Learning to let your pain lead you to God
SOURCE: Kevin Miller/Discipleship Journal
Have you noticed that life is difficult? It certainly starts with difficulty—for both the mother and the baby. And the end is often difficult. Recently I stood vigil with a friend at his dying father’s bedside. A plastic tube snaked from an oxygen outlet on the wall to a mask over the father’s nose and mouth. The stenciled black letters on his hospital gown rose and fell with every gasp.
Between that beginning and that ending, each of our lives brings some degree of difficulty, some level of pain. Early on we discover ways to soothe ourselves: get a good grade, make somebody laugh, dress up and receive compliments. Soon enough, however, we graduate to more adult methods of relieving our agonies.
We’re all familiar with socially unacceptable avenues for numbing our pain such as alcohol, drugs, or pornography. Yet we may fail to recognize the less obvious “medications” people use to handle life’s disappointments.
Applause. A Christian musician told me, “On stage you can get the feeling of excitement, the feeling of being larger than life. The lights are on you and people are appreciating and admiring you. You really start to like that experience. It tells you, ‘I am somebody.’ And you can’t get enough.”
Adrenaline. We can pump up our adrenaline to cover our pain by watching frightening movies, driving aggressively, or booking our lives full of activities. Anger also can bring a rush of adrenaline, making us feel stronger and more in control. Anger can become a defense, an energizer, and even a friend.
Food. Ah, the pleasure of eating hot corn on the cob with butter melting into it. But food was not given to drown our sorrows. Jan Christiansen confessed in one article, “I’d been hungry for pizza for days. . . . Yesterday was a bad day for me. One thing after another hit me until I found myself in a ‘blue funk.’ . . . It was late. I was depressed, and I ordered pizza. . . . I turned to that food to ‘make it all better.'”
Shopping. Acquiring more stuff is a useful anesthetic. We can get a surge of pleasure from searching for and then owning something new. I recently stood over a display case filled with PDAs, staring dreamily at the Palm Tungsten with its sleek anodized aluminum case. I nearly started drooling. Later I wondered, What was that about?
Achievement. Several years ago, as part of a spiritual–life assessment tool, I asked three people who knew me well—my wife, my prayer partner, and my teenaged son—to fill out a feedback form. All three ranked me low on the same statement: “Shows an inner contentment even when things go wrong.” I was surprised, since I see myself as even–keeled. But all three told me, “When work is going well, you’re doing well. When work is not going well, you’re moody and upset.”
Guilty as charged, I realized. I’ve said my identity is based on God’s love for me, but much of it is really keyed to my performance.
My pattern looked like this: Driven to excel and be recognized, I would take on too much. Then when the work began to build, so would the stress. I’d start to think, It would feel so good to be completely caught up. The fantasy of completion (and perfection and accomplishment and reward) would build until I’d dive into my work and stay up till 2 or 3 a.m.—or even dawn. Instead of feeling tired, I’d be flying higher than a kite.
I told myself that I was just a high achiever, someone who pursued excellence and wanted to provide for his family. While there was some truth in that, something in me was taking a good thing such as work and twisting it with indulgence.
Whether it’s through shopping, eating, working, or something else entirely, we want to feel better. Yet the underlying pain remains, because life is difficult. We have no reason to expect otherwise. The Bible doesn’t portray people who were free of suffering, least of all Jesus. Even when He was a toddler, people tried to murder Him. He was abandoned, unfairly judged, and cruelly executed. We’re told Jesus was “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Is. 53:3).
No, we can’t erase life’s pain. There’s no shortcut to avoid it and no end run around it, so we try to ease it.
We may think it’s OK to medicate our pain as long as our “medicine” is socially acceptable. But God doesn’t look at it that way. God sees us turning to this thing when we’re down. God sees us looking forward to it. God sees our hearts going after it. God sees us asking this thing to tell us, “It’s OK, it will be all right, you matter,” though these are words only He can speak to us. God is not fooled; He sees that our “medication” has become an idol. Henry Blackaby, author of Experiencing God, explains that “an idol is anything you turn to for help when God told you to turn to Him for help.”
In Jeremiah, God cries out:
My people have done two evil things: They have forsaken me—the fountain of living water. And they have dug for themselves cracked cisterns that can hold no water at all!
—Jer. 2:13, NLT
To grow closer to God, we need to recognize when we have slipped across the line from enjoying something to using it as an idol. We need to stop soothing our pain through ways that were never meant for that purpose.
Don’t underestimate the difficulty of this process.
My wife, Karen, a counselor, once worked with a client who couldn’t control his anger. His outbursts were affecting his wife, his children, and his coworkers. Karen wanted to find out if he could even conceive of living differently, so she asked, “What would your life look like if you got rid of your anger?” He sat silent for a long time. Then he said, “If I get rid of my anger, what will I have left?”
You won’t want to give up your “helper.” But when you say no to the false help, you can say yes to something even better. Henri Nouwen said in an interview,
I cannot continuously say “No” to this or “No” to that, unless there is something 10 times more attractive to choose. Saying “No” to my lust, my greed, my needs, and the world’s powers takes an enormous amount of energy. The only hope is to find something so obviously real and attractive that I can devote all my energies to saying “Yes.” . . . One such thing I can say “Yes” to is when I come in touch with the fact that I am loved. Once I have found that in my total brokenness I am still loved, I become free from the compulsion of doing successful things.
We have to find something incredibly good to replace our chosen pain reliever. Obviously, “something 10 times more attractive” is God. But many Christians would say, “I’ve been having quiet times and doing all the right Christian things, yet I’m not finding my relationship with God powerful enough to deal with my pain. What do I do?”
The decision to turn away from false help isn’t one of simply adding more “right things.” Rather, you must take the path that leads you into the pain.
Admit your pain. Few people acknowledge the amount of pain they carry or how heavily they’re medicating it. I know people in their late 40s who still are unaware of (or unwilling to face) the scars they carry.
One friend says, “My family had this idea that we were the perfect family—and we were a good family. But the myth that we were perfect kept us from being honest. . . . It took me years before I could look around and say, ‘My sisters and I are all carrying pain.'”
Health begins with honesty. Are you willing to acknowledge your pain, listen to it, and let it lead you to God?
Confess how you’ve been medicating yourself. Almost as difficult as acknowledging pain is admitting how you’ve been trying to manage it. Are you willing to confess the ways you have asked a created thing to tell you you’re OK? Harboring an idol is not just a lovable weakness, a little mistake, or a bad idea: It’s serious. Joshua urged the people of God:
Fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped . . . and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.
God is all that your idols can never be: your Creator who will rescue you.
Break the escape cycle. Medicating pain usually follows a predictable cycle.
- Stress. Your day goes badly; your week goes sour; the argument gets out of hand. Pressure builds.
- Fantasy. You start thinking about this thing that makes you feel better. You imagine how good doing it or having it would feel. The fantasy grows.
- Indulgence. You give in: You eat too much, visit the porn site, rage at the kids, buy the PDA.
- Release. You feel better.
- Guilt. The relief doesn’t last. Almost immediately, you feel regret and guilt. You pledge to try harder, but then stress mounts, and you repeat the cycle.
You have to halt the cycle early to break the pattern. When you feel stress building, you must exercise your will to turn to God rather than continue toward the thing that brings relief. This will require some preparation. Ask yourself, “When am I most likely to feel stress? What would remind me to notice that stress rather than unthinkingly move into the fantasy stage? What would it look like to break the cycle by bringing that pain to God?”
Open your life to others. Your idols have rewarded you (while damaging your soul). To continue turning from them will be difficult. You need relationships to help you see the hand of God at work in your life.
Meeting with a friend over a weekly sack lunch helped me greatly when I was trying to break the cycle of using work to feel good. As we talked about our lives and prayed for each other, I gradually realized, Tim cares about me even when I’m messed up. And then I began to understand, God must love me like that too. Just as Henri Nouwen predicted, tasting the sweetness of God’s love began to “free me from the compulsion of doing successful things.”
Listen to God. Scripture is as essential to our spirits as food is to our bodies. We need to hear what God is saying as we read the Bible or worship. Sometimes God also speaks through a caring Christian friend.
Listening to God sounds simple, but we may resist opening our spirits to Him. Why? Once we’re quiet, we feel—sometimes for the first time—the extent of our pain. The rage, the sorrow, the loneliness flood our souls. One writer describes this as “bearing our pain in God’s presence.” It takes courage. Persevere, though, for the word God speaks is the only thing powerful enough to soothe our pain, give us hope, and free us from idols—as I found out several years ago.
The Other Side of Pain
I was jet–skiing on a lake in Wisconsin when I suddenly noticed I was about to hit a high wake from another boat. I felt a slam on the side of my head and seconds later realized I was underwater. When I came to the surface, I felt dazed and nauseated. Soon an intense, heavy headache began.
I went home and read from the Mayo Clinic Family Health book:
About a third of all persons with concussion have a combination of symptoms . . . for some time after a head injury. In addition to headache and dizziness, these symptoms may include insomnia, irritability, restlessness, inability to concentrate, depression, or personality changes such as moodiness.
This became a prophecy for my life.
For several nights I couldn’t sleep for fear of drowning, so I lay in a fetal position on the sofa, unable to control my thoughts: What if I have permanent damage from this accident? What if I can’t concentrate or handle my job? What will Karen do when I’m unemployed? Will she still love me?
I was like a caged animal, scared and wide–eyed.
On the fourth morning, I went to the emergency room, where I sat in a little stall under the fluorescent lights, feeling alone. And then I had a very clear sense that Jesus was standing next to me, His hand on my shoulder. I began to weep in relief and gratitude just to know He was with me.
The doctor put me on an anti-anxiety medication that made me calmer . . . for a little while. I’d be sitting in a meeting at work and suddenly feel as if three Dobermans were charging me. Breathing fast, I’d repeat to myself, Don’t run from the room. Don’t run from the room.
I went to a psychiatrist. In the waiting room I eyed the other unfortunates pretending to read magazines. “You may be here because you need a psychiatrist,” I wanted to yell, “but I don’t! I can pull my life together anytime I want. It’s just that I . . . uh . . . I . . . ”
The psychiatrist put me on a different medication that immediately calmed me. Yet the thought of each day’s work would still slay me. Before, work had energized me. Now the sight of a calendar clogged with appointments made me feel as if I had to empty Lake Michigan with a spoon.
I could see in people’s eyes that they were worried about me. One day a coworker asked how I was doing since the accident. I admitted, “Well, I’m having some problems with dizziness and anxiety attacks.” His lips tightened. Was it concern or disapproval?
Finally Karen said, “Look, you have sabbatical time built up. Why don’t you take two weeks off?”
I balked because I knew everyone would ask about it, and I couldn’t say something such as “I’m going on vacation,” or “I have some writing to do.” How could I say, “I need to get my head back on straight”?
I had always trusted my mind and my ability to work; now I was weak and unable to handle one day. I had always wanted to look good in front of my bosses; now I felt humiliated. My idols of excellence and recognition were being dismantled. All I could do was hope in God and cling to Him.
One day my then–11–year–old son, Andrew, handed me a piece of paper with a Bible reference on it. “Here, Dad. I was reading and thought this was for you.” I looked it up and read,
Therefore, thus says the Lord, “If you return, then I will restore you—Before Me you will stand. . . . For I am with you to save you and deliver you.”
—Jer. 15:19–20, NASB
Each night I read those verses, repeating the words, “I will restore you.” I hung on to that passage like a drowning man hanging on to a life preserver.
God kept His word. When no one could truly help me or understand what I was going through, God loved me and decided, for His purposes and His glory, to restore me. Over the next few months I gradually regained my strength, composure, hope, and balance.
How well I know that hearing from God is the soul’s only hope. With what difficulty I came to realize that my idol of achievement had to be crushed so I might worship God alone.
In life, you and I are going to feel deep, deep hurt. Our instinctive reaction will be to numb that pain. But life and wholeness come when we decide not to dull our senses, but to listen to our pain and let it lead us to God. In His presence, we can say yes to something 10 times greater: His love.