At this moment in time, there is no person on the globe who has not been touched by pain (or at least discomfort) caused by the pandemic and its consequences, plus the myriad of other issues 2020 has brought with it. Pain has caught humanity’s attention. But it is only the contemplative person who will sit with pain as a teacher. What will be our posture towards the pain of this season? Will we numb? Blame? Or could we possibly learn to listen to the whisper of promises contained within?
A Painful Insight
Dr. Paul Brand was a leading surgeon, born in South India to missionary parents. He lived most of his life serving some of the poorest of the poor in the nation. He was the first surgeon to successfully perform reconstructive surgery correcting the deformities in the hands and feet of leprous patients. Dr. Brand said that the most destructive effects of this disease are due to a loss of the sense of pain. Leprosy attacks the nerve cells in a body. When the nerve cells go silent, the person no longer feels pain and the ability to be warned of something that is not right (1). So, the patient may trip over a nail, sprain an ankle, splinter a toenail, but because he can no longer feel pain. He goes about life without realizing that the small wound had become infected. Eventually, this leads to a deteriorating limb. For Dr. Brand, the first sign of healing for his patients is their ability to feel pain. Pain, ironically, is a gift through which the possibilities of new life and redemption can be seen.
For me, it was only after 23 years of working as a full-time worker in a Christian, voluntary, mission organisation with little to no break, that I discovered the ironic gift of pain. I found myself completely depleted of the passionate energy that had once driven me. About two years ago, I decided, perhaps, I needed to take a step back and listen to God’s wooing of my heart to learn from Him the “unforced rhythm of grace” ( Matthew 11:28-30, The Message Bible).
It all began in one of the many leadership gatherings I was facilitating in North India when the resource person highlighted Matthew 11:28–30. I found my heart welling up with grief over an unknown weight I was carrying. At a shallow level, I knew I had been tired and worn out, but at a deeper level, I knew there was something at work the Spirit was drawing me towards. However, I didn’t know what it was. Often the deepest guidance of the Spirit of God comes to us in a whisper, and it’s heard most distinctly when we are in our deepest pain or discomfort.
“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” – C.S. Lewis
This was never truer to me than when at last I made the space to step into a seven-month Sabbatical about a year after I had that experience in North India. My presumption was that I would step away from all work engagement and spend time doing all the things I enjoy doing in an attempt to emerge from the season more refreshed, rested, and ready to step back into action. In other words, I wanted to get far away from any amount of discomfort and stress. I wanted to REST!!
The invitation I received from God right at the onset of my sabbatical was not a path I had expected. I met with a counselor to debrief some painful losses of loved ones. The result of this was God saying: “You can either escape all the discomfort of life during these seven months and come out a little shallow, or you can learn to sit with God in your pain and go much deeper with Me.” I accepted the invitation. I decided to journey into the painful recesses of my life. It was there that I would find the deeper rest my soul was yearning for.
In the months following my encounter with God, in the counselor’s chamber, I stepped into the journey of facing the pain of my past and present: The loss of my mother and a good friend to a heart attack within a short gap of two years; the deep angst of living in a country I didn’t want to be in; the pain of feeling my vision for life was slipping away; suffering from a herniated disc that caused my back to give way two months into the sabbatical. And, finally, the fear-filled, shame-ridden issue concerning my birth father that I had avoided processing for 24 years, whom I was now on a journey towards meeting him for the first time.
Pain as a sign of our embodied humanity
The incredible insight Dr. Brand had on the place of pain in healing leprosy sheds further light into the wonders of our embodied humanity. Within the beauty of the human body, in what seems to be a divinely ordained structure, are the placement of nervous cells whose specific design is to sense, feel, and discern that which is out of place. Pain, in its bodily physical expression, tells us that the interaction between our cells, bloodstream, cognitive resonance is in working order. In other words, you are alive. Similarly, pain in the subtler realm of our emotions and the recesses of our inner world can become a reminder that our capacity to feel compassion, injustice, anger, love, and mercy as human beings are still in working order. Pain, in retrospect, adds a complex yet profound beauty into us being humans, created in the image of a God who is not distant or disengaged to life but feels and experiences the deepest of pain, angst, and longings together with us.
Pain as an invitation to a deeper God encounter
In today’s culture, we are invited to live a story that consistently reinforces the ideal of living a pain-free, discomfort-free, angst-free life. Just think about the invention of dating apps and social media where you can easily “swipe-away” or block someone you don’t like instead of having a painful conversation. Think of the obsession with “get rich quick” schemes, or the demand for “quick-fix” weight loss drugs and programmes, or the availability of cheap clothing so you don’t ever have to repair a lost button but simply get a new shirt (at the expense of cheap labor and work ethics violation). These are powerful cultural narratives that invite us to a life numbed from the beautiful human capacity to feel pain and angst, not unlike the nerve cells that have gone silent and can no longer tell when something has gone wrong.
And yet, pain, in its very nature, already dislodges our physical, emotional, or psychological disposition from a state of numbed tranquillity to alerted disequilibrium. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget theorizes that for humans to develop into cognitive maturity, disequilibrium (or a state of discomfort) is needed to confront old ways of thinking and to embrace a new stage of development (2). Can it be that pain in our lives is God’s way of shining a light into a journey of encounter with Him that is deeper? Is it possible that if we dare to take a dive in deep by following the trails of pain in our lives, that we would find a new way of experiencing the Kingdom of the Christ who sat with the disenfranchised, the broken, and the accused in ways that would reshape our perception of the Kingdom of God and our understanding and approach to missions?
In part two of this blog post, I will continue with my story and hopefully lead us into deeper pondering about the God who sits with us in our pain. But for now, would you consider:
- With all that is happening around the world and in your life, are there areas of discomfort, pain, or angst the Spirit may be inviting you to pay attention to?
- Where do you feel numbed – it might be a bodily numbness or at a deeper emotional level?
Pause. Take a deep breath and invite the Holy Spirit to hover over those places of your life.
I want to pray for you: Father, Son, Spirit – I thank you for not just including us into your fellowship, but that you come and sit with us wherever we are at. May we dare to trust in your goodness as we embrace your invitation to journey into the painful depth of our lives. May we find you in that space. May we find love and rest. Amen!