Pain can be a secret garden of pride.
We don’t talk about it often because it’s so sensitive, so vulnerable — so painful. As touchy as the topic of pain is, though, it’s equally dangerous to tiptoe around it. John Piper writes this about our pain,
Satan uses pleasure and pain to try and destroy our faith. He wields pleasure to make us doubt God’s satisfying greatness, and pain to make us doubt God’s sovereign goodness.
Pain can be a powerful weapon for good in the heart of faith. It can produce deeper, heartfelt humility and greater dependence on God. And pain can inflict wounds far worse and more lasting than any physical agony. At its worst, it can cause us to doubt God’s goodness, to wallow in self-pity, and to isolate ourselves from him, as well as from others.
Pain becomes proud because it believes no one else understands. No one feels what I feel. And so pain distances itself from anyone who might try and speak into its suffering. But the afflicted inflict themselves even more the farther they separate themselves from others. God has given us himself, his word, and each other to produce faith, and even joy, in the midst of pain, even the most severe and unique pain.
One test to determine whether our pain is producing pride is to ask how we respond to encouragement from others, maybe especially from other believers who don’t understand our pain. Are we willing to hear the word and hope of God from someone who has not experienced or cannot comprehend our current suffering? If we’re unwilling, then pain has driven us into isolation, and Satan’s succeeding in his purpose for your suffering.
Case Study: The Pain of Unwanted Singleness
I’m learning this lesson about myself from my own experience with suffering. From far too young, I longed for the affection, safety, and intimacy I anticipated with a wife. Well before I could even drive, I was passionately in pursuit of marriage. Therefore, when God withheld the wedding from me long after most of my friends were married, I experienced the sorrow and loneliness of unwanted singleness. It’s not remotely as excruciating or intense as a lot of other suffering and loss, but it was real and lasting for me for ten or more years.
“We all are prone to wield our pain to reject God’s good news for us.”
A couple years ago, I wrote a handful of articles related to singleness while I was still a not-yet-married man, and they seemed to be received well. I assume they were liked and shared by many, in part, because I was a single guy myself reflecting about the hardships (and goodness) in unwanted singleness.
This April, after a couple decades of trying, failing, and maturing, I finally married my bride. Just four months later, I’m amazed how quickly I seem to have lost all credibility with some of the not-yet-married. Now-barely-married me published an article entitled “Hope for the Unhappily Single.” The article was drawn from a chapter I wrote for a book on manhood and womanhood, Designed for Joy. While many expressed appreciation for the article, a new chorus of voices sang out against my writing:
“This is not meant to be disrespectful, but it’s hard to take seriously an article on singleness from someone who is married.”
“I know the words in your article are true, but you’re married. It’s easy to talk like that when you’re already married.”
“This is just offensive. Only people already married write stuff like this.”
“It’s always the married people that give you the advice about being satisfied with Jesus. That’s real easy for them to say.”
The irony is that I wrote the article more than a year ago, while I was still single. We chose to publish it now to help spread the word about the new book. I was saying the same truths with the same voice, but the words were met with new resistance, even rejection.
The comments above were not the dominant response, so I’m not writing to vindicate the piece or my point of view. In fact, I’m sure I thought and said some of the same things as an unhappily single man about the “encouragement” I received from married friends.
The revelation for me, though, was how easily we all are prone to wield our pain to reject God’s good news for us. I see it in myself, and it’s corroborated in the honest struggle of several with whom I’ve dialogued about singleness in the past week. We will reject whatever someone says about our pain, even when it’s simply repeating God’s words, simply because we don’t believe that person — author, pastor, friend — can relate to what we’re going through.
The Book Big Enough for Our Brokenness
But that sentiment about our suffering betrays the beauty of how the Bible ministers to us in our brokenness. Satan loves to see pain and suffering separate us from the body of Christ. He takes pride in watching pride take root in us when we are weakest and most vulnerable, and grow like a great wall, cutting us off from the love and encouragement of other Christians.
“God can speak as truly and deeply to our pain through sympathy, as he can through empathy.”
The truth is that the people in your life almost certainly do not understand your pain. Fortunately, they don’t need to rely on what they know about your particular pain to be a blessing to you, because God wrote a book to overcome all of our inevitable ignorance and insensitivity. With the Bible, people can bring you the always-relevant wisdom and hope of an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God.
As we receive God’s word for us from others, we listen to the Creator of the world — the one who designed every inch of our bodies and authored every second of our story, including our pain. The God who speaks into all of our pain through the Bible is the Artist who painted all the brightest lights and all the darkest shadows into our lives. He knows your pain perfectly, and if you’ll trust him and receive his word of hope, however it comes, he promises good for you in whatever you’re facing.
The Power of Sympathy
Now, God has undeniably blessed us by giving us brothers and sisters in Christ who have suffered like us (or better, who are suffering like us even now). There’s a sacred bond of comfort and encouragement between those who have tasted the same pain, whether it’s unwanted singleness, or a cancer diagnosis, or a miscarriage, or unemployment, or whatever you’re suffering. God has graciously given us co-sufferers who often provide unique and meaningful comfort.
But empathy is not a qualification for ministry. God can speak as truly and deeply to our pain through sympathy, as he can through empathy. If we’ll listen to him. The Bible, as a book for the hurting and heart-broken, speaks above all of our suffering, whether it’s experienced with someone or not. Pride may try to deny it, but God can speak powerfully through a Spirit-filled friend who knows little about your experience of suffering, but holds God’s book open before you.