Tonight I find myself pondering the lessons I’ve learned about pain. I’ve worked as a preschool teacher for about a year now, and it daily reminds me of one of the things I’ve always loved most about being with kids: they constantly exhibit many truths of what it is like being a child of God and of what I am like living in a fallen world. I often find myself frustrated with the way a child is acting, only to catch my breath and realize that in God’s eyes that’s me! I’m a child of God, who very often acts like a child!
The children I work with come from very differing backgrounds. Some of them come from very loving, stable homes that remind me of the one in which I grew up. A few have come through sad, unspeakable things, and more than a few live in homes where for many reasons they are just not given all the things a child should be given to grow up healthy and well-adjusted. In spite of all the differences, I’ve seen all of the kids in my care cry at one time or another.
The most useless thing to say to a crying child is, “Stop crying,” or “You don’t have a good reason to cry.” You see, in the moment, through that child’s eyes, their pain is very real. Few very young children cry to manipulate. Instead, they hurt. They hurt because they want something and can’t get it. They hurt because they miss their mommies. They hurt because they’re hungry, or tired, or they just got bit or hit by another child. I’ve learned it doesn’t do any good to compare their pain, except to point out that pain hurts others just as it does us. Why do we think it is so different for adults?
One of the critical lessons I’ve learned about pain is that you can’t compare your pain to that of others. In my kids, some have more tender senses, some are hurt more violently, some have acquired more incidences or intensity of injury which have compounded over time, making them more sensitive to successive ones. Even in adults these things are true. So I don’t compare my pain to others’, nor do I let others dismiss their pain in comparison to mine or minimize mine in comparison to theirs.
Another thing I’ve learned about pain is that God is sovereign over all of it. This means that He who has designed my frame – my strengths and weaknesses, my sensitivity, my circumstances, etc. – also allows into my life those things that cause me pain (as in Luke 22:31-32 or in the book of Job). Indeed sometimes He intentionally brings painful circumstances into my life to bring about repentance, humble me, build character, or make me more useful in my work for His kingdom, and to remind me once more how much I need Him (for example the captivity of Israel and Judah in 2 Kings, the misfortunes of Joseph in Genesis, or the refusal to remove Paul’s thorn in 2 Corinthians 12. See also Deut. 32:39.). However He never, never causes or allows pain because He enjoys seeing me hurt (Ez. 33:10-11. John 11, and Luke 13;34). My control over my kids’ lives is minimal compared to God’s control over mine, however there have been times that I have let my kids fall, even though I could have stopped it, because I knew they would only learn a very important lesson from the fall. Telling them the lesson wasn’t enough. They had to experience it. I never enjoyed seeing them hurt, and I was close enough to be available to help them figure out what had happened, how to recover, and how to not let it happen again. Similarly, God uses both the pain He inflicts and the pain He allows to mold our character, to teach us, and to benefit us in ways we often don’t see at the time.
Yet another lesson I’ve learned about pain is that it isn’t always visible. Physical pain can cause a limp or it can cause extreme digestive suffering. One you see and one you only notice if you watch the suffering person closely or if they tell you. Just because one is observed doesn’t mean it causes a greater degree of pain. People have different thresholds to pain as well, so something that barely affects me might debilitate my friend. And of course, pain comes in all kinds of forms. One of my children was born under life threatening circumstances that resulted in an unexpected C-section. The physical and emotional recovery was lengthy and painful, but it didn’t disable me the way anxiety and depression did after my dad died, leaving me a single mom with no local family, no job, and the trauma of finding her daddy dead.
I have also learned that I don’t often get to choose my pain. I once heard a speaker say very plainly that we don’t get to choose our pain or our platform, only our response to it. While I may not have a choice in how life and circumstances hurt me, I can choose what I will do in response. Will I thank God for all the ways I see Him take care of me, or grumble and complain? Will I lay my confusion over what is missing in my life before Him, or hold on to it, allowing it to become a seed of bitterness? Will I use my struggle to help someone else through theirs, or will I cling to it and nurse the hurt, becoming angry, bitter, and sadder?
While all of these lessons apply to physical pain, they apply to emotional and spiritual pain as well. Depression affects not only the mind (emotions and thoughts), but the spirit and body as well. I have found that remembering these things helps me in being tender to someone whose depression is not visible to me, but who suffers greatly when they are alone and persecuted by the voices in their head which perpetuate their emotional battle. These lessons have been hard-learned as I’ve wrestled with lots of questions and struggles myself, but they also have made me more tender to those around me who want someone who will just listen and understand what they deal with constantly.