The Privilege of Pain
Are you in pain today?
If not, you undoubtedly have been or soon will be. Suffering is a regular feature of our physical and spiritual journey through this fallen world. Unavoidable. As hard as we try. Or at least try to mollify it.
This even goes for Christians who are passionately serving Jesus, walking in the power of his Spirit, bringing the blessings of the Kingdom to many other lives. There are no exemptions.
This guest blog post was written by a truly faithful, fruitful Christian leader—one whom the Spirit has turned into a spiritual force in transforming the life of his city—New York City.
For the past three years, David Beidel has spearheaded Jesus Week and Saturate NY Metro in the Big Apple, helping hundreds of churches to work together to reach millions of New Yorkers with the gospel right where they live. This summer, I wrote two blog posts about all that’s been going on. You can read them here and here.
But at the same time, David is also walking through a lot of pain in his life. For him and all of us, such a season often raises this question:
So, where is Jesus in all of this?
In this blog post, David Beidel shares with us how the Lord Jesus has challenged his mind and heart as he has walked through this universal enigma we all face—the problem of pain.
I invite you to read it thoughtfully and to look for ways you see the supremacy of Jesus in what he writes.
I was moved to tears as I peered into what is believed to be the prison cell of the Apostle Paul in Philippi, Greece. It is from one of many horrific cave-carved jail cells that Paul wrote some of the most inspiring words ever penned. My mind was flooded with verse after verse that has shaped, transformed, and guided my life.
The experience also had me pondering my disdain for pain and sorrow. In a multitude of ways, I have subconsciously adopted the mantra and mindset popularly labeled “the problem of pain.”
In particular, the Western Church has embraced this attitude towards suffering. We generally consider pain to be aberrant, punitive, and problematic. Some in “prosperity gospel” circles have taken this stance to a heretical extreme, but all of us question the love, power, or even existence of God when we endure great suffering. Yet, how utterly foreign this concept would have been to Paul, who considered it an honor to bear on his body “the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17).
How Did the Saints in Scripture Suffer?
I’ve been wondering lately if I/we need to change the mantra and adopt a more biblical approach. The overarching testimony of Scripture attests to the privilege of pain rather than the problem. All of our biblical superheroes gained their status when they overcame enormous opposition and suffering—Abraham, Moses, Joseph, Daniel, David, Paul, and all of the Apostles, to name a few.
Job, the quintessential sufferer, experienced great testing because God marked him as “blameless and upright . . . there is none on earth like him” (Job 1:8). As confusing and difficult as this ancient book may be, the narrative of Job’s suffering has kept countless saints from losing their minds and their faith in times of trouble.
Jesus went far beyond the imaginable spectrum of pain. The very word “excruciating” means “from the cross.” Yet the physical horrors of the cross were nothing compared to the moment when Jesus was forsaken by the Father and accursed, when “He who knew no sin became sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The inescapable truth is that the greatest pain ever brought about the greatest good ever.
Stuck in Prison
Most of Paul’s letters were written while he was imprisoned. His words to the young Philippian church represent one of the pinnacle expressions of the New Testament: “That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). Paul was stuck in jail after jail for years. All the while, he was bursting with glorious and meaningful dreams! He longed to get to Rome, straighten out young churches, encourage the saints, preach the gospel, and plant new churches everywhere.
We can only imagine some of the conversations Paul had with God while he was imprisoned and incapable of fulfilling his noble plans. Eventually, he had to come to grips with the fact that he had very few options in jail: pray, worship, witness to prisoners and guards, and . . . write letters! He may have wondered why God would limit him so severely by keeping him stuck in prison for so long. He had no idea his letters would be pored over and treasured for centuries by billions of people, impacting all nations for all time.
What Paul did understand and often wrote about was that pain is a privilege reserved for those whom God entrusts with sorrow—those that God welcomes into a deeper and more profound fellowship with Him—in His suffering. Just as we are more likely to share our deepest sorrows with those that we trust, when God allows His beloved ones to walk through long, dark valleys, it should be understood as an honor.
“Pain is inevitable; misery is optional.”
When I was in my teens, a handsome, charismatic, and athletic youth evangelist greatly impacted my friends and me. When he came to speak at our church two years later, things had changed. He had been in a head-on collision with a tractor trailer. It was unimaginable to see him painfully hobbling up the stairs to the pulpit using two crutches to stabilize his partially paralyzed lower body. His opening statement has stayed with me for a lifetime: “Pain is inevitable; misery is optional.”
Pain, sorrow, death, addiction, betrayal, family dissolution, evil—suffering spares no one. As those who “follow the Lamb wherever He goes” (Revelation 14:4), we do, however, have divine privileges and priceless jewels available to us as we travel through deep valleys and dark caves. Sadly, the American dream has wormed its way into our Kingdom dreams and blinded us to these treasures. The ramifications of this imbalanced health, wealth, and “happy days gospel” are many:
- Christians remain in the shallows. Paul challenges us to know “the height, width, length and depth of the love of Christ.” We can’t know the excruciating depths of His passion unless we journey with Him like Simon of Cyrene. We have all experienced moments when we felt our hearts might burst from sorrow. Some medical examinations of the crucifixion have concluded that the flow of blood and water from the wounded side of Christ was indicative of a heart that burst. Imagine the weight of sorrow it took to crush and break the heart of the Almighty. Our personal pain provides a darkened and dim window into the sufferings of our Savior. It’s as if we must multiply our pain times infinity just to scratch the surface of His passion.
- The honor of pain is stolen and replaced with shame. When Western saints suffer, they often retreat and hide from God and fellow believers. Sometimes years are spent torturously replaying failures and wrestling with bitterness towards God and others. Locked in a poor theology of pain, they are unaware that Jesus weeps with them and longs to draw them nearer to his heart than they have ever dreamed. They are unaware that He is privileging them to fulfill the ultimate purpose of existence: “That I may know Him!”
- A vital path towards empathy and meaningful ministry is blockaded. There is a mission field directly linked to every personal suffering. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 lays out the path:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.
For instance, Paul, Silas, and (2000 years later) Chuck Colson all engaged in powerful prison ministries after they were imprisoned.
- The Great Commission is avoided. A sure way to encounter pain is to be on mission in our bloodied and broken world. Whether it is the mission field across the seas, across the street, or across the tracks, saints who practice avoiding pain will never practice advancing the kingdom of God.
- We will not be prepared for the challenging last days. Several prophetic passages warn us of a sharp rise in evil and persecution in the last days: “because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12). The prophet Daniel explains that the antichrist will be given authority to “wear down the saints of the Most High” (Daniel 7:25). Paul warns, “In the last days, terrible times will come” (2 Tim 3:1). If the Church continues to tolerate a pain-disdaining theology, we are setting ourselves up to be among the majority of those who fall away in the day of evil.
A Treasure in Dark Places
For many, the day of evil has already come. A terrifying rising tide of death by suicide, addiction, overdose, and mass murder has ravaged our nation. There is no way to calculate the devastating impact this is having on communities and families. Who can imagine the depression, despair, and rage this wave has left in its wake. The massive exodus of millennials from the faith and the uptick in divorce among the evangelical community has left countless Christian families bewildered and broken.
Personally, some of my children have walked away from the Lord. This has brought about years of sorrow for my wife and me. Interestingly, the Lord has consistently promised that He would “bring them home from the land of the enemy.” This begs the question: “Then why? Why would you put us through this?”
Very gently, the Lord has communicated to me that He has entrusted my wife and me with a treasure in dark places. He has entrusted us with the smallest taste of the burden that He ceaselessly bears for billions. As I lead a large evangelistic movement in my city, He has called me to share in His sufferings, passion, and longing for His beloved lost lambs.
I wonder if what the devil has meant for great harm, God will use for the greater good. What if, for instance, the millions of parents who now painfully struggle with our generation of prodigals determine not to follow the enemy’s script? What if they decide not to hide in shame, be angry with God, blame their spouse, crawl in a hole, etc.?
What if we all would follow the Holy Script and choose to:
- Know Him in this deep suffering
- Cherish His heart and weep with Him for His children and ours
- Feel His burden for the lost everywhere and nurture a holy fire to reach them
- Fulfill the flip side (in italics below) of the warning in Matthew 24:12-14
In the last days, because of the increase in wickedness, the love of most will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come (ESV, emphasis added).
This passage is confusing. It speaks of a great falling away, but then in the same breath, it promises a great gospel awakening. I believe that the saints who choose to know Him in the darkest hours, those who tend the holy flame while the love of most grows cold, will rise from the ashes to shine like the Seraphim—flames of fire—lighting the way to Jesus in the last days.
I believe God has been preparing this army for a long time. He heard every song and prayer we cried out with youthful passion.
I remember singing these words with my youth group: “I would give my final breath to know you in your death and resurrection; Lord, I want to know you more.” The Lord understood our ignorance and naïveté, but He also knew that we were asking for the treasure of treasures—to know His heart and to understand the weight of His glory. What if He has given us the privilege of pain in order to give us the gift of intimacy with Him in the depths of His sorrow for His lost and rebellious children?
Remembering the Ultimate Sacrifice
I am writing this during a very difficult time in my life. I have often said, the worst day in a preacher’s life is when he must live out the admonitions of his best sermon. I confess I am struggling to honor the very words I am writing now, yet I know they are true.
There is an image from warfare that has helped me to draw near to Jesus in seasons of sorrow. Many soldiers throughout history have made the ultimate sacrifice of diving on top of and “cradling” a grenade thrown into the midst of their comrades. Many are bruised and wounded by the explosion, but one valiant soldier is blown to bits.
Jesus cradled our eternal punishment, and he continues to cradle the hand grenades that roll into our lives. It is my prayer that I/we would cherish each opportunity He gives us to remember His excruciating and constant gift of redemption.
None of the parents of millennials were prepared for the cultural challenges and complexities of the 21st century. None of us were ready for the rapid societal dissolution we have experienced and its ramifications in our own families.
Nevertheless, we always have a choice. What if we all choose to know Him in our pain and then, with empathy and compassion, make Him known to our pain-filled world . . . “then the gospel will be proclaimed throughout the world as a testimony to all nations.”
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed . . . Therefore, let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:12-13, 19, ESV).
Can you relate to what he says? What would you say about his conclusions? Share your comments at the end of the blog post.
About the Author
Rev. David Beidel has lived in Staten Island, NY, for most of his life. In 1992, he and his beloved wife, Rebecca, started a church in their home in New Brighton, a crime-ridden community in Staten Island. Twenty-seven years later, New Hope Community Church stands as a beacon of hope among the West Brighton Housing Projects on the North Shore of Staten Island. Recently, Rev. Beidel resigned his position at New Hope and is currently serving as the New York Metro outreach strategist for Every Home for Christ. He is also the founder and president of Urban Hope NYC, which spearheads the Acts 1:8 “Saturate NYMetro” and Jesus Week (JesusWeekUSA.org) initiatives with the goal to see the knowledge of Jesus saturate the NY Metro and cities everywhere as the waters cover the sea. David has authored two books, Samaria: The Great Omission and Saturation: A Strategy for Gospel Immersion, and co-produced two worship CDs: “Saturation” and “Fragrance.” He is the designer of the SaturateNYMetro.app and the GLEW.app (God’s Love EveryWhere).
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