Nothing pierces the human heart like beauty and affliction~~Simone Weil
I consider myself a life-long learner. If there is one thing I do exceptionally well it is that I gather information. I have wild and random quotes floating in my brain like dust motes on a beam of light splashing through a window. I know trivia that I, for the life of me, can’t figure out why I know. For instance I know that George C. Scott starred in a movie called The Day of the Dolphin. I have never seen the movie and don’t know what it is about. I am not sure I have ever lost at the board game Trivial Pursuit.
I have answers to questions no one is asking.
I know where quotes are in a book. I remember that it was in the third paragraph from the bottom on the right side of the book about a third of the way through the volume—chapter 5—and sure enough, the quote is right there.
I worked for a pastor who would shout out from his office, “Where is that story about Jepthah and the strange sacrifice?” I would shout back, “Judges 11.” He would say, “How do you know that?” I don’t know.
I remember my phone number when I was a kid: 2669 and that of my best friend, Tim: 2389.
If you were to talk to me you might ask me a question and I won’t know the answer, so don’t think I am saying this because I am smart. I have never been accused of being smart. A smart alec, maybe. My wife says I have more worthless information in my head than anyone she knows. I had a friend tell me one time, “Joe, you read so much to cover for the fact that you don’t know anything.” Exactly.
My brother told me one time, “You only know what you read.” Exactly.
And yet here is something that I know and I didn’t read it in a book.
Pain is the best and only way some people learn anything of deep soul-value.
Abraham learned something about faith when God commanded him to sacrifice Isaac. Isaac learned something about trust on the three day walk up Moriah. Jacob learned about the transcendence of God at a river called Jabok, and he limped the rest of his life because of it. David learned about forgiveness through the sin of adultery. John the Baptist learned about humility by being thrown into prison. Paul learned about the sufficiency of God’s grace through a thorn in his flesh.
And if it is true of those bright lights in the Christian firmament, it is certainly true for a dimwit like me. I learn best through the pain of my life. Don’t get into a pasture of angry rams, they will charge a five-year-old boy. Don’t dangle your leg in front of an open flame gas stove with flammable flannel pajamas, your leg will catch on fire. Don’t swing out on a tailgate chain standing on the back bumper of a pickup going thirty five miles an hour, the chain will break and you will go sprawling and spinning like a top on a dirt road. Don’t date the school bully’s girlfriend, he will come after you. Don’t fail to show up for a court date even if it is a traffic violation, they will issue a bench warrant for your arrest.
Don’t go cross-country skiing wearing cotton socks, you will get frost bite and lose the end of your toe. Don’t cheat on a test, you will get caught and tossed out of class. Don’t quit making payments, they will come and repossess your truck.
Most of those lessons are really silly.
But I can tell you the deepest lessons I have ever learned have come on the business end of pain.
C.S. Lewis said, “Pain removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.”
I learned how to live one day at a time only after I nearly lost my family due to sinful choices. I learned that the path to intimacy is through humility and service to my wife only after almost losing the love of my life. I learned that I am a favored son of the living God and that is all I need for an identity, only after I lost my reputation in this world. I learned to be content in whatever state I’m in, only after I lost my career.
Pain has taught me my deepest and best lessons about what it means to be a man.
And yet—I avoid it these days at all costs. I eat ibuprofen like they are candy. I worship idols of comfort as if there were no God in heaven. I avoid conflict because I want to be liked. I watch reality T.V. so that I won’t have to live in reality.
So, God comes along and splashes a little pain in my life. Like relational failures. Like professional set-backs. Like the creaks and groans of old age. Like a son who doesn’t support or enjoy the very thing I have spent my life trying to build. Like breaking my leg doing the thing I love doing more than just about anything—backpacking.
If you are feeling pain in your life right now, would you hear a word from a veteran pain-warrior? Listen to the still small voice of the Holy Spirit and see if there might be a lesson in your pain. The lesson might be as simple as don’t text while you drive. Or it might be as deep as don’t use your vocation to validate your existence. But you won’t know if you don’t listen.
So, Pain and I wrestle. Sometimes it wins and I learn. Sometimes I win and medicate. But when I medicate—I always only delay the pain and the lesson I need to learn. How arrogant of me to think that I can learn what it means to follow Jesus and not experience deep pain. Jesus never avoided pain. In fact, here is a little known verse about Jesus,
“Though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered.” Hebrews 5:8
Bet you didn’t know that.