The Gift of Pain
Whenever I get a persistent ache or pain, I go to my doctor. When I tell him where I hurt, he diagnoses what’s going on and recommends a course of action. My pain revealed that there was trouble going on in my body—it was my signal to get some help. In that sense it was a gift. Pain is never really the problem—the problem is the problem—the pain simply alerts us to trouble spots in our bodies that need to be addressed.
Dr. Paul Brand is famous for his work among lepers. Leprosy is one of those diseases that people don’t like to talk about. This is because when it goes untreated, the leper patient experiences horrible disfigurement: noses of leprosy patients shrink away; they lose fingers and toes; then hands and feet; many go blind. In his work with lepers Dr. Brand discovered that it was not the disease of leprosy that caused patient’s flesh to deteriorate—at least not directly. Their disfigurement was actually the result of the fact that they did not feel pain. Lepers, it turns out, destroy themselves unwittingly. They step on pieces of glass and don’t feel it. They break a toe or scrape off their skin down to the bone without so much as a twinge of pain.
Dr. Brand relays a horrifying story that captures this problem. One day he arrived at one of the leprosariums in India to do a group clinic. His visit had been announced in advance and when the administrators of the camp rang the bell to get the patients attention, a large group of lepers quickly began to move to the area where the clinic was being held.
Dr. Brand noticed on young patient emerging from the crowd—he was trying to beat the rest of them to the tent. At first he was struggling across the edge of the courtyard with his crutches, holding his bandaged left leg clear of the ground. But as some other patients began to get ahead of him, he decided to race. As Dr. Brand watched, this young guy tucked his crutches under his arm and began running. He ended up near the head of the line where he stood panting, leaning on his crutches, and sporting a huge smile of triumph.
Dr. Brand knew from the odd way he had been running that something was seriously wrong. Walking toward him to investigate, he saw that his bandages were wet with blood and his left foot flopped freely from side to side. By running on an already dislocated ankle, he had put far too much force on the end of his leg bone and had ripped away the flesh under the stress. He had no clue that he was running on the end of his tibia bone! As Dr. Brand knelt beside the man, he found that small stones and twigs had jammed through the end of the bone into the marrow cavity. He had no choice but to amputate the leg just below the knee.
I fear that many of us are plagued with a kind of “spiritual” leprosy. We’ve lost our ability to feel pain and we just run at life with dislocated ankles jamming all kinds of stuff into our spiritual “marrow” (i.e. sin, unforgiveness, resentment, rejection, shame, disappointment, unresolved hurt, judgment, etc.). How do we lose our sensitivity to pain in our souls? I think our souls get “calloused.”
I play guitar. I’m not very good and I will go for months without even picking one up. However, every once in a while I get the inspiration to pick one up again. Initially, my fingertips get sore and tender and warn me not to play the guitar any more. Pain is like that; it warns. But I know if I just hang in there for a while my fingertips will become calloused and the pain and discomfort will leave. The calloused finger no longer “warns” against guitars.
Fingers are not the only things that callous. Soft, tender, open hearts become calloused as well. The tender and sensitive heart, which warns us of wrong choices and attitudes, thus, keeping us on the straight-and-narrow, will give way to compromise and coldness if we persist in doing wrong things. I know what it is like to make little compromises that deaden the heart from being able to have pain. I know what it is like to persist at those compromises until the hurt lessens, which leads to more compromise. I have experienced the disfigurement of a heart grown callous, hard and cold. I know what it is like to be doing wrong, knowing it’s wrong, yet, lacking any power to change it. It sucks.
A calloused soul is numb to the pain caused by wrong living. Consequently callous people feel fine about living badly; they’re okay with directly disobeying biblical commands; and they are casual about outright sin. Jesus spoke of the “calloused” heart (Matt. 13:15). It’s a heart that does not have the ability to feel pain. It doesn’t hurt from the wounds and scrapes of wrong choices, hence, calloused believers end up destroying themselves unwittingly. But things are not right just because you feel like they are right. You can become comfortable with things that ultimately cause your ruin!
I think most of us know what it is like to feel absolutely NO PAIN for doing sinful, stupid things, and then trying to justify them. But many of us also know the joy of getting re-connected and being forgiven! Experiencing forgiveness softens the heart. That’s why we should run to God quickly after we fail and stay in the habit of running towards him. This fosters a soft heart and keeps us away from destruction of living with a calloused one.
I love it when my heart is soft enough to hurt over my offensive thoughts, words and actions towards God. I love being able to ache for others as well—the lonely, the lost, the hurting, the hungry, the sick, the dying, the poor, the bound, the disenfranchised. I wish I lived in that place more. It’s so easy to be calloused—to isolate and insulate myself to the point where I just don’t care about any one else but me.
Being able to feel this kind of pain is a miracle—it’s the result of the breath of heaven in our hearts. Our cry needs to be, “God, please blow on my heart to make me tender and alert. Let me feel pain.”
We need to pray for the gift of pain.