Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Pain

I've got a wound that doesn't heal, burning out again
Burning out again
I'm not sure which of me is real, I'm alone again
Burning out again
My hope runs underneath it all the day that I'll be home

It won't be long, I belong somewhere past this setting sun
Finally free, finally strong, somewhere back where I belong

They're selling shares of me again, I'm not buying it
I'm not buying it
My wound goes deeper than the skin, There's no hiding it
So I'm not trying it
My hope runs underneath it all the day that I'll be home

It won't be long, I belong somewhere past this setting sun
Finally free, finally strong, somewhere back where I belong

Let the weak say I am strong, and it won't be long
Let the right say I was wrong, and it won't be long
Let us find where we belong, beyond this setting sun
Beyond this setting sun

-Switchfoot, "The Setting Sun"


Pain is an interesting thing. On a primal level it's an instinct that helps us to survive - placing your hand on a hot stove hurts for a good reason. But even on a purely physical level, pain isn't such a simple phenomenon. A weightlifter pushes through the pain of taxing his muscles for the long-term gain of building up those muscles. Of course, if the pain is coming from the joint instead of the muscle, that same act of persistence may lead to injury instead.

The same complexity holds true of emotional pain. The pain of rejection can teach us to avoid inappropriate behavior or to exercise better discernment in our relationships. But pain can also result from doing the right thing, whether because it forces us to face the consequences of a past mistake or because it evokes a negative reaction from someone whose opinion we care about. Life is just never as simple as the bullet points from a Sunday morning sermon can make it seem.

Instinct tells us to avoid pain at any cost. But where does that leave us when the only way forward is through that pain (or the risk of pain) we desperately don't want to face? Sooner or later, honesty leads to pain. In an imperfect world, there's simply no way to avoid that inevitability. (And yes, there are times when blunt honesty is the greater of two evils, but that's a topic for some other discussion.)

So how do we tell the difference? Just because we think we're doing the right thing doesn't necessarily mean that the pain our action causes us should be taken as validation. And there's no concrete formula, no magical combination of Bible verses, that we can employ to evaluate every possible course of action in every possible situation with perfect accuracy. Certainly we can (and should) turn to God for guidance, but even that can come back to us garbled once it's made its way through all the noise and emotion and human error that cloud our finite minds.

So in the end, every action that we take is a leap of faith - we risk not only the consequences of our own imperfect choices, but the possibility that we will become the victims of someone else's errors. But what's the alternative? Even inaction is, ultimately, an action with its own set of consequences, and attempting to avoid pain through the action of inaction can cause us even more pain in the long run.

Fear is a powerful motivator, and yet giving in to our fear of pain leads to pain. In the end, pain is unavoidable. How, then, do we deal with it? Again, instinct works against us. My first inclination is always to push the pain aside, to fill my mind instead with whatever distraction is closest at hand so that I can focus on anything else at all. But doing so comes with a high cost; not only does my pain not go away, but it slowly and quietly grows in that dark place I consigned it to until it begins to poison my thoughts and actions to the point that I begin inflicting my pain on those around me.

It's only when I set aside my distractions and let my pain come to the surface that I can finally be free of it. Only after I've experienced its crushing weight and allowed the tears to flow freely does it begin to go away. And sometimes grieving is a lengthy process of letting that pain overwhelm me again and again, until it finally begins to lose its potency. The only path to the healing I so desperately need takes me straight through the depths of my pain.

Why, then, isn't the church a safer place for those that are hurting (i.e. every last person on the face of the planet)? Where did we get the idea that accepting Jesus into our hearts was supposed to make our lives shiny and happy and perfect? When did church become a place where we feel the need to paste a fake smile on our face so that nobody will catch a glimpse of the shambles that lie just underneath the surface?

Above all else, church should be a safe haven, the one place this side of the setting sun where we know that we'll be loved and accepted exactly as we are - the one place where we can set aside our fears and be completely honest about our pain. Not that any church can completely live up to that ideal in an imperfect world, but it seems like far too few churches even try to be such a place.

The truth sets us free. Truth is far more than a list of dry, black-and-white propositions. Truth is also personal honesty - honesty about who we are in the deepest, darkest corners of our souls. It's only when we bring our wounds and fears and dark thoughts into the light that we can find healing, and with it the freedom that we long for.

Not that I do the greatest job of living up to what I advocate. But at the end of the day, when I've let my buried pain grow until life becomes intolerable enough that I'm ready to take the risk of being honest, I can come back and face my pain, and by doing the right thing find freedom once again.

3 comments:

rob said...

beautiful. thank you eugene.

Jeanine Byers said...

That is wonderfully well-written and so true!

Thanks for sharing it!

disputed mutability said...

Thanks for this post. So true and so encouraging.

I'd recommend Philip Yancey's and Dr. Paul Brand's The Gift of Pain if you haven't already read it. It deals more specifically with physical pain (Brand was a doctor who specialized in treating lepers), but as you point out, there are a lot of parallels between physical pain and the other kinds.