(This is the fourth post in a series about why spiritual transformation is impeded, blocked, and short-circuited in our lives. You can read Part 1 , Part 2 , and Part 3 here.) This is the hardest post of this series to write. There are several reasons why.
1. I have been away from the blog for a week or so due to trainings, holiday travel, etc.
2. It is a topic that is difficult for me, as a pastor, to put out there.
3. It is one of my obstacles. So, with that in mind...
I used to lift weights pretty religiously. I was physically heavier at one point in my life (translated "overweight") and so my solution to the problem was to make EVERYTHING bulkier. Coupled closely with my employment at General Nutrition Centers where I had access to discounted supplements, and I had everything I needed to become a hulking beast.
Not exactly the focus you want as a Bible college student. But I digress.
The key learning of weight lifting is this - it hurts. The physiology of exercise and resistance training is that you are overextending your muscles, breaking down the muscle tissue, causing intense swelling that eventually (if amino acids and proteins are properly supplied) leads to muscle growth.
Growth comes from destruction. Pain. Soreness that inhibits your ability to lift your arms or legs for days.
One of the key obstacles to our growth in faith is found in this examination of weight training:
We miss transformation because we avoid pain. We set up our lives to prevent any kind of pain, struggle or suffering. We insulate, protect, deny, rationalize, and even theologically spin pain into something our brains don't mind thinking about.
Please hear me out, I'm not talking about seeking pain for pain's sake. I'm not talking about self-inflicting pain and calling it good because it is pain. Let's be honest here - pain is not something we have to go looking for. It comes, whether we're asking for it or not.
Our choice, then, is what do we do with it? Paul says:
We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. (Romans 5:3-5, NLT)
Notice all the developmental language - develop, strengthens - this is obviously a process that Paul is describing.
We have to learn how to rejoice when things are difficult or painful. We can't do that on our own.
The heart of transformation is learning how to rejoice - to know that God is good and all will be well - even when all evidences around us point to the contrary. You only learn how to do something by training - trying, failing, succeeding and gaining new understandings.
To build something, you have to tear something down. To gain joy in trials, joy must become threatened.
That isn't our typical way of doing things, especially in our life of spiritual transformation:
We insulate ourselves from spiritual disciplines, the weight-training of the spiritual life, because it hurts to get up early or it hurts to fast or it's too hard to find time for solitude and silence.
We insulate ourselves from compassion, literally "suffering with" because it hurts to be with those who are hurting.
We insulate ourselves from spiritual direction and guidance, because it hurts to face the inner realities we've plastered over like so many holes in drywall.
We insulate ourselves with theology - saying we're "too blessed to be stressed" and in so doing we never encounter our pain head-on and know it fully so that we find what is good within it.
Before this turns into a holy honey-do list, remember that everything on this list is geared toward a vision - the vision that being like Jesus in my life is better than following my own direction. How did Jesus handle pain?
Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:35-36, NIV)
Rejoicing doesn't mean glossing over - it means choosing joy in spite of it all. He was aware of the cost, that's what caused Him to ask if there was another way. Jesus had a vision, that following the will of His Father and trusting in His protection was better than avoiding the pain of the cross.
Think on that a minute. The cross was preferable because of the vision of God and the trust Jesus had in His Father's care.
I'm not sure I'm there, friends. I would love to be but frankly a day without pain is a huge win for me. I don't think the lack of pain is wrong, but honestly how many times am I saying "no" to things because they may be difficult and require me to growth through demolition, rather than promotion?
How do we overcome this obstacle? Honestly, how do I overcome this obstacle? Here are two suggestions to begin:
1. Call pain what it is - pain. Pain is not the intention for our lives, it is often the result of fallen wills and decisions colliding, and frankly it sucks. And it must be called what it is or else we can rationalize ourselves out of a real growth moment.
2. Know what God does with pain. Paul says that "And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them." (Romans 8:28, NLT). The context of this passage is the prayers of the groaning, the wordlessness of pain and suffering. God works everything - that means pain too - together for good.
What role has pain and difficulty played in your growth? Where has God revealed Himself in suffering to you?