Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Idol of No-Pain

Photo by Miriam Boone

I lay flowers on an altar covered in debris, hoping to pacify some god beneath the rubble. I try to think of reasons my prayers should be heard. All I can come up with is: “Haven’t I suffered enough?”

Of all the idols that have sprung up in my life since my divorce, one of the hardest to grab from the roots is the idol of no-pain. Because I now know the excruciating suffering God’s love for me can include, I sometimes fear the future. And when I do, I let that fear confuse my theology. I start to view blessings as false-security. Good days as a tease. I dwell on future pain instead of present hope and brace myself for the next storm.

Avoiding Pain

Examining the lengths we’ll go to get something can reveal our idols. I also find mine hidden behind the things I intentionally avoid. When I look “at the bottom of painful emotions, especially those that never seem to lift” I often discover the idol of no-pain, bidding me to cower alongside it in scared, desperate worship.[1] Tim Keller points out that how we respond “to unanswered prayers and frustrated hopes” can point to our idols. When worshipping the idea of a painless future, we are bound to shrink back from people, ministry, God’s word, and faith.

Pulling away from people

The possibilities for pain are endless when in relationship with others. If we want to avoid frustration, hard conversations, burdens and heartbreak we should stay far away from people. And we do this when we leave church before anyone can grab us for lunch, when we let our phone go to voicemail and refuse to allow conversations to get too deep. Surface level interaction seems safer.

But when people hurt Jesus, he didn’t pull away. He knew that his life on earth would include suffering. He felt every bit of it, from the anguish of losing his dear friend Lazarus (Jn. 11:35) to the betrayal of one of his own disciples, Judas. Still, he drew close. One of the most poignant examples of this is seen on the Mount of Olives. Judas leads an angry mob to where Jesus is praying and Peter, determined to defend Jesus, draws his sword and cuts off the ear of Malchus, the high priest’s servant. Jesus immediately reprimands Peter and draws close to Malchus, a man who  – just moments later – would take part in his murder. He draws close enough to touch his wound and heal him (Luke 22:49-51). Instead of allowing the fear of pain to keep him from loving people, Jesus continually approached the hurting, even those he knew would hurt him.

C.S. Lewis said in his book, The Four Loves:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

Pulling away from ministry

Ministry is not safe, either. If done with the right heart, ministry will lead to caring and caring can lead to heartbreak. When someone is fixated on avoiding pain, their ministries are often the first to go. Ministry also involves sacrifice. We must step out in faith into what is unknown to us and known only by God. We may never see the fruits of our labor. It may demand more from us than we predicted. The discouragement involved could lead us into a fight with depression. But we can look back at that same night when Jesus healed Malchus’ ear, to hear Him speak to God about the pain of ministry:

“‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’ An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:42-44)

There are so many things to note in this brief description of Christ before the cross. First, He was in enough pain to ask God if there was any way he could be spared. Second, he trusted God enough to accept the answer “no.” Third, God strengthened him from heaven. And fourth, this still left Jesus “in anguish.” He still had to go to the cross. And this is what ministry means. That we will want out sometimes, but that God can be trusted. That pain is a promise on earth but it is God Himself who strengthens us.

The most important takeaway from this passage is that Jesus’ obedience to his ministry makes all our ministering in His name worth it. In his death and resurrection he fills our ministries with the hope of the gospel. 

Pulling away from the Word

It is a beautiful thing when pain leads us to the Word of God for healing, truth, and inspiration. But sometimes our pain makes us cower from Scripture because Scripture demands response. Vulnerability. Action. We reject the comfort that can be found in God’s promises and we fear the conviction that can lead to painful obedience.   

On the cross, Scripture was heavy on Jesus’ heart. He spoke his pain by quoting David’s devastating prayer in Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

During Jesus’ time on earth, when Satan twisted Scripture and threw it at him in hopes that it would knock him down, Jesus continued to cling to the true Word. I can only imagine how tempting it must have been to quench his suffering temporarily by accepting Satan’s lies. But Jesus fought it. When he was most tempted to ignore God’s word, He believed it. Recited it. Used it to motivate his obedience.

Pulling away from faith

There is a basket at my local coffee shop where they sell day-old bread. It’s cheaper so I often buy it instead of the fresh loaves. But were they the same price, I would never choose the bread in the basket. Who would?

Some Israelites were tempted by old bread. The lack of trust that motivated their hoarding of manna is the same lack of trust that can cause me to panic rather than praise God for a good day. I wonder if it will be my last. With the Psalmist Asaph, I question: “Will he never show his favor again?” (Ps. 77:7). Trusting that God will provide the “manna” we need every day takes a great deal of faith. And faith is what we lack when we try to manipulate God’s daily mercies by putting them into storage containers.

Jesus stepped out in faith at the highest cost. Because he “endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” we can “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” (Heb. 12:1,2)     

Tackling Our Fear

When I was eighteen and in the hospital with a serious bone infection, the doctor told me “the pain you’ve experienced is on par with the pain of giving birth.” I remembering feeling kind of proud of that. Brave. I felt a similar rush of bravery this past year, having survived a different kind of pain, the trauma of heartbreak. But in the past few months, that bravery has thawed out and melted away. Loss lasts a lot longer than we’d like. And God seems to be reminding me that I still need to hold onto Him for dear life.

The fear that has replaced my bravery cannot be dissolved by mere willpower. It must be replaced with faith. For me this is often an hourly task. I have to remind myself that the most fearful thing, God the “consuming fire,” (Heb. 12:17) is now the one shielding me under His wings (Ps. 91:4). His wrath toward me has been pacified and His love for me has been kindled through Christ. There is nothing safer than being “from God” who is “greater than he who is in the world.” (1 Jon. 4:4)

The Reward for Endurance

What a relief to read in Hebrews that God recognizes that we “have need of endurance” (Heb. 10:36). And an even greater relief to know that we do not endure in our own strength. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “Jesus asks nothing of us without giving us the strength to perform it.”[2] Sweeter still is the knowledge that this endurance has purpose: “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.” (Heb. 10:36). The pain we have experienced, are experiencing and will experience in the future is not pointless. “For he who promised is faithful” and we will “be richly rewarded” when Christ appears “a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” (Heb. 9:28, 10:23-35).

The Best is Yet to Be

In her book on loneliness, Elisabeth Elliot points out that “the worst thing that ever happened became the best thing that ever happened.”[3] She refers here to the work of Christ on the cross. Elliot, who endured countless trials in her life including the loss of two husbands, believed that the worst really was behind her and behind all of us who trust in Jesus. When that crowd of men demanded that the perfect Son be tortured to death, the lowest moment in history occurred. And when he rose from the dead, Jesus made it possible for all those who trust in Him to look forward to the future. In Christ:

“The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:   
Our times are in His hand”[4] 

Written by Rachel Watson

[1] How to Find Your Rival Gods by Tim Keller in Christianity Today:
[2] The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pg. 38.
[3] The Path of Loneliness by Elisabeth Elliot, pg. 45.
[4] Rabbi Ben Ezra by Robert Browning


  1. Rachel, I'm nearly speechless. It's as though God knew EXACTLY what I needed when I didn't even know myself. I cannot begin to express my gratitude for your gift of writing... And especially for this!
    I have struggled all week and could never have put into words what it was... And you just did!!! Thank you so much!!!
    I am blessed.