The Weight of Pain

white chairLosing feels worse than winning feels good. Lewis Grizzard, the famous twentieth-century American philosopher, left us with many memorable sentences, but none of them ever landed closer to the truth than this one: “Losing feels worse than winning feels good.”

I hadn’t thought about those words for several years. And then, one Saturday evening, I was sitting out on the front steps, watching the sunset, when a question wandered up, uninvited, and sat down next to me. I don’t know from where the question came. We weren’t expecting company. But this question I’d never seen before just wandered up and joined me. And now it won’t leave me alone. I can’t get the question to leave.

The question is, “Why does pain almost always seem to weigh more than joy?” That’s the question that found me out on the steps. It’s a hard question. (It’ll teach you not to sit idly around doorsteps on Saturday evenings.) It is sort of a companion to Lewis Grizzard’s old adage. When I met this question, “Why does pain almost always seem to weigh more than joy?” I immediately recalled the old line, “Losing feels worse than winning feels good,” which, I think, is just another way of saying that, for many people, the pain of life weighs more than the joy of life.

I wonder why it is that way. Why does pain almost always seem to weigh more, to have more substance, to impact us more powerfully, than joy? For many people, the moments that have been most life-changing have been, not the moments of joy, but the moments of pain. Certainly not for all people is that true, but, for many people, life has been transformed, lifted, and turned toward God more by trouble and pain than by ease and joy. Not in every case, but in many cases, pain does seem to weigh more than joy.

That seems to be what Paul is saying in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. He says that he has been struggling with some problem that just will not go away. Paul does not identify the exact nature of this lingering problem. Instead, he refers to it by the painful image of “a thorn in the flesh.”

Students of scripture have long speculated as to what the thorn in the flesh might have been; a chronic disease, poor eyesight, depression, loneliness . . . who can say? What we do know is that Paul was obviously living with some persistent difficulty, something painful and troubling. He says that he prayed for God to take away the pain, to remove the thorn in his flesh, to deliver him from his struggle. But God’s reply to Paul’s plea was that Paul would have to live with his painful difficulty. God did not promise Paul deliverance from his pain. Rather, God promised Paul sufficient strength to live with the pain, to bear the pressure, to keep going despite the difficulty.

Not only did God promise Paul sufficient strength to live with his “thorn in the flesh,” but God also indicated to Paul that Paul was a better person with his pain than ever he would have been without his pain:

Three times I appealed to the Lord about this [thorn in the flesh], that it would leave me, but [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (v. 9a)

Here is a great paradox, an amazing irony, a wonderful mystery: Strength is made more perfect, more complete, in weakness. In other words, God told Paul that Paul was a better person, a more useful person, a more opened-up-to-God person with his painful struggle than ever Paul would have been without it. So Paul then came to a magnificent conclusion:

I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (v. 9b-10)

Paul did not seek his pain, and, if he could be delivered from it, it would please him, but, since he has it, and since it is apparently a pain that is his for life, he is going to embrace the pain and live fully into it because he has learned that his pain is actually opening him up to God in ways that joy and success never would have.

Paul’s words land pretty close to Psalm 119:71, where the Psalmist said, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted” (KJV). Now isn’t that something? “It is good for me that I have been afflicted.” Its a good thing I didn’t write Psalm 119:71. If I had been writing that verse, I’d have probably said, “It is bad for me that I have been afflicted.” Or, “It is uncomfortable for me that I have been afflicted.” Or, it is inconvenient for me, or troublesome for me, or unfair for me, or anything but good for me that I have been afflicted. What in the world was the Hebrew poet thinking when he wrote those words, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted”?

Perhaps the Psalmist was thinking the same thing as Paul. Perhaps the Psalmist had already discovered what Paul would later learn, that somehow our lives are opened up to God by an unbearable weight of pain in ways they never would have been by an unbroken flight of joy. It is true. It is mysterious, strange, indefinable, and inexplicable, but it is nonetheless true that we are made better, deeper, quieter, kinder people by the pain of life’s struggles. We do somehow become stronger at the very places at which we are broken. God’s presence does somehow seem to enter and change our lives and strengthen and soften and deepen our lives through doors pried open by pain, left open by struggle, and propped open by life’s hardest twists and turns.

Now, we have to be careful here. If we aren’t careful, we will say too much. There are a couple of bends in this road at which we must slow down and be very careful. For one thing, we must be careful lest we conclude that if God uses life’s most painful moments in ways that cause us to become deeper and better people, then we should go out and seek pain and brokenness. But that, of course, is not the case. We need not seek pain. There is plenty of pain in this world. We don’t have to go looking for pain. If we just live long enough, pain will come.

This brings us to another bend in the road that beckons us to slow down and be careful. Not only must we be careful lest we conclude that we should seek pain, but we must also be careful lest we conclude that if God uses the pain of life to change us for the better, then God sends to us life’s painful problems, tragedies, and calamities in order to change us. At that precarious bend in the road we must slow our words to a crawl, lest we say more than we know.

Some popular theology would say that everything that comes to our lives is sent from God or willed by God. There are some Bible verses one can employ in support of such an idea. But when I read the four Gospels and watch what Jesus does and when I ponder the life of Jesus as the Word of God, I cannot embrace the popular theology that assigns all of life’s pain and tragedy to the will of God. I cannot embrace the idea that God sends us calamity to “get our attention” and change us. Jesus gave us our best look yet at who God is, how God acts, and what God does, and Jesus never sent anyone a disease; Jesus only healed diseases. Jesus never caused anyone’s death; he only raised people from death. Jesus never sent a calamity to a city; he only wept over the calamity that he knew was bound to come into people’s lives. Thus, I find it impossible to embrace the popular theology that many thoughtful Christians embrace, the theology that assigns all this pain to the will of God.

When I read the Scriptures in the light of the life of Jesus, I am left to say, not in a shout of certainty, but at least in a whisper of conviction, that the pain that comes to us in life comes to us, not because God wills it for us, aims it at us, sends it to us, or lays it on us, but because we live in a world where there are germs and diseases, where there is death and loss. We live in a world where there is disappointment and complexity and pain, and if that pain can come to anybody, it can come to everybody. And when it comes, it comes, not because God sent it, but because that is the nature of life in this world. Some of the pain we could avoid by making better choices and different decisions, but most of it comes just because we live in a world where bad things can happen.

But when those bad things happen, when pain rolls over us and life seems unbearable and the heart breaks, it is the nature of God to resurrect from the brokenness something new. That is God’s way. That is how God is. I don’t believe God sends the pain to make us better, but I do believe that when the pains and losses and struggles come, our lives are somehow opened up to God’s presence in new ways, and God then somehow makes us new people—people who are kinder, quieter, more sensitive and discerning, and more able to enter into the pain of those around us.

Our Lord Jesus said that one of these days, the last word is going to be joy, but that between now and then, pain will have a word with us. When the pain comes—and it will—the God we love and trust will be with us and for us, and the God we love and trust will enter the deepest corners of our lives through new doors that pain alone can open. And, by the grace of God at work in our lives, we can be changed, transformed, made better by the pain we endure.

Here is a great wonder: When the worst weight of pain is pressing down the hardest, we are most opened up to the presence of God that deepens our life, softens our eye, lowers our voice, and opens our heart. Here is a great wonder: It is while the awful weight of pain is bearing down on us that God gets God’s best chance to lift us to the place where joy always wanted to take us but couldn’t. Here is a great wonder: Pain can prop open a door that joy, despite its best efforts, could never quite open.

This post originally appeared as Chapter 2 of Beyond the Broken Lights by Charles E. Poole.

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  1. Ka 'thy Gore Chappell says

    WOW! Amazing article!