One of the occupational hazards of ministry is the increased exposure to other people’s pain. Not that ministry is any more painful than any other profession, but like an x-ray tech is exposed to more radiation than normal, ministry exposes one to a lot of pain. If I’ve learned anything in the past 23 years of ministry, it is this:
Everyone I know is in pain… this means you, and me, too.
Pain comes to us in an infinite number of different ways, nearly all of which can fit into four categories: emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual. The experience of pain is an inevitable part of living. Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about how much pain we cause one another. How much pain is just a part of life – a toothache, a kidney stone, childbirth – and how much pain is self-inflicted by the human race – war, selfishness, infidelity, abuse – avoidable yet still a constant part of the world we have made out of God’s good creation.
I think pain is a theological issue of the utmost importance. So much of Christian theology and ethics occurs in the analytic or theoretical realm. Pain is lived, by all of us. This makes pain, and a theology of pain, something more than theoretical. Precisely because pain is common to all of us, Christians need to be able to think about it in terms of our own discipleship.
C.S. Lewis’ famous line is that pain is God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Richard Rohr always says that all great spirituality is connected to what we do with our pain. We can either allow the pain we experience to transform us as we allow God to take our pain and use it to birth something redemptive (for which the resurrection is an archetype), or we can transmit our pain to those around us. We can take our pain and make it other people’s pain.
How much pain are you transmitting to those around you every day?
Our culture is uniquely suited to help us transmit our pain to one another. Everyday I read a snarky Facebook status from a friend who is in so much pain that it is literally oozing from every pore. So they fire of a tweet or update their status and boom : everyone else can feel the pain for awhile.
To my thinking, these three things are true:
- You are in pain of some kind. Admit it or don’t admit it, but it is true either way. You are experiencing emotional, physical, psychological, or spiritual pain.
- If this pain is not constantly transformed by God, you will transmit it to those you love the most by inflicting your pain on them, by hurting them.
- Most pain is progressive: it will not get better on its own; in fact it will only get worse until you address it. This is why so many people break down mid-life from the truckload of pain they are trying carry around with them. (This is also why healthy children might be the only ones left in our society who are not suffering from debilitating, chronic pain).
What does transformation of pain look like?
- First, admit it to yourself. Stop acting like you are fine. Be honest with yourself about your past and your present pain. Name it. Stop running from it. Stop hiding it from yourself.
- Second, share it with a trusted friend. You have to “out” yourself and the pain you are experiencing; you have to tell your story. If you don’t have a friend or family member who is safe, then buy a friend – they are called therapists and they are wonderful!
- Third, forgive everything, and I mean everything: your parents, your God, your friends, your childhood, your-ex, your abuser, your tormentor, yourself… forgive all of it.
- Fourth, offer up to God your brokenness and humiliation. Surrender. Thrust your painful existence into the hands of God. This is the meaning of Christ’s insistence that the blessed in this life are the poor in Spirit, the meek, the persecuted, and the peacemakers. We come to God with absolutely nothing to offer except a big old bag of pain and brokenness. After all, the cross is the supreme example of pain transforming into redemption.
- Fifth, receive God’s love and healing. It happens slowly – imperceptibly – but in very real and tangible ways nonetheless. Jesus is a healer. God wants to heal us. God will absolutely transform our pain, and through our pain, transform us. We will become new creations. We will become true disciples and the vessels of God’s healing for the rest of the world.
Your ability to participate in the mission of God is dependent, in large part, upon what you decide to do with your pain. If you are not aware of your own pain, aware of where it comes from, and how it manifests itself in your life; if you have not yet been honest with yourself and at least one other person about your pain, then your pain is not being transformed by God, and you are transmitting it to those around you. You are on a mission of destruction.
Christianity teaches us that transformed people can transform people as God’s healing begins to work its way into their lives. If you allow God to heal you, God will also make you an agent of his healing. What’s it going to be?