Paul Brand had just arrived home in London after a long train ride from India where he treated patients in a leper colony. In his own words, this is his story:
I pulled off my shoes to prepare for bed, and as I did a terrible awareness hit me with the force of a wrecking ball, I had no feeling in half my foot. I sank into a chair my mind whirling, “Perhaps it’s an illusion.” I closed my eyes and pressed against my heel with the tip of a ballpoint pen. Nothing. No sensation of touch whatsoever. A dread fear worse than any nausea seized my stomach. Had it finally happened?
Every leprosy worker recognizes that insensitivity to pain is one of the disease’s first symptoms. Had I just made the wretched leap from leprosy doctor, to leprosy patient? I stood up stiffly and shifted back and forth on my unfeeling foot, then I rummaged in my suitcase for a sewing needle and sat down again. I pricked a small patch of skin below my ankle. No pain. I jabbed the needle deeper, probing for a reflex but there was none. A dark speck of blood oozed out of the whole I just made. I put my face between my hands and shuddered, longing for pain that would not come. I suppose I always feared that moment. In the early days of working with leprosy patients every time I took a bath I made a visual check for skin patches. Most leprosy workers did.
Rest did not come to me that night. I lay fully clothed on my bed, except for shoes and socks, perspiring and breathing heavily. “Welcome to the society of the accursed,” I thought. I knew all too well what to expect. My office files were filled with diagrams charting the body’s gradual march toward numbness. Ordinary pleasures in life would slip away: petting a dog, running a hand across silk, holding a child. Soon all sensations would feel alike: dead.
At last dawn came and I arose unrested and full of despair. I stared in the mirror at my unshaven face checking for patches. During the night the clinician inside of me had taken over. “I mustn’t panic,” I thought. Since I knew more about this disease than the average doctor in London it was up to me to determine a course of treatment. First I must map out the affected area of insensitivity and get some sense of how far the disease has progressed.
I sat down, took a deep breath, and jabbed the point of that sewing needle into my heel: and I yelped. Never have I felt a sensation as delicious as that live electric jolt of pain. I laughed aloud at my foolishness. Of course it all made perfect sense. As I sat hunched in that train, my body too weak for the usual restless motion that redistributes weight and pressure, I had cut off blood supply to the main branch of the sciatic nerve in my leg, causing a temporary numbness.
“Temporary,” I thought.
Overnight that nerve had renewed itself and was now faithfully spitting out messages of pain and touch and cold and heat. There was no leprosy, only a weary traveler made neurotic by illness and fatigue.
That single sleepless night became for me a defining moment. The next morning when I had learned that my foot had come back to life, I knew I had crossed a chasm back to normal life.
And I breathed a prayer, “Thank God for pain.”
The Value Of Pain
You know, pain has value. Sure it’s miserable in the short term, but ultimately there’s great power in pain and suffering, and I’m not alone in thinking that.
Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church and author of the best seller The Purpose Driven Life, recently lost his 27 year old son Matthew to suicide. But even before that happened Warren wouldn’t hire anyone for leadership in his organization, unless that person had experienced significant suffering. Why might that be do you think?
C.H. Spurgeon was one of the most successful and respected preachers in history. In fact if you google “Prince of Preachers,” it’s Spurgeon who shows up in the results. He suffered from depression (and arthritis, and gout during a time when there was no effective medical treatment for these diseases). Spurgeon had this to say about suffering.
“I bear witness that the worst days I’ve ever had have turned out to be my best days. And when God has seemed most cruel to me, he has then been most kind. If there’s anything in this world for which I would bless him more than for anything else, it’s for pain and affliction. I am sure that in these things the richest tenderest love has been manifested to me. Our Father’s wagons rumble most heavily when they are bringing us the richest freight of the boullion of His grace. Love letters from heaven are often sent in black edged envelopes. The cloud that is black with horror is big with mercy. Fear not the storm, it brings healing in its wings, and when Jesus is with you in that vessel, that boat, the tempest only hastens the ship to its desired haven.”
In my own experience the times of greatest suffering have without question been the times I experienced the greatest closeness to our Father. My best most fervent prayers were uttered when I was at my lowest. My most difficult times were the deepest times in Him.
Music Born From Pain
Some of the greatest hymns ever created were composed during great times of suffering. Horatio Spaford’s three kids had just died in a ship wreck when he wrote It Is Well With My Soul. Charlotte Elliot, Fanny Crosby, and Francis Havigail all wrote great hymns while enduring great suffering.
God’s Work Born From Pain
So maybe it’s a little like a coach in a sport. Take a basketball coach for instance. Greg Popovich does some of his best work when he chastises his players and causes them to suffer–and they know it. I think some of God’s best work in you and in me happens when he allows us to suffer.
“In my deepest wound I saw your glory, and it dazzled me,” Saint Augustine said.
Or to put it another way, Spurgeon also said this about suffering.
“I believe the hardest hearted, most unlovely Christians in all the world are those who have never had much trouble. And those who are the most sympathizing, loving, and Christlike are those who have had the most affliction. The worst thing that could ever happen to any of us is to have our path made too smooth.”
Take Heart. Sometimes God’s greatest power is manifested in your greatest pain.
God’s Work Born From Jesus’ Pain
And of course, God’s greatest work was born out of His Son’s pain. And because of that He relates to what we go through. Jesus came to earth and he suffered. He suffered horrible physical pain at the hands of the authorities. And he also suffered rejection by the people. And he also suffered betrayal from his friend Judas. And he also suffered separation from God for the first time in eternity. And he also suffered the burden of the sins of the entire world. If you need a reminder of how much Jesus Christ suffered you might want to watch the movie The Passion of the Christ. So He knows. He knows what you’re going through and he grieves, even as he grieved at the grave of Lazarus. (John 11:35) And He did that suffering for you. His perfect justice requires that He deal with your sin. And His perfect love requires that He provide a way for you to dwell with Him, in heaven. And Jesus Christ is His way to reconcile you to Himself. So open yourself to him, to Jesus. Accept him into your heart and into your life. Surrender yourself to him.
Ask him in and let Jesus Christ help you with your pain.
This blog post relies heavily on Skip Heitzig’s Christians in the Crucible of Pain, Connection Communications, 2012.
Dr. Paul Brand, Pain the Gift Nobody Wants