Life is full of incredibly difficult circumstances. Even in the lives of the redeemed, one does not have to look far to find struggle and pain. As the earth groans for renewal, so our hearts groan for an eternity with God that is free from heartache. And the Spirit intercedes for us in groans when our pain is so acute that we cannot find words to speak to our God. The Spirit gets into it with us, feels what we feel, and experiences our pain thoroughly enough to explain it to God. Jesus came and died a horrifically painful death. God has had his heart broken by humanity countless times. The Father, Son, and Spirit are no strangers to pain. God has not placed us on this earth, exposed us to pain, and then watched us suffer without care or intervention. But the agony we face on this earth, the trials and heartbreaks, they are doing something. The worst days of our lives are not lost, for they are shaping us into the image of God.
I am standing right now in the midst of pain – the life-changing, heart-breaking, trying to make it through each day kind of pain. And I’m reminded that some of the sweetest communion one has with God is when getting to the end of oneself. When your mental, emotional, and physical capabilities have reached their very limits, reliance on God is no longer a lofty concept – it is the air you breathe. I am reminded of the beautiful brown faces of the people of Mexico in our medical clinics. They didn’t have access to basic healthcare, but they smiled, and their eyes showed real joy. They sang and prayed and had genuine communion with God. And I wonder how much communion we miss because of our American comforts. I am reminded of September 11, 2001, when I gathered in a fairly conservative, non-charismatic Church of Christ and instead of sitting in pews we were lying with our faces down on the floor pleading with God. I’m reminded of watching grandparents struggle through the last days and hours of their lives and singing hymns over them as they clung to God in their pain and walked toward his embrace. I’m reminded of burying precious friends in their 30s and watching their families walk through the pain with God holding them up in every way. I’m reminded that some of the most genuine, godly people I have ever known have endured circumstances that no one would ever want to encounter. Just as exercise is difficult but strengthens the body, heartache is brutal but strengthens the soul. It is a great dichotomy. We spend our lives trying to avoid pain, but ultimately it brings us to the heart of God and shapes us into more beautiful versions of ourselves – if we submit it to him.
There are plenty of bitter people in the world who have grabbed on to their pain and allowed it to define them. But if we have the wisdom to let it RE-fine us instead of DE-fine us it can become a beautiful part of the fabric of our souls. No one enjoys the hardest days of life, and sometimes watching those we love having to endure them is almost more painful than experiencing them ourselves. But as we stand in these moments, in the in-between, in the temporary, in the earthly bodies with eternal souls, we can hold tightly to each other. In the embrace of a friend or the prayers of a mentor we can feel wrapped in the arms of God. In the words of encouragement or the kindness of someone sitting with us in silence, we can feel the heart of Jesus. And when we look outside of ourselves and decide to minister to someone else who is hurting we will find the most healing. Because that is how God designed our hearts. We heal ourselves when we heal others – connection fuels our souls. And if God never allowed us the darkness of pain, we would never experience the beautiful light of healing. So, make no mistake, pain will come. It may come in a constant and nagging form or in acute and intense fashion, but what we choose to do with it will determine our future. We can resent it and try to fight it, or we can submit to it and trust God for the healing. And if we allow him to refine us, we will shine like diamonds to a hurting world.