I’m pleased to publish this guest contribution from Rachel Joy Watson.
When I was eighteen and in the hospital with a serious bone infection, the doctor told me “the pain you’ve experienced is on par with the pain of giving birth.” I remembering feeling kind of proud of that. Brave. I felt a similar rush of bravery this past year, having survived the trauma of heartbreak. But in the past few months, that bravery has thawed and melted away. I see the potential for pain everywhere.
Of all the idols that have sprung up in my life since my divorce, one of the hardest to exterminate is the idol of no-pain. Because I now know the excruciating suffering the Christian life can hold, I sometimes fear the future. And when I do, I let that fear confuse my theology, viewing blessings as false-security, and good days as a tease. I dwell on future pain instead of present hope and brace myself for the next storm.
Examining the lengths we’ll go to get something can reveal our idols. I also find mine hidden behind the things I intentionally avoid. One of the ways I worship the idea of a painless future is by shrinking back from people. Sacrificing deep relationships reveals a misplaced fear; a fear of man and of suffering instead of a fear of God.
People and Pain Potential
The possibilities for pain are endless when in relationship with others. If we want to avoid frustration, burdens and heartbreak we should stay far away from people. We do this when we leave church before anyone can grab us for lunch, when we let our phone go to voicemail and refuse to allow conversations to get too deep. Allowing ourselves to be known and loved by others is an act of faith. Often times surface level interaction seems safer. Tim Keller notes that “to be known and not loved is our greatest fear.”
Shallow friendships are good insurance against the sting of accountability. If we don’t let people in—let them take us out to coffee, ask us questions, and observe sinful habits in our lives—they won’t know when to bring the piercing sword of God’s Word to bear in our lives. As long as we keep them from going behind the curtain, we can remain relatively undisturbed by confrontation.
And while this may sound like bullet-dodging, some of the wounds we escape are faithful wounds from friends (Prov. 27:6); the ones that hurt in the moment but produce healing and restoration of faith. When we protect ourselves from this kind of pain by keeping people at arm’s-length, we are essentially saying that we’d prefer to stagnate than experience any ripples. Matt Moore writes about the time he was almost kicked out of his church for persistent, immoral behavior. Because he was immersed in his local Body, in a Bible study, and continued to spend one-on-one time with his pastor, he was in a place where others were able to look into his life and love him by calling him out. About these loving wounds he writes: “Propelled by both a fresh desire for God and a great fear of God, I turned from my sins and flung myself onto the mercies of Jesus.”
But we don’t just fear the pain of conviction and accountability, we fear the way our love for others can be abused and let down. We fear losing those we love. We fear watching them experience pain. In his book, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, and irredeemable.
As a teacher, the decision to love my students has wrung out my heart time and time again. I’ve watched so many of them walk away after graduation only to pursue all the pleasures they said were worthless in comparison to Christ. I’ve watched them hurt themselves and others. We have all walked with friends through abuse, seen couples grieve the loss of children, and watched brothers and sisters who we thought were running faithfully alongside us drop out of the Christian race. The choice to enter the trust-fall that is marriage led to shattered hearts as I watched my husband pull away from the faith and me. I did not witness this from a place of safety, but beside him in the bleeding mess of it. Sometimes hiding our love away, what Lewis warns us against, feels like the only way to avoid a broken heart.
But remaining unbreakable isn’t what the Christian life is about. When people hurt Jesus, he didn’t pull away. He knew that his life on earth would include suffering. He felt every bit of it, from the anguish of losing his dear friend Lazarus (Jn. 11:35) to the betrayal of one of his own disciples, Judas. Still, he drew close. One of the most poignant examples of this is seen on the Mount of Olives. Judas leads an angry mob to where Jesus is praying and Peter, determined to defend Jesus, draws his sword and cuts off the ear of Malchus, the high priest’s servant. Jesus immediately reprimands Peter and draws close to Malchus, a man who – just moments later – would take part in his murder. He draws close enough to touch his wound and heal him (Luke 22:49-51). Instead of allowing the fear of pain to keep him from loving people, Jesus continually approached the hurting, even those he knew would hurt him.
The Reward for Endurance
Faith for the Christian includes active love for others—for our family, neighbors, and even our enemies. But this act of obedience feels heavy to those of us who have been let down and broken. What a relief to read in Hebrews that God recognizes that we “have need of endurance” (Heb. 10:36). And an even greater relief to know that we do not endure in our own strength. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “Jesus asks nothing of us without giving us the strength to perform it.” Sweeter still is the knowledge that this endurance has purpose: “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.” (Heb. 10:36). The pain we have experienced, are experiencing and will experience in the future is not pointless. “For he who promised is faithful” and we will “be richly rewarded” when Christ appears “a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” (Heb. 9:28, 10:23-35).
Tackling Our Fear
I could list all the benefits of being in relationship with others, but that isn’t the solution to my idol of no-pain. My fears must be replaced with faith. I have to remind myself that the most fearful thing is not people or the pain they bring, but God the “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:17) who shields me under His wings (Ps. 91:4). His wrath toward me has been pacified and His love for me has been kindled through Christ. There is nothing safer than being “from God” who is “greater than he who is in the world.” (1 Jon. 4:4) “To be fully known and truly loved” Keller says, “is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.” When I love others, I love from a place of safety. My heart may still be battered, and there is surely more pain to come, but I am beloved of God.
Rachel Watson is a theology student at The University of St. Andrews, a writer and a high school English teacher whose goal in the classroom is to show her students how to think, build discernment, and enjoy great literature. She has written for RELEVANT, The Gospel Coalition and The Englewood Review. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.