Can I be open with you? The Christian life hurts. I’ve often found that puzzling. After all, God has “blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1) and has “given us his very great and precious promises” (2 Peter 1) and so on. I’m a child of God, born again, strengthened by the Spirit, and headed for eternal bliss with Christ. Yet, even knowing all this, the Christian life still hurts. Sometimes a lot. And I haven’t even begun to encounter the suffering faced by so many believers. I enjoy a relatively privileged, safe life.
Of course, I enjoy times of pleasure and satisfaction as well. My wife, for instance, has been a great comfort to me. Nor is your personality necessarily mine. I’m not exactly what you’d call a “summer Christian”, full of zest and joy. I fight melancholy tendencies. A lady in our church, for example, is much more exuberant than me and always has been. Some of this is maturity, some of it’s genetic.
Yet, I think it’s fair to say that, even for mature Christians, life brings its share of pain; more pain than we’d prefer, and perhaps more than we’d anticipated. Paul speaks of the whole creation “groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (that’s a lot of pain, men) and includes “we ourselves” in that groaning (Rom. 8). Pain is threaded throughout the Bible as well, even for the godly people. This isn’t what I’d unconsciously expected. Somewhere, I got the idea that being indwelt by the Holy Spirit would be a sort of permanent emotional anesthetic.
Why does the Christian life still hurt?
1. The Christian life still hurts because sin hurts
One of the side-effects of sin is pain. Sin causes damage. It’s toxic. That’s why God hates it. And we live in a fallen, sin-soaked world. Even Jesus, a morally perfect man, “was a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering” (Is 53). Furthermore, sin still resides in believers as well, at least for the moment. So we feel its sharp pokes from within and without.
2. The Christian life still hurts because God doesn’t shield us from all suffering
Jesus himself said “in this world you will tribulation”(John 16:33) and it’s clear from all of Scripture that believers and non-believers have always suffered. God does protect us more than we realize, but He also deliberately allows us to suffer just as unbelievers do. This leads to the next point:
3. The Christian life still hurts because pain is one of God’s tools for maturing us spiritually
Passages like James 1:2-4 tell us to consider it “pure joy…whenever you face trials of many kinds”. The reason is that “the testing of your faith develops perseverance” which makes us “mature and complete.” A number of passages echo this theme. While we do benefit from the enjoyable moments, and need them, for some strange reason, suffering usually accomplishes more in our spiritual growth than pleasure. I’m not sure why – perhaps because it humbles us, showing us our weaknesses and flaws. “Whoa, I didn’t know that was down there!” we say, as see a slimy pride snake peeking out, or feel an acidic burst of bitterness trickle out which had been invisible until now.
4. The Christian life still hurts because it allows us to appreciate what Christ suffered for us.
Perhaps this is stretching the point, but our pain is a constant reminder of His pain on our behalf. Jesus, the perfect, holy Son of God, voluntarily suffered far beyond anything we’ll ever endure ourselves. Our pain reminds us of His incredible love for us.
God takes a risk in allowing His children to suffer. While some of them grow toward Him during suffering, others do walk away; getting cynical, chasing sin, and, in some cases, even abandoning their faith. Evidently, it’s a risk God feels is worth the potential cost. And it is. But it’s hard. This leads to our second question:
How can I successfully live with the pain of the Christian life?
1. I live successfully with the pain of the Christian life when I anticipate it
Jesus warned His disciples ahead of time that following Him would be rough. He wanted no illusions. If you expect the Christian life to be a happy stroll through a flower-strewn meadow, you’ll be disappointed and disillusioned. The Bible makes it clear that it’s a battle; and a painful one at that. Knowing this ahead of time helps us to be at least somewhat prepared for the suffering we will face.
2. I live successfully with the pain of the Christian life when I embrace it
I know this sounds odd. I’m not suggesting that we intentionally seek pain or that we will enjoy it. But, knowing that God allows it for His purposes, and knowing that it helps make us more like Jesus, allows us to, if not welcome the actual suffering, at least appreciate the opportunity for growth and ministry that it represents.
3. I live successfully with the pain of the Christian life when I don’t try to fully understand its particular purposes
“Why is God allowing this to happen?” isn’t necessarily a bad question. In fact, sometimes it’s helpful if there’s an obvious lesson to be learned. But the truth is, that we don’t know exactly what He’s up to, or at least not nearly all of it. God is working in multiple ways in us and through us at any one time. Often, it’s best to limit our questioning of “why” and just trust that He knows what He’s doing.
4. I live successfully with the pain of the Christian life when I learn to endure pain
The Apostle Paul tells Timothy “endure hardness with us as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:5). Paul himself suffered tremendously as an apostle. If we’re to last as faithful followers of Christ Jesus, we must develop a capacity for enduring pain without giving up or letting it deter us. Life hurts anyway, Christian or non-Christian, so why not hurt for a good reason; for God’s glory and purposes? Learn to face necessary pain without backing down.
5. I live successfully with the pain of the Christian life when I remember its brevity
Paul, called his tremendous suffering “our light and momentary troubles” (2 Cor. 4:17). And it’s true. Eighty or ninety years may feel like forever, but they’re just a finger-snap in light of eternity. One day soon, God will “wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 21:4). Putting this frame around the big picture of our lives gives us the extra perspective and endurance it will take to stay faithful.
6. I live successfully with the pain of the Christian life when I remember its payoff
I’ve implied this all along. In this life, God uses our pain to make us more beautiful in spirit. If we let Him, He’ll make us shine with Jesus’ glory. In the life to come, we’ll receive our eternal reward, a time of bliss, that, to finish Paul’s earlier verse out of 2 Corinthians 4 is: “an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” Heaven will be wonderful beyond imagining and we’ll see Jesus face to face. So hang in there.