Have you ever stopped to think that pain and suffering are not obstacles but opportunities in your life? Nope. Neither have I.
I tend to regard pain more as an adversary than an advantage. And certainly there is a sense in which pain can point to a problem that needs to be addressed. God has provided us with this built-in “check engine light” to keep us healthy and safe.
But it would be wrong to conclude that all pain is bad and to be avoided. Ask any Olympic athlete and they will tell you that pain is just a necessary companion on their journey. Or ask Chesty Puller, the Marine who once said that pain is weakness leaving the body. What is true in a physical sense is also true at a spiritual level.
Paul discovered this when he encountered a pain in his life that he desperately wanted to overcome:
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
— 2 Corinthians 12:7–10
In Paul’s flesh, he earnestly wanted to get rid of whatever was causing him pain. But in prayer, he developed a different perspective. The process revealed to him a purpose that went beyond his physical discomfort. His pain, as it turns out, had a two-fold objective: to keep Paul from becoming proud, and to display God’s perfect power in Paul’s extreme weakness.
But Paul didn’t just learn the lesson about his particular thorn; he extrapolated it to the other difficulties of his life (“insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities”) and said that he was content with all of it. Paul’s experience drove home the point to him that life was not all about avoiding suffering and living pain-free. He discovered that there are certain pursuits in life that are worth the pain … and knowing Christ was at the top of his list.
Philippians 3 sheds some light on just how radical Paul’s view of suffering was. Having just shared about how he has “suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (v. 8), he goes on to say that he does this “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share his sufferings” (v. 10). For Paul, suffering on behalf of Christ was not an impediment to his goal but a means to achieving it.
What does this mean for us? For one thing, it means that the way we process pain depends largely on our perspective of it. It also calls into question our priorities. Are comfort and ease the chief goals of our existence? If so, pain and suffering are our arch enemies. But if there is something deeper at work – if we desire more from life and, more importantly, if God has something more in store for us – then we should view pain more like Paul did … maybe not as a friend but at least a facilitator to allow great things happen in our lives.
For Paul, that great thing was knowing Christ. As believers, should our goal be any less? If not, can we begin to see pain in a different light? It goes without saying that we shouldn’t pursue pain for pain’s sake, but we should be willing to endure it for His sake. This was Peter’s point in the book of 1 Peter (a book whose message is largely about suffering):
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name … therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.
— 1 Peter 4:12–16
Our pain shouldn’t keep us from obeying God; in fact, it may be just the ideal platform to do so. Those we admire most are those who persevere through adversity. When our faith perseveres and deepens through our pain, it becomes much more meaningful, both to us and to those around us who witness it in action.
So while it is not wrong to ask God to remove our pain (or the pain of someone we love), it is also important to see the bigger picture behind it the way Paul eventually did. This is not an intellectual exercise in positive thinking but a doorway into a fresh new encounter with God that may not happen otherwise. Don’t miss out on the blessing that pain can afford just by merely wishing it away. Let the hope of this truth be the lifeline that buoys you when you find yourself in a sea of struggle. And let the Savior save you not only from your pain but in the midst it: you might just learn to “boast all the more gladly” as Paul did – and find something extraordinary on the other side.