Dear Friend In Pain,
I feel so sad and so sorry about what you’re going through right now. I can’t imagine what it’s like. I can guarantee you that what I’m sharing in this letter won’t take the pain away. And I want you to feel perfectly free not to read it. If you don’t I won’t take the least bit of offence. I only want to share with you what made the biggest difference for me when I went through my time of pain. But before I do that, I want to look at another man’s suffering.
You know Asaph was in pain when he penned Psalm 73. “My flesh and my heart fail,” he said in verse 26. And he struggled with why the wicked seemed healthy, and prosperous, while he suffered. And he wrote in verses 16-17 that, “When I thought how to understand this, It was too painful for me–Until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood…” (NKJV) Sometimes we hear the idea that Christians aren’t to think, just believe, but that’s not true. When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment he said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37) We’re to love God with all our mind, Jesus said. So Christians are commanded to reason. Naturally there are things we don’t understand about our God but it’s reasonable to believe and trust in a God who is greater and has more understanding than we do. So Asaph here comes to his victory, after he does some thinking. (Skip Heitzig)
Thinking About Which Questions To Ask
When a person suffers they can experience an exaggerated perspective . Their view of life can deteriorate because pain often leads to depression and depression magnifies. It magnifies everything that’s bad and negative. And sometimes it can get to the point where a person says, “God if you don’t meet my expectations I’m done, I’m out of here.” And we can turn our back on God. I have a friend who’s a counselor and he tells me that people who respond that way take the early train to a dark place. He says.they enter into a downward spiral. They don’t do well.
He says the people who do well with pain and suffering are not those who ask themselves, “Why me?” But they’re the ones who ask themselves, “How can I best glorify God in this terrible situation?” And, “When I’m standing with God in eternity, looking back on this brief time of pain, what will He be thinking?” That change in perspective means everything. But before that, comes something else. (Jim Davis)
What Happens First
Ten years ago I was a picture of success. Our marriage was great. Our family was doing well. I was part of the leadership at the fire department. Kathy and I just started a vacation rental business, and it was growing. We were building a big beautiful house overlooking the Rogue Valley. I had an abundance of energy and worked from early morning until late at night. And in my not so humble opinion I thought I was doing well spiritually also.
Then came the pain.
We just started walking across the street from our hotel over to the Lloyd Center Mall in Portland when the cold January air took my breath away. Only it didn’t want to come back, my breath that is. I couldn’t figure it out. The next day someone at a hospital figured it out for me and I found myself under the knife of a surgeon for a double bypass operation. I was still in my forties.
I was never the same after that. No more high energy. No more capability to work from early morning to late at night. But I went into denial and continued to try to live as I always had: teaching a men’s leadership Bible study once a week, leading a home church group twice a month, I finished writing a book, I finished my degree, I took a promotion at work. As you might imagine things didn’t go well. I quickly became exhausted. I fell into a depression. I found myself in a dark place. It felt just like I was too weary to tread water and was about to slip under and drown in the dark depths below.
But then something happened: I surrendered.
I surrendered to God. See, I loved God and respected God, but I had my own ideas about how life should be lived. For me those ideas revolved around money and success. But one night I went to a late evening worship service at church and let it all go. It was sparsely attended. I laid face down on the floor between two pews and I just let go. I prayed my life away, I let go of it. I stopped trying to hang onto it. I gave it to God, all of it. I surrendered my life completely. I put myself at His mercy and told Him, He could run my life any way He wanted to. And my life’s never been the same since. It’s the best thing I have ever done.
And I’m not the only one to respond to pain and suffering this way. I have a friend who lost his right leg and he says he did the same thing, he surrendered himself to God. I heard a football player who became a quadriplegic say the same thing, he surrendered himself to God. And I read about a paraplegic who did the same. All of them say it was the best thing they ever did.
That’s the only way I know how to deal with this kind of suffering. To surrender everything to God.
Back To Asaph
So back to Asaph. He had to think it through, he had to figure it out, he had to obey Jesus’ commandment to love God with his mind as it were. But where did he do his thinking? Where was he when he finally understood? Where was he when he finally experienced victory over despair? He was in the sanctuary. He surrendered himself to his Father, and he chose the sanctuary as the meeting place for his surrender. And after he meets God there, this is what he says,
“…my heart was grieved, And I was vexed in my mind. I was so foolish and ignorant; I was like a beast before You. Nevertheless I am continually with You; You hold me by my right hand. You will guide me with Your counsel, And afterward receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:21-26)
He found humility, and he found faith, and he found strength. So did his circumstance change? Is he healed? Has anything in his body or his environment changed? No. Only his understanding and his trust in God has changed. It’s often said that prayer changes things and that’s true, but sometimes the thing that changes is you or me. And think about this, without pain we may never change. Without pain we may never grow. Without pain we may never grow closer to our Father. Without pain we may never surrender.
To put it another way, “The bigger the skyscraper, the deeper the hole for the foundation.” So your pain gives you a foundation to grow. Your foundation, your roots, will go deep as a result of this deep dark hole you’re in.
In the very last verse Asaph writes,
“But it is good for me to draw near to God; I have put my trust in the Lord GOD, That I may declare all Your works.” (Psalm 73:28)
So that’s it: surrender. Surrendering yourself to God completely and drawing close to Him is the only way I know to deal with this kind of pain and suffering.
So please do it.
This article relies heavily on Skip Heitzig’s excellent audio book, Christians in the Crucible of Pain, Connection Communications, 2012
Jim Davis, Why Me? (And Why That’s the Wrong Question), Leafwood, 2014
Steve Mays, Overwhelmed by God, Bethany House, 2013
Dr. Paul Brand, Pain the Gift Nobody Wants, Harper Collins, 1993
[Image via Johanna H – Creative Commons]