Conversatio Divina

Part 9 of 18

A Shift Of Perspective

How Pain Can Aid Our Transformation

Don Simpson

One of the hospitals in our town used to rent a nearby billboard to promote its various specialties and its emergency room. One day a new ad appeared that pictured three huge elephants. The billboard read: “If it feels like they’re standing on your chest, see us now!”

A week after I turned fifty years old, I encountered those elephants. I had a heart attack. At the emergency room, I was quickly hooked up to an IV, an EKG machine, and an oxygen mask. The cardiac nurse asked what my pain level was. “Nine!” I gasped.

Amid much commotion I looked over my oxygen mask at faces glancing back and forth and calling out things, but I was conscious of another, inner conversation. I thought, Is this where I will die—in this pale green room? Does the ER staff do all they can for you here and suddenly the monitor flatlines and then they walk down the hall tired and defeated as they do on TV?

I wondered, Where is the presence of God? Does he inhabit a place like this, or does he only inhabit church buildings? How earnest has my relationship with God been lately? Is God angry with me? Is he punishing me? Do I love God? Is there even a God? Of course, my Christian faith told me a different story, but when it came right down to it, I was an atheist.

The EKG specialist broke my troubled reverie. “You’ve got to remain still,” he called out as he tried to get a good reading on his machine. My breathing was too hard; I was frightened and in greater pain than I imagined even existed. Finally, a young, bearded doctor appeared in my view and bent down close to my face. He quietly said two or three sentences, but in the midst of all the noise, I heard only these words: “The Lord is with you.”

Immediately, my eyes came to focus on his eyes and locked there for a brief moment that seemed like an eternity. I was totally astonished—and strangely set at ease. Here we were in this pale green room with a lot of commotion and I was in the darkest depths of atheism—and suddenly God showed up! “Thank you,” I said, and then the doctor went out of my view.

01.  Pain as a Mirror

Pain has an uncanny way of telling us who we are, of holding up a mirror to show us our deepest fears, our doubts, our failures of will—even our atheism. But it also shows us our courage, love, endurance, and trust in God. Depending on its severity and duration, pain will change our outlook and our behavior—for better or for worse.

In a seminal essay on pain that appeared in Germany in 1934, one year after Adolf Hitler rose to power, WWI veteran Ernst Junger writes, “Pain is one of the keys to unlock man’s innermost being. . . . Tell me your relation to pain, and I will tell you who you are! . . . Pain as a measure of man is unalterable, but what can be altered is the way he confronts it.” Ernst Junger, On Pain, David Durst, trans. (New York: Telos Press, 2008), 1.

How we deal with our pain can decide whether we are diminished by it or transformed by it. From a Christian perspective, a positive response involves allowing pain to reshape our will by daily directing our intentionality more lovingly and trustingly toward God. This does not make sense to our reason. But as the central symbol of our faith, the brutally painful cross of Christ tells us that pain may be one important element in our spiritual formation. This is a great mystery, and it is a mystery in which we are called to participate with all our heart.

If we are open and if we train ourselves to look for it, pain offers us a gift. In pain, there is a profound opportunity for our transformation as persons. Though we would be perverse if we were purposely to seek out pain, if when it comes we were to allow it to have a place in our lives, we would benefit. As Canadian author Margaret Clarkson writes, “Pain in itself is a sterile thing, but, like the plow that bites deep into the winter-bound earth releasing life-giving nutrients and allowing sun and air and rain to penetrate, pain can prepare the way for fruitfulness.” Clarkson, Margaret. Grace Grows Best in Winter (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1984), 194.

When speaking of pain, we should acknowledge that each person’s experience of pain is real and unique, and there is no hierarchy of suffering. As Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist, author, and WWII Auschwitz prisoner writes, “Suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the ‘size’ of human suffering is absolutely relative.” Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Washington Square Press, 1988, 64.

Also relative are the different kinds of pain. Whether physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual, every pain can be as traumatic as another, and we often experience a combination of more than one kind. They tend to gang up on us.

02.  To Listen with All Our Heart

One of the Jews who had to confront the pain of Hitler’s Third Reich was Etty Hillesum, a young woman who grew up in Holland. Just before she was sent to her death at Auschwitz in 1943, Etty wrote: “You have made me so rich, oh God, please let me share Your beauty with open hands. My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with You, oh God, one great dialogue. Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on Your earth, my eyes raised upward toward Your heaven, tears sometimes run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude. At night, too, when I lie in my bed and rest in You, oh God, tears of gratitude run down my face, and that is my prayer. . . . Things come and go in a deeper rhythm, and people must be taught to listen; it is the most important thing we have to learn in this life. Hillesum, Etty. An Interrupted Life. New York: Henry Holt, 1996, 332.

Crucial to our spiritual formation is the ability to listen—to God, to other people, and to our own hearts. Etty Hillesum is a witness to the truth that pain can teach us how to listen. It’s possible that without the pain she experienced as a prisoner awaiting deportation and death, Etty’s dialogue with God would not have become so intense. Under duress—whatever the nature of our pain—we listen with a clarity only God can give.

But what if our pain is less dramatic than Etty’s, more on the order of a silent, daily trial? Can this kind of pain teach us? After my heart attack, I began seeking a fresh perspective in my faith while dealing with the chronic pain and physical diminishment of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a disease I contracted at age thirty-seven. One summer I had the opportunity to attend a two-week seminar at Oxford University. I was out walking one afternoon when a sudden rain began. I ducked into a nearby doorway, which led to an ancient church called St. Peter’s in the East. The stone building was long ago turned into a library.

My eyes fell upon a copy of the Revised English Bible. Unfamiliar with this British translation, I pulled the book down and noticed there was a small piece of paper tucked into the Bible at Mark 13. Turning to that place, I was suddenly struck by the palpable vibrancy of the words at the end of the chapter: “And what I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Keep awake!’” (Mark 13:37, REBScripture quotations marked (REB) are from the Revised English Bible © Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press,1989. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.)

Instantly, Jesus’s words “Keep awake!” prompted what the late James E. Loder of Princeton Seminary called a “convictional insight felt with intuitive force.”See James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, 1989). Dr. Loder’s expression identifies those transforming moments we all have in which an intense inner search suddenly resolves by a flash of insight, launching us forth with new conviction and a completely changed view of reality. For me, this was a moment in which many years of inner tension and questing since contracting RA were resolved in a heartbeat.

Was my pain gone? No, it was still there. But something deeper happened. I saw this moment as a call from God to fight the temptation to give in to a depressive mood and the discouragement associated with chronic pain—and to practice listening awareness and contemplative prayer. It turned out that my “chance” discovery of the Mark 13 passage was the most important truth I took home from my two weeks in England. My perspective shifted.

Suffering discloses an invitation to prayer, says theologian Martin Laird,

And we are deepened more than derailed by this very trial: Trial, temptation, and struggle are the making of the contemplative. Take away these and you take away tremendous opportunity for growth, depth, and wisdom. . . . With some perseverance in our practice, we will begin to get a sense of the opportunity for deepening that is latent in our struggles.Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2006), 122–25.

Of course, we should also pray earnestly for healing or for resolution to our struggle, whatever it may be. Where called for, we should seek medical, psychological, and spiritual counsel. We see in the ministry of Jesus that wholeness is a quality of God’s kingdom. He went around healing all who sought health in earnest. But our healing may also come in the form of our deeper spiritual formation as persons.

03.  The Source of Character

A classic example of one who experienced a “convictional insight” and who listened to what Etty Hillesum calls the “deeper rhythm” of God is the apostle Paul. On one of his travels, Paul has a life-changing experience that can help us see how transformation through pain works. He writes to the Corinthians:

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us” (2 Corinthians 1:8–10, NIVAll Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™).

The Greek word for the “troubles” Paul experienced means to be squeezed like a grape. When people crushed grapes in winemaking, they used the word thlipsis—pressure or pressing together. Metaphorically, the word is also used to mean affliction, oppression, tribulation, distress. Paul says that his experience in Asia did not simply stretch his and his companions’ endurance, but that it actually took them beyond their ability to endure. They despaired of life itself.

But Paul saw an ultimate purpose in his suffering: he and his companions learned greater trust in God. A deepening of childlike trust in God is one of the greatest truths we can learn through pain. In Romans 5, Paul says, “We also glory in our sufferings [thlipsis], because we know that suffering [thlipsis] produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3–5, NIV).

This squeezing causes us to seek God more desperately—to cry out to him, even when we think we don’t believe in him. We are backed into an impossible corner, and we acquire a focus of the heart we didn’t know we had. This is the trust in God Paul discovered when under great pressure in the province of Asia. Pain can awaken this deepened intentionality, especially in our move toward God and other people in trust and love. We begin to understand what others are going through in their own pilgrimage of pain.

04.  Choosing to Trust

Inevitably, as we struggle to know how to confront our pain, suffering throws us into a search for meaning. This search, if it is successful, will change our perspective. For Viktor Frankl, this crucial choice of perspective was vividly reflected in the attitudes of his fellow prisoners. He noticed two kinds of responses to suffering: “Most men in a concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of these experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.”Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 72.

Here is the important choice pain presents to us: we can either collapse into an inwardly-focused passivity—or we can turn the pain into an outwardly focused challenge. Frankl’s strategy to overcome the daily terror and anguish of the camp was twofold: first, day to day he concerned himself with caring for and encouraging other prisoners; second, he used fantasy: he imagined himself after the war in a lecture hall speaking to students about his experience at Auschwitz. These compassionate and imaginative efforts drew him out of his daily fear, pain, and grief. And remarkably, his fantasy eventually came to be real.

The prophet Hosea records God’s response to the people of Israel who failed this crucial test: “They do not cry out to me from their hearts but wail on their beds” (Hosea 7:14, NIV). Both possibilities Hosea mentions voice something—in one, the people wailed as they lay on their beds of pain; in the other, God hoped to see a vigorous self-summoning, an arising (at least in spirit) from the bed of pain and a sincere crying out to God from the heart. Two possibilities: to wail pitifully or to cry from the heart.

05.  The Mirror of God

But this self-summoning is not possible in our own strength. Pain has a way of scattering our focus—it beats us up and robs us and leaves us half dead by the side of the road. Over time, chronic pain can cause intense inner conflict and even an underlying terror of God. In spite of what we know intellectually, in our hearts we may feel we are being punished. When our body is in pain, a subtle voice can whisper that God hates us and has abandoned us. That is when our faith is most severely tested. But if we consciously and increasingly seek to dwell in the unconditional love of God, we will begin to feel the poured-out oil and wine of the Good Samaritan’s mercy, and we will know the integrating bonds of his grace.

Margaret Clarkson writes: “If there is one thing that pain and sorrow will do for a Christian, it is to enlarge [his or her] capacity for God.”Clarkson, Grace Grows Best in Winter, 194. Our hearts are deepened and widened by the many tearful, fretful, and sorrowful hours in which we seek God’s loving mercy, consolation, healing, and wholeness.

But neither our pain nor our seeking is ever in vain. Both always connect us with God, whether we are able to realize it or not. Jesuit author William Barry says that God is constantly “trying to draw us into an awareness, a consciousness of the reality of who we are in God’s sight.”William Barry, Finding God in All Things (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1991), 14. And who we are, says the apostle Paul, is a mirror of God’s glory: “And all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory; this is the working of the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18, NJBScripture quotations marked (REB) are from the Revised English Bible © Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press,1989. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.).

This mirror of God—our face unveiled and reflecting God’s glory—offers an entirely different view from Ernst Junger’s harsh and glaring mirror of pain. Instead, the story of our suffering shines in a thousand different facets of the love of God. And this is the great gift in our pain. As the apostle James says, our perseverance is “finish[ing] its work,” and our hearts are acquiring an intentionality that moves us outward toward other people who need to see and hear and receive the boundless love of God flowing through us (James 1:4, NIV).


Don Simpson is a certified spiritual director in Colorado Springs and is senior editor at NavPress. He is coauthor with Dallas Willard of Revolution of Character (NavPress, 2005). He also participated in launching Discipleship Journal and The Small Group Letter, and was cofounder of Helmers & Howard, Publishers.