In Acts 17 we find the Apostle Paul in Athens where he encounters certain philosophers of the Epicurean and Stoic sects. He engages them in a debate about Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 17:18). Paul could not have entered a discussion with two philosophies more opposite of one another. Epicureanism held the belief that the chief end of life was to experience nothing but happiness and pleasure, with the absence of pain of any kind, whether it be pain of the body, mind or soul. Stoicism held the opposite view, life was not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure, but embracing pain and enduring pain (or pleasure) with indifferent emotions. The Stoic was one who sought to be unmoved by joy or pain; firmly restraining responses to pain or distress.
While Epicureanism and Stoicism are certainly two opposing views on how to approach life, of the two it seems unknowingly most people today embrace the philosophy of Epicureanism. We are living in a day when people want to embrace only pleasure and the pursuit of happiness without any interruption from pain or grief visiting our lives. People will go to great lengths to avoid all pain and embrace only that which brings no discomfort.
While the philosophy of the Stoics is harsh in their embracing pain and grief with indifferent emotions, grasping a Biblical understanding of pain reveals that one’s life can receive blessing from the pain we experience. Viewing pain through the lens of the Christian faith gives value to the pain and discomfort we so often experience in life. The pain of life divorced from a Biblical perspective leaves one asking with George Bernard Shaw, “Are the trials of life nothing more than moral gymnastics?” The pain of life can either make us bitter or make us better. So, just how can pain be called a blessing?
First, it is through pain we grow. An athlete will never improve if they never push their body out of its comfort zone. To “grow” as an athlete one must push their body to do what it does not want to do. A student will never “grow” academically if they don’t push their mind and exert effort to learn and expand their intellectual capacity. A solider must be pushed through hard training in order to be a good soldier and learn how to survive when bullets are flying through the air.
As Christians we would never learn how to forgive if we did not know the pain of mistreatment. We would never learn how to be kind if we have not experienced unkindness. We never “grow” in treating people fairly if we have not experienced the pain of being treated unfairly. We would never grow in giving if we have not been taken advantage of. We would never grow in prayer if painful circumstances didn’t drive us to our knees. We would never appreciate joy if we didn’t know the pain of sorrow. We would never experience the Lord’s comfort if we didn’t know grief. We learn what is involved in being in a good relationship by having been in a bad one. A tree grows stronger as the winds bend it back and forth, and in like manner we grow stronger to face life as the winds of pain buffet us. In Christ we learn the winds of adversity may bend us, but they will not break us. So, there can be no growth in our lives if we never experience any pain.
Second, it is through pain we develop positive character traits that could have never been developed otherwise. The naturalist Aldous Huxley once witnessed a butterfly trying to wiggle out of a cocoon. He cut the cocoon to let it out. To Huxley’s dismay the butterfly died. He learned that the butterfly gained strength in its wings to fly and its beautiful colors through its struggle to be freed from the cocoon.
In the same respect, we must admit some of our best character traits were developed in the struggles we encounter in life. One’s compassionate heart, sensitive spirit, capacity to love, caring temperament, ability to sense when others are lonely or hurting, was developed in the struggles one experienced.
In the summer of 2013 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had to undergo forty-three radiation treatments. It was a journey that interrupted my life and turned my world upside down. Yet if I could go back and undo the diagnoses I would not. Traveling the road of dealing with cancer developed in me qualities that I could never have gained otherwise. The journey created in me a more sensitive and caring spirit, a more compassionate heart, a greater appreciation for the gift of life, and a closeness to the Lord that I never would have experienced otherwise. Like a butterfly, struggling and painful circumstance help us gain greater strength in our wings and develop brighter colors whereby we can be a blessing to others.
Third, it is through pain we learn what is truly important in life. When we only experience pleasure and happiness it is too easy to become self-absorbed and we lose sight of what is truly important in life. If we only experience pleasure and good we would soon take for granted those priorities that should be the most important. Too often we place material possessions at the top of the heap of our priorities, but a knock at the door delivering bad news or a telephone call from the doctor informing you that you or a family member has cancer stops us in our tracks and causes us to do inventory of our priorities. It is in time of pain that we realize our most valuable possessions are not in the material realm, but in the relationships we have with others, the love we share with family and friends, and our relationship with Jesus Christ. Pain causes to realize that laugher, love, a greater awareness of the frailty of life, the coo of a baby, a sunrise and sunset are more valuable than a pocket full of money.
Fourth, it is through pain we learn the promise of Romans 8:28 is true. The Lord has given us a promise in Romans 8:28 that all things, good and bad, work together for the good of those who love the Lord. That promise means the good and bad, the joy and sorrow, our Lord takes the threads of our life and weaves them together to work out His master plan for our lives.
Joseph is an excellent example of the truth of Romans 8:28. Joseph had a dream that he would be a great leader. Yet his dream turned into a nightmare. Beaten by his jealous brothers, they sold him to a caravan of nomads who in turn sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt. Because of his honesty, he became overseer of Potiphar’s affairs. Potiphar’s wife sought to seduce Joseph but he rejected her advances. Feeling slighted, she lied on Joseph that he tried to seduce her. Potiphar had Joseph thrown into prison where he stayed twenty years. Oh, the pain he went through. But now the rest of story, because Joseph could interpret dreams, he was called to interpret a disturbing dream of Pharaoh. Joseph told him there would be seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. Joseph was released from prison, made vice-regent of Egypt and was instructed to devise a plan to help the land through the time of famine.
To make a long story short, when famine broke out across the land, Joseph’s brothers who had beaten him and sold him into slavery, had to travel to Egypt for food. While Joseph recognized his brothers they did not recognize him. When he eventually revealed himself as the brother they mistreated and sold, they were fearful Joseph would seek revenge. Instead of bringing harm to his brothers, we find in Genesis 50:19-21 Joseph stating the truth contained in Romans 8:28. He said to his brothers, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.” And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.”
Wow! “You sought evil against me, God meant it for good.” What a statement. If we are the Lord’s child, He has promised to do the same for us if we don’t lose our faith and focus. Time and space fail me to give you examples of how in my own life the Lord has taken what were painful events and circumstances, to bring about good in my life whereby I thanked Him for what I went through. Nehemiah stated, “God can take a curse and turn it into a blessing” (Neh. 13:2). After all, that is what Romans 8:28 promises.
Fifth, it is through pain we learn our own frailty and our dependence upon the power of God. When pain comes it drives us beyond ourselves. There are some things in life we can’t handle on our own. There are times pain brings us to the end of ourselves. What do we do during such times? Where do we turn? The Apostle Paul clearly points us to our source when we come face to face with our own fragility. In 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 he prayed to the Lord three times to remove a “thorn in the flesh” he was experiencing. Paul records the Lords answer and his response to the Lord, “And he said unto me, ‘My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”
Paul learn that God’s power was sufficient for his weakness. He would have never known that if not for the pain of his “thorn in the flesh.” For the Christian, we possess the Holy Spirit who indwells us that enable us to be strong even when the pain of life seeks to make us weak.
Sixth, it is through pain we learn that this world is not our home that heaven is our ultimate destination. The pain of loss and grief come to all our lives. We lose through the doorway of death family and friends. Each time we lose someone we loved pain pierces our hearts. We weep much because we loved much. Such times remind us that death is only a breath and heartbeat away for all of us. The pain of losing someone we love reminds to make preparation for that day the Grim Reaper will knock at our door. It is in such pain we hear the voice of Jesus whispering to us the same words he spoke to Mary and Maratha at the loss of their brother, Lazarus, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?” (John 11:25-26).
Paul stated, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). Life is short at it longest, and whatever pain we may go through in this life is only temporary compared to the eternal bliss that awaits all those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ. While pain can temporarily fill our eyes with tears, He has promised to one day dry all tears from our eyes in a Land where there will no longer be any suffering and pain. Yes, we are pilgrims and strangers in this world, but we have the promise that heaven is our ultimate destination.
While our first inclination is that all pain and suffering is bad and to be avoided at all cost, the teaching of the Bible is that is not the case. Our Lord sees the end result as the most important aspect of what we experience in any event or circumstance. Let us remember, the value of any experience is not necessarily in the experience itself, but in the results that come from those experiences. As Christians, let us be thankful that even in the midst of our pain we serve a Savior who wept through human eyes who has the power to weave both the good and bad into a Masterpiece that when it is all said and done will amaze us.