Pain – The Gift That Everybody Gets And Nobody Wants!
Usually our minds have a way of dulling unpleasant memories, so that in time we actually forget them. However, there are some memories so painful that not even time can erase them. Such a memory I share with you now…
It happened 35 years ago. It might as well have been yesterday. I was 16 years old at the time. One bright, hot summer day four friends and I went water-skiing at a marina on a river near where I lived in Mobile, Alabama. About mid-afternoon our joy and laughter were shattered by screams for help from the dock. There stood a young couple, crying out that they had lost their four-year old son, and they feared he might have fallen into the water. Immediately—I suppose, instinctively—the five of us jumped out of the boat and into the water. The water at that point near the dock was about five feet deep, but the current was swirling, so the water was muddy and murky. You couldn’t see the bottom. We linked our hands together, and in a line began to walk back and forth, back and forth, around the dock, hoping upon hope that we might find the little boy before it was too late. Time passed, desperation set in. Suddenly, my bare foot kicked something on the bottom. I can still remember the feeling in the pit of my stomach. I dove down into the water, and came up with the little boy. I carried him over to the dock. His parents, so stunned to see him in such circumstance, were paralyzed by the shock. They couldn’t move. I placed the little boy on the dock, wiped the mud away from his face, and began to try to revive him. Nothing happened. The seconds ticked into minutes; the parents’ sobs turned into cries; the sound pounded in my ears, and my heart pounded within me. Nothing happened. I tried; I tried everything I knew to try; frantically, I tried to make him breathe. “Dear God”, I pleaded, “make him breathe”. Nothing happened. The sinking, sickening reality settled over me like a cold mist in the dead of winter, and on a white hot day in August, I shivered. The little boy was dead. I picked up the now lifeless body, and I said to the parents, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say to the parents except, “I’m sorry.” With that, the young mother exploded in hysterical grief. She grabbed me, and shook me, and began to pound on me with her fists, screaming at me out of her agony: “Why? Why did God let this happen? He was our only child. Why?” Finally, her husband managed to pull her away from me, and he held tight her body, quaking and shaking with sobs. I had no answer for her. All I could do was to hold that dead little boy in my arms and cry. Of course, the question that grief-stricken young mother was asking is a question which all of us ask at one time or another in one way or another in the course of our living. I mean, my beloved, stop to think about it. If questions about pain and suffering were fluorescent, this world would need no electricity. The questions are to be found in every home, on every street corner, They cross every human lip; they arise out of every human heart. Why? Why me? Why not? Why now? Why us? I had no answer for the parents of that little boy; I don’t know that I have any answers now. But at least over these last thirty-five years, I have come to know and to love Jesus more intensely and more intimately, and I’ve learned some things from Him which, I hope, may prove worth sharing. You see now, thirty-five years later, it is my deep conviction that when it comes to the subject of pain, we do not speak God’s language. Can I say that again? When it comes to pain and suffering, we do not speak God’s language. When it comes to pain and suffering, what do we say? “Avoid it. Suppress it. Ignore it.” What does God say? He tells us in the book of James: “Sisters and brothers, when you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy.” We say: “Avoid it. Suppress it. Ignore it.” God says; “Consider it nothing but joy.” Amazing. We say; “Run away from it in fear.” God says; “Embrace it as a gift.” You see, my beloved, I am now convinced that when it comes to pain in our human experience, we do not speak God’s language, and therefore today, I want us to engage in learning the language of the Lord when it comes to the subject of pain and suffering. Paul is a great help to us. In 2 Corinthians 1, he describes pain as a gift—a gift which can enable us to do three things. Here they are.
In speaking the language of God concerning pain, we discover that pain enables us to lift the spirit of others.
I want you to listen to 2 Corinthians 1, verse 4. “God consoles us in all of our afflictions so that we then may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we are consoled by God.” In other words, when others encounter deep troubles, we can comfort them with the very same comfort God gives to us.
Do you know what I read this past week? I read that more World Series baseball games are won after a defeat than after a victory. Now I have no earthly idea who sat down and took the time to try to figure that out. Must have been somebody with a lot of time on their hands! But you know, there is something about that which caught my attention. It reminded me that, yes, sometimes, defeat does position us for ultimate victory. Sometimes a set-back will make us better prepared for some subsequent challenge. Sometimes our pain does trigger in us the release of a new and unexpected power. Martin Luther King used to say: “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.” He was speaking the language of God. You see, no one is better able to help others than those who have experienced defeat, difficulty, pain, and suffering in life. If you are a widow, and you know Jesus Christ, then you are uniquely able to be of serving help to other widows. If you have lost a child to death in your experience, and you know Jesus Christ, then you can deliver a healing, soothing balm into the experience of someone else who has buried a child. If you are acquainted with the deep pain of divorce, and you know Jesus Christ, then you are uniquely qualified to be of help to others experiencing the same pain. If you know what it is to move to a new city, or to change jobs, or for that matter, to lose a job, if you know those things and you know Jesus Christ, then you are well prepared to be of significant help to others going through the same experiences.
I know a woman who just a few years back buried her husband, after forty years of marriage. She says that the worst time of the day for her, since her husband’s death, is five-thirty in the afternoon because, you see, that’s the time when he usually came home, from work. And after forty years of growing so accustomed to hearing the key in the front door, and the door swing open, and his voice crying out: “Hey, Honey, what’s for supper?”—she says,” Now at five-thirty in the afternoon, a stabbing pain grips my heart.” So you know what she has decided to do? Every afternoon now between five and six o’clock she goes to a nearby nursing home to visit the people who are there, so that she is reaching out to others instead of sitting at home wallowing in her own misery. She has taken her pain, and turned it into the possibility of relieving the pain of someone else. It’s like Tim Hansel used to say: “Pain is unavoidable. Misery is optional.” When he said that, he was speaking the language of God. You see when we speak the language of God we come to understand that pain can enable us to lift the spirits of others.
And when we speak the language of God we come to understand that pain is a gift which enables us to lean on God’s power ourselves.
Listen again to 2 Corinthians 1. “Indeed,” Paul writes, “we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely, not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”
In other words, Paul is saying that his pain—and by the way—I suppose we ought to recap, shouldn’t we, what the nature of his pain really was. Do you remember? The pain to which he was referring here; ship-wrecked three times, beaten by rods into a state of unconsciousness, stoned and left for dead, and all the while bearing up under the pain of a thorn of the flesh which he could never get rid of for all of his life. My beloved, Paul knew what he was talking about when he spoke about pain. And yet, what does he say? He says that that pain enables him to learn to lean not upon himself, but upon God.
I have always loved the story about the little boy who was asked what he was going to be when he grew up. He said: “I’m going to be a lion-tamer. I’m going to be fierce, and I’m going to be brave, and I’m going to be strong, and I’m going to march right into that cage and face those lions, but I’m going to take my mommy with me.” There’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all wrong with that. When you face pain and difficulty in life, nothing wrong with taking along your parents. Especially, if it is your heavenly parent. It’s like Helen Keller used to say: “I am grateful for my handicap, for through it I have found my world, my self, and best of all, my God.” When she said that, she was speaking the language of God.
Grant Teaff, until his recent retirement, was the football coach at Baylor University in Texas. He was a very fine football coach, but he is an even finer Christian. Years ago, when I was serving in Texas, I remember that Grant Teaff came to speak at our local high school football banquet. It was a remarkable experience. You see, he didn’t speak about football; he spoke about Jesus Christ. And in the course of his remarks, he told about a young man whom he had tried to recruit to come to play football at Baylor. The young man had chosen to go to another university instead, but Grant Teaff was so impressed with this young man that he kept up with him. The young man turned out to be a great football player, and he was also a splendid pole vaulter.
Mid-way through his college career, he was working out on a trampoline in order to enhance his pole vaulting skills and there was an accident. He fell from the trampoline, hit on the base of his neck, and was left paralyzed from the neck down. When Grant Teaff learned what had happened, he went to visit the young man in a hospital. The young man proceeded to tell Coach Teaff that through his accident he had come to know Jesus Christ; that flat on his back in the bed he had learned in his life to trust the true source of strength. Coach Teaff then quoted the young man. I was so moved that I wrote the words down then, and I have never forgotten them. The young man said: “Coach Teaff, I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, but if it took something like this for them to come to know Christ, maybe it might be worth it.” When he said that, he was speaking the language of God. He had learned what really matters in life, and pain had been his teacher.
How does the poet put it?
I walked a mile with pleasure
She chattered all the way
But she left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with sorrow
Never a word said she
But, oh, the things I learned from her
When sorrow walked with me.
When we learn the language of God, then we begin to understand that pain enables us to lean on God’s power ourselves.
And when we learn the language of God we learn that pain is a gift which enables us to lead others into the circle of faith.
Again, listen to 2 Corinthians 1. “Join in helping us by your prayers, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessings granted us through the prayers of many.” In other words, Paul is saying that when we face pain in faith, then others are moved to come to the same faith. My beloved, sometimes, it is our hurts which move others to look to the Lord. Sometimes, it is our pain which inspires others to embrace our Christ. Let me tell you something. It is not until you get to heaven that you will begin to know the number of people you have influenced in your life simply because you refused to bow to the pressure or surrender to the pain. It is not until you get to heaven that you will know the number of people whom you have inspired by refusing to curse God in the face of difficulty, and choosing instead to face your pain with faith. Sometimes it is our pain which inspires others to embrace our Christ.
Adoniram Judson was a great missionary to Burma. For the first seven years that he worked in Burma he received not one single convert to the Christian faith. Not one. The last seventeen months of those first seven years, he spent in a dungeon, where he was beaten almost daily. When he emerged from prison, his wrists were scarred by the shackles, his neck, his back, and his face were covered with scars left by the whip. He was evicted from the region where he had been working, and where he had been in prison, but he didn’t let that stop him. He simply went to an adjacent province and asked for permission to enter and work as a missionary. The governor of the province was a godless man, and he refused permission. Adonirum Judson asked him why. The governor replied: “I do not fear your words. My people will hear your words, but they will not convert to your religion. But I do fear your scars. They may see your scars and believe.”
You see, sometimes it’s our scars which cause other people to give thanks to God. Sometimes it’s our hurts which move other people to look to God. Sometimes it’s our pain which inspires others to embrace our Christ. When others see us made strong by faith in the midst of difficult circumstances, then they can be moved to say: “I’m going to find the God who has given this person such strength.”
For as long as I live, I will never, ever forget hearing Robert Reed speak. Robert Reed is a missionary—not an ordinary missionary, though, I suppose there is really no such thing as an ordinary missionary. But Robert Reed, let me tell you is a most extraordinary missionary. He is bound to a wheel-chair. He suffers from a condition known as cerebral palsy. When he speaks, his speech is slurred. He sounds like a tape player in slow motion. His hands are so twisted and crooked that he has never unbuttoned a button or zipped a zipper. He cannot grasp a fork between his fingers. He can barely force open the pages of his Bible. But that didn’t stop him from enrolling in Abilene Christian College and majoring in Latin and the Romance languages. Nor did it stop him from teaching in a community college in St. Louis. Nor did it stop him from going on six mission trips to Europe—one a year for six years. On the sixth trip to Lisbon, Portugal, suddenly he felt the overwhelming call of God to give himself in full time service as a missionary for Jesus Christ, and to do it there in Lisbon, Portugal. It made perfect sense. He was fluent in Portuguese. He spoke the language of the people, but more importantly, he spoke the language of God. He is bound to a wheel-chair. He can do little or nothing for himself. His shirts are held together by velcro, but his heart is held together by pain. He befriended the manager in the little hotel where he was staying in Lisbon, and that manager became the one who fed him his meals everyday. And everyday he would pull himself into his wheel-chair, and wheel himself down to one of the city parks in the city of Lisbon. And there he would hand out to passersby little books or pamphlets about Jesus Christ. He would hold them up in his bent, twisted, crooked hand and anyone who would take one he would seek to engage in conversation. For seven years, every single day, he went from the hotel to the park in Lisbon, and after seven years, there were sixty people who had been converted to faith in Jesus Christ. With those sixty people he started a church. Ultimately, one of the members of that church became his wife and his life’s partner in mission work. Her name is Rosa.
I suppose that for as long as I live I will never, ever forget hearing Robert Reed speak. Four men lifted his wheel-chair up on the platform. One of them then placed the Bible in his lap. With that twisted, crooked hand, he began to shove the pages by until at last he came to the letter of James. And then he read these words: “My sisters and brothers, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy.” And then he said: “I have everything I need for joy.” And I thought to myself, “No, you don’t! You don’t have a body. You can’t walk. You can’t play basketball. You can’t roughhouse with your kids. You don’t have everything you need for joy.” It was almost as if he knew what I was thinking, because then he said, even more firmly than before-holding that twisted, crooked hand up for emphasis—he said: “Please hear me. My joy is based not on what I can or cannot do, but on who I am. I am a child of God, and no disease can ever take that from me.”
For as long as I live, I suppose, I will never, ever forget hearing Robert Reed speak, for when he speaks, he speaks the language of God.
My sisters and brothers, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy…. Amen.