Mark 9:24. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” Yet the lion’s share of this battle lies in our willingness to submit the pain (past or present) to the loving hands of our heavenly Father and to rest in the fact that even though we may have been treated badly, this experience is somehow part of God’s design to shape us into the image of Christ. When we don’t take this step, we find ourselves increasingly in stubborn defiance, holding onto the notion that somehow God really “blew” this one! We also might begin to feel that we have the right to hold onto a wild card. God now “owes me one,” we think. I’ll pull this puppy out and use it to soothe my conscience because, after all, I’ve taken one for the team!
A close pastor friend warned me about that thinking after I survived one of my own personal storms. Friends, all of us face these storms. That doesn’t mean we have to be happy about the outcome of the situations in question. But we need to remember the words of James. “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials” (James 1:2). Interestingly, the verb form of the word trial means “to put someone or something to the test.”
It’s this kind of test that we read about in the life of Job. Job suffered injustice to such depths (humanly speaking) that perhaps one could make a case that in the entire record of Scripture only Christ’s crucifixion on the cross was more unjust. The Scriptures teach that Job was blameless and upright. Consider that God bragged about Job in front of Satan (“Have you considered my servant Job?”). Amazing! God allowed Satan to do anything except take Job’s life. Satan took out Job’s oxen, sheep, camels, servants—even his children! Listen to Job’s response of worship afterwards. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked shall I return there. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; Blessed be the name of the LORD” (1:21) The next verse is stunning: “In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong.”
In my own short life, I can think of three or four experiences that would have measured a category five on the internal life hurricane scale. (Of course, compared to Job’s pain, my troubles probably made only category two!) I remember what happened and how I was involved in the situation. I vividly remember the sleepless nights and the pain the situation left me in. I remember the fog afterwards. In a few cases, I believe I was handed a raw deal. I received what I didn’t deserve, or I didn’t receive what I believe I should have deserved. And looking back at these events, I still don’t get it! In some cases why the events ended as they did remains unclear. In some cases I’m convinced the situation ended badly. I would have written the script of life differently. It would have been fair! It would not have resulted in the levels of injustice that were dished out. Ah, but of course that means I would have had to be God!
A counselor friend has two signs in his office. The first one says, “There is a God.” The second says, “You are not He!” Those thoughts can help bring our feet to the ground when we’re tempted to dig those sacred scars out of the deep emotional basement of our souls and cry foul to the Almighty! When reflecting on the pain of his life, Job said with confidence, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him!” (Job 13:15). How in the world could Job have had such confidence in God while going through such life destruction? How can we have this same confidence in the face of trial? The seeds of this kind of faith are found not only in Job but also throughout the garden of Scripture:
“It is good for me that I have been afflicted, That I may learn Your statues.” (Ps. 119:71)
“In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet. 1:6-7)
“Through the LORD’s mercies we are not consumed, Because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I hope in Him!’” (Lam. 3:22-24)
“Though He causes grief, Yet He will show compassion according to the multitude of His mercies.” (Lam. 3:32)
“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the LORD, The Creator of the ends of the earth, Neither faints nor is weary. His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the weak, And to those who have no might He increases strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, And the young men shall utterly fall, But those who wait on the LORD Shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint.” (Isa. 40:28-31)
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Cor. 4:7-9)
“The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD, And He delights in his way.” (Ps. 37:23)
“A man’s heart plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps.” (Prov. 16:9)
“Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.’” (James 4:15)
Hear it, Christian: God is sovereign! This same God who is sovereign has also designed your life! God determined the facts of those sacred crucibles. God knew you and I needed the results of those deep valleys. God even determined them in such a way that is consistent with His love for us. And because God is always right, always merciful, always gracious, and always true, we can have total dependence in the outcome of those circumstances.
Life is not lived in a vacuum. God orchestrates every note, every measure, every rest, every song, every piece of the cantata that is our life. He knows that, like Job, if we submit our lives to His care and His working, in the end these scars, these hurts, will be woven into the fabric of our lives and will serve as the glue resulting in the most glory for God and, for us, the most fruit, the most fulfillment, and—strangely enough—the most joy.
The danger of not bringing the splinters of our shattered dreams before the throne of grace is that we can create an idolatrous image to worship. They become the image of “what should have been.” We then become so fixated on this image that we fall into the trap of not accepting the gifts God has given us for today. We are spending too much energy thinking about the past or about what should have been our past. This fixation works against God’s healing of those very real pains.
While we may not be able to shake off the deep scars of a wounded memory, we can gaze into the face of our Lord and pursue His purpose for our lives. Paul states the right response a few ways. In 2 Corinthians 12:9, Paul explains that even though the Lord refused to remove a thorn that had been something of a messenger from Satan, he determined to move on because God’s grace is sufficient. Then in Philippians 3:13, the apostle explains that there is “one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
May God help us pass the acid test!
|Dr. Joel Tetreau is senior pastor at Southeast Valley Baptist Church (Gilbert, AZ). He is on the adjunct faculty at International Baptist College and serves as co-director of SW Romania Missions Project. Check out Joel’s blog.