Conversatio Divina

Sometimes Grace Hurts

Ashley Hall Roberts

Years ago, I heard a story. It went like this:

A young girl did something she knew she was not supposed to do and feared the punishment. Much to her surprise, when she confessed what she had done, she was not punished. “That,” her father said, “is mercy—not getting what you deserve.” Then her father asked if she wanted to go get ice cream. Wide-eyed, she agreed. “That,” her father said, “is grace—getting something you do not deserve.” 

God’s grace is all around, and there are many examples of grace poured out to me. But having the ability to encounter the living God is one of the purest forms of grace I know. Meeting and interacting with the Holy One is something I could never deserve. It is an experience of grace. Every time. 

But sometimes grace hurts.

01.  The Pain of Cleansing

In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord. . . . “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand. . . . With it he touched my mouth (Isaiah 6:1, 5–7, 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. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™).

Every day I am reminded of how far I have yet to go on this journey called sanctification. Every day I am reminded that I am a person of unclean lips—as well as thoughts, desires, motives, and more. Sometimes when I meet God, I—like Isaiah—am instantly and abruptly confronted with just how unclean I am. “Woe to me! I am ruined!” I cry, acutely aware of how short I fall in the presence of my holy God. And my natural inclination, of course, is to run from such reminders, to turn from what is hurting me, to turn from glory and grace and recoil from the pain.

Then there are the moments when God meets with me and gently shows me the error of my ways.

Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly (Luke 22:60–62).

Just recently, God has revealed a pattern of mistakes I have made in my life. They were unintentional mistakes at the time, but they were mistakes nevertheless. And, oh, the disappointment I have felt! I have felt the pain of failure, of disappointing God and myself, and I have grieved and cried out to God. It has hurt my pride and undermined my perception of my own personal growth. It was an act of grace that God met with me and showed me things that I had not yet seen. But it hurt.

02.  The Pain of Obedience

And then there is the cost of discipleship—the cost of following God—the giving up of everything for which he asks.

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” . . . Jesus looked at him and loved him. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor. . . . Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:17, 21).

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac. . . . Sacrifice him” (Genesis 22:1–2).

Imagine the struggle of the rich man in the Gospel of Mark—to whom, in love and grace, Jesus pointed out the very idol that he had to give up in order to follow Jesus. Or what about Abraham? A man who had been chosen by God, who had given up everything to follow God, who had been made promises about being the father of nations, who had waited decades for a son—this son. And now God has asked him to kill this son. Ponder the pain of this request!

So far, the things that God has asked me to give up do not compare to the request he made to Abraham. But still, they hurt, and the list continues to grow. Often, even still, when God asks me to give up something, I find myself clutching and hoarding and refusing to let go. I cannot see past the pain of letting go. And because Abraham’s story ends with God’s stopping him from actually sacrificing Isaac, I know that God can intercede. Sometimes I ask for that. But sometimes God doesn’t stop me from sacrificing the thing requested, and then I have to go through with it. And the cost of obedience hurts.

03.  Sitting in the Pain

The truth is, I hate pain. I would much rather numb the pain, escape it, deny it, repress it, or run away from it. The last thing I want to do is to sit in pain, to languish in the discomfort and wait. But I am learning, ever so slowly, that if I will sit in the heartache, or return to it after I have run away from it, God will meet me there. Inevitably, he will meet me in my pain. If I will stop objecting, fighting, squirming, and fussing, and just stop, look, listen, ask, and wait, God will meet with me.

Currently, I am experiencing relational pain that has no apparent easy solution. As much as I want to repress, avoid, deny, or ignore the pain, I cannot. I must be obedient and stay in it and wait on God. I am learning—learning to sit in my pain and wait.

Truthfully, sometimes I don’t want to wade through the pain, not even with God. Sometimes I wonder how long it will take and whether I can weather the pain. Other times, I keep looking for relief. Instead of being overwhelmingly awed that God, the creator and sustainer of the universe, is meeting with me in my pain, I keep looking for relief. Yet God sits, and he waits with me. He holds me and loves me even as I look around for something else.

And then I come back and choose to walk with God into the hurt. And God reminds me that he is with me and that I am not alone, that nothing can separate me from the love of God—not even my sins and my mistakes. Sometimes in this process, I have to allow God to bring me into contact with the despair and destructiveness of those dark parts of myself. And even though I find myself wanting to escape this part of the process as quickly as possible (oh, such searing grace!), I must sit in the truth of my deficit and allow God’s love to fill it up. I must allow God to love me even in my sin and mistakes, and permit God’s love to engulf me despite my performance. Only then can I leave knowing that I have been truly cleansed and am on my way to being healed.

04.  Receiving Grace

Eustace, one of C. S. Lewis’ characters in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third book in The Chronicles of Narnia, learned to stay in the pain and receive the blessing God had for him. Eustace had become a dragon. But he yearned not to be a dragon. He wanted out of the scaly skin and scary stature. Attempt after attempt, Eustace tried to remove his dreadful, dragon-like self. But he could not. Only Aslan (the character of the Divine) could provide grace. But it hurt:

The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know—if you’ve ever picked the scab off a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.

Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off—just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt—and there it was, lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there I was as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me—I didn’t like that much, for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on—and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious, and as soon as I started swimming and splashing, I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again.C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. C. S. Lewis Pte. Ltd. (New York: Macmillan, 1952, 1980) 109.

Eustace had to sit through the peeling layers of skin, Aslan’s grip on his tender new flesh, and the searing of cleansing to become a boy again. And so do I. Like Eustace, I must endure the pain long enough to allow God to transform me.

05.  For More Grace

After his cleansing, Isaiah was used by God as a most significant prophet. And Jesus asked Peter to use the pain of his denials and personal failure to strengthen and build up fellow believers (Luke 22:32). God used their pain to cleanse them so that he could grace them more. Both men stayed with God in their pain and despite the pain.

Likewise, as I give God my struggles and mistakes and surrender my pain to God, God can give me a story to tell—a story that God can use, bringing greater glory to himself.

Unfortunately, the rich young ruler didn’t seem able to go through the pain, and, oh, the tragedy of not allowing God to take him to the other side! Compare that to Abraham, whose response to God’s request seemed automatic. What love and trust he must have had to respond unflinchingly to God’s command to sacrifice his precious son! Similarly, when I simply choose to obey, God often shows me that the very thing I am holding on to is actually hurting me more than the pain I might feel when I let it go. And as I let go, I discover the blessing that comes with obedience. I am freer. God has released me from one more thing that binds me and holds me down. And I begin to understand perhaps why Abraham’s obedience was so easy. He had experienced God’s faithfulness and knew that obedience—obedience despite much pain—would result in God’s abundant blessing.

The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you” (Genesis 22:15–17).

And So . . .

Am I learning to like pain? No, not really. I’m not sure I ever will. As P. T. Forsyth reminds me, “God is deeper than the deepest depth of man. He is holier than our deepest sin is deep. There is no depth so deep to us as when God reveals his holiness when dealing with our sin. . . . [And so] think more of the depth of God than the depth of your cry.”P. T. Forsyth, The Cure of Souls (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971) 128.

What I am learning is to look more for God, to turn to him faster, and to anticipate the blessing of meeting with him. I remember the character and faithfulness of God and wait and hope on him. I begin to fix my attention not on myself, but on God. “It is a blessed mark of growth out of spiritual infancy,” Spurgeon says, “when we can forgo the joys which once appeared to be essential, and can find our solace in him who denies them to us.”Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 6.( Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1950) 59.

So even in this painful place where I cannot see resolution, I can still be with God. I can still find my solace in him—remaining in Christ and relying on his strength to support me. And even though the road ahead of me is not at all clear, God has shown me the pathway, nevertheless. Obedience is a lively, adventurous response of faith. So as I walk in it—as I tell the truth and do the right thing and obey what I know is true—I can wait and hope in God to work all things together for good.

God is a God who meets with me in my pain, through my pain, and sometimes because of my pain. And every time, it is a blessed meeting with the living God.

Sometimes grace hurts. Thank God that it does.

Footnotes

Ashley Hall Roberts (JD, MAR) is the director of Small Group Leadership Development at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. Ashley’s passion is for holistic development and personal pursuit of the divine calling.