Conversatio Divina

Part 14 of 18

The Promise of Pain

The Transforming Center

Ruth Haley Barton

“Deep suffering makes theologians of us all,” says Barbara Brown Taylor, and she is right. She continues, “the questions people ask in Sunday school rarely compare with the questions we ask while we are in the hospital”—or in the midst of some other kind of spiritual or psychic pain.Barbara Brown Taylor, “Our bodies, Our Faith.” Christian Century. January 27, 2009.

The first time real pain comes into our lives in such a way that it challenges our strong, well-articulated faith structures, it’s quite traumatic for the responsible Christian—in large part because it is so unexpected. Up to this point in the spiritual life, we have felt somewhat in control and certain of so many things—our doctrines and theological positions, our understanding of God and where God may be found, our sense of ourselves and our place in the world, our feelings of being in control of our own destiny and, to some extent, the world around us.

But then pain brings us face-to-face with what spiritual masters call “the great unfixables of life”—the waywardness or loss of a child, a debilitating accident or illness, a spouse’s unfaithfulness, a divorce or some other type of relational breakdown, the loss of a job at mid-life, facing a lifetime of singleness or realizing that we can’t have children, an experience with war or violence, finding oneself utterly depleted and empty in God’s service, etc. These extraordinarily painful realities and the resulting awareness that we are not in control have the potential to rock our world at the most fundamental levels of our life and being. And believe it or not, this is a good thing!

If you ask most people to identify a time in their lives when they experienced the deepest levels of transformation and intimacy with God, they inevitably mention times of pain and difficulty. The reason for this is that the experience of pain contains within it so many spiritual invitations. For one thing, pain opens up an entirely different set of questions than we normally ponder—questions which, by their very nature, throw open a door or a window through which a fresh wind of the Spirit can blow. Pain also initiates spiritual possibilities for letting go of our attachments and moving into greater levels of freedom in God and deeper intimacy with God—which is, after all, what the spiritual journey is all about. But this is not automatic, nor can it be assumed. There are choices we must make to live into the promise of pain rather than to become completely mired in it.

01.  Two Roads Diverge

There are two basic responses we can make to these painful experiences that come to us unbid-den. The first is avoidance, in which we sidestep the invitation to intimacy with God and transformation of character by trying to exert more control over the situation and/or by refusing to engage the deeper questions that such experiences surface in our lives. Most of us try avoidance for a while—at least at first—until we discover that it doesn’t work. You can only repress awareness and seek to avoid pain for so long without going crazy on some level. Those who continue to practice avoidance often cross over into some sort of pathology or dysfunction in order to maintain the illusion of control and to keep from taking personal responsibility for the journey to which pain is inviting them.

The other response, which is the more fruitful one, is to choose to walk into the wilderness of our pain and seek God there. Here we face the unsettling questions that emerge in the context of the great unfixables of our own life, we cling to the side of the mountain through the chaos those questions kick up, and we discover that real faith is not a thought or a theory or a doctrinal stance. Real faith is what’s still holding you after the crisis of “faith” has destroyed all your neat categories and systems of thought. We discover that real faith is what you know in the midst of not knowing. Or, as John of the Cross tells us, we are purged from all our habitual ways of knowing, all “particular knowledge,” and are left only with “vague, dark knowledge.” Eventually, he says, the intellect is illumined with a divine light that transcends the natural light of our knowing. When the time is ripe, we know just what we need to know, no more, no less, without knowing how we know.

Since pain is an inevitability of human existence in a fallen world, the question is not if we will encounter pain but when we will encounter pain. And the only question after that is whether or not we will say “yes” to the invitations contained in this part of the human journey. How can we “practice pain” in a way that is transforming rather than deforming?

02.  Invitation to Self-Awareness

One of the most profound Biblical examples of the promise of pain is seen in the story of the Exodus. It was through the intensification of the pain of their life in Egypt that the Israelites became aware of their bondage and opened themselves to new possibilities. It was when they cried out in the midst of their pain that they experienced God’s presence leading them toward freedom. “The Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out. Their cry for help rose up to God from their slavery. And God heard their groaning . . . and took notice of them” (Exodus 2:23, 25, NRSVUEScripture quotations marked (NRSVUE) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition, copyright © 1989, 2021 The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.). So the first promise of pain, spiritually speaking, is the invitation to more awareness—awareness that things are not as we thought they were or thought they should be, nor are we ourselves who we thought we were or should be.

Through the presence of some sort of pain we become aware of our bondage—the ways in which we cling and grasp and have become overly attached to things that are not God. There are questions we haven’t acknowledged, places where we are stuck and/or closed to the presence of God, painful realities that we haven’t fully faced and don’t know how to fix. A person going through a divorce realizes that she was more attached to the idea of being married than she was to God. A person who loses a job realizes how much of his identity was wrapped up in that job and in the ability to provide and maintain a certain lifestyle. A parent realizes that while she trusts God with many things, she doesn’t really trust God with her wayward child. A person facing the prospect of long-term singleness realizes that he doesn’t really believe God is enough to satisfy his deepest needs. A pastor acknowledging burnout and depletion realizes that even though she had altruistic motives for entering ministry, there was also a fair amount of ego-drivenness that brought her to this place of exhaustion. A person who loses a spouse realizes that so much of his identity was wrapped up in that person that he doesn’t know who he is when that person is gone. A person diagnosed with a terminal illness realizes that she has trusted God with her life, but she is not sure she trusts God in death.

Most of us do not become aware of the subtleties of our attachments and places of “unfreedom” without pain. In the first half of life we work hard to establish competency and develop ego-strength. This is a necessary phase of human development and in order to keep it all going, we do our best to keep the pain of whatever is not working outside of our awareness. That is, until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing. In the moment when that balance shifts and we can no longer tolerate the pain, we finally cry out to God with a new kind of vulnerability and willingness to be saved by whatever means available. Now we are off on a brand new journey.

03.  Letting Go

Just as the Israelites would not have been willing to submit to the rigors of the journey toward freedom had they not experienced the intense pain of their bondage in Egypt, most of us would not choose voluntarily to leave the security and benefits of our familiar bondage unless we are forced to do so. This is another promise of pain—it nudges, pushes or catapults us onto a new leg of the spiritual journey.

At this point, the invitation is to let go, as best we can, of whatever is being taken from us so we can let go into the journey to which God is calling us. Letting go carries with it its own pain, but when we know God is guiding us there, there is something about it that is good and right. There is a new freedom we can sense ourselves moving into, even though it hurts. Oftentimes we actually make the pain worse by hanging on and refusing to let go of that which God is no longer giving. Whether we have some sense that we are choosing to let go or that something is being ripped from us in ways that feel beyond our control, there are still ways to cling and grasp and refuse what is happening.

One of the ways we can refuse to let go is to try and grab on to something else—anything else—that will distract us from or take the place of the previous attachment. But clinging to something else other than God is not the same thing as truly letting go, surrendering ourselves in some new way to the ultimate reality. True letting go requires us to face into the emptiness for a time, rather than to give into the temptation to try to fill the emptiness with something new. True letting go leaves us feeling quite naked and vulnerable, rather than hard-edged and bitter. We are more in touch with our own humanness, and, even though we may maintain a rough exterior, we know that this is only a cover for the raw and tender places that have been exposed within us. There is a new kind of humility and dependence upon God that emerges as we acknowledge that freedom in the areas where we need it most is quite beyond us. We give ourselves over to God with greater abandon, because what else can we do?

When the Israelites let go of their attachments to Egypt (it is possible to be attached to things that aren’t entirely positive or to be attached in a way that is not entirely positive!), it eventually dawned on them that this meant not knowing what was ahead and being vulnerable to a different set of dangers than they had been exposed to before. What they did know was that their past existence did not belong to them anymore and that only God knew what was ahead. This kind of risky adventure was a lot different than sitting by the fleshpots in Egypt. So this letting go was also a time of great ambivalence. On the one hand, they had gotten a glimpse of the kind of freedom that was possible for them, but on the other hand, there were the necessary losses that were essential to moving forward. Both are real.

At this point, letting go is a discipline—like the discipline of a trapeze artist who must let go of one bar in order to swing out far enough to reach for the bar that is coming. There is a moment when it feels like we don’t have anything to hold on to and we are in a free fall. So of course there is ambivalence. Of course there is fear. Of course there are doubts about whether there will be anything else to grab ahold of or whether it would be best to turn back. But there is also faith and quiet hope—and sometimes a fleeting moment of exhilaration—that come as we perceive that the presence of God is inviting us forward, and this is what we learn to trust more and more. In the wilderness of our pain, there are few options: we trust God or we die.
The good news is that this can be the beginning of a new journey—the contemplative journey, some call it. We experience God wanting us just for ourselves, beyond what we initiate or achieve. And we experience ourselves wanting God for God’s sake, beyond what we think he can help us acquire or achieve. As Gregory Freuhwirth states,

Thus begins the process of learning how to live close to God, habitually in touch with God, intimate with and responsive to God’s every desire. We begin to realize that much of our previous activity and prayer flowed from anxiety and grasping, self-centered desire. Even if the sought-after end of our prayer or action was something laudable, we see that it is stained by the fundamental selfishness. It sounds harsh, but we see that we were basically acting and using God for ourselves. . . . Passing through the pain of this shocking knowledge, we become more sensitive and careful in our listening for God’s will and more surrendered in our response to him. We begin to understand that our union with God happens in a process of continual letting go, continual surrender, yielding the gates of our heart to him continually. Our life shifts at that point.Gregory Fruehwirth, Words for Silence: A Year of Contemplative Meditation (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2008).

This, in itself, is a great gift.

04.  Facing Our Truest Questions

Anyone who has done any serious spiritual journeying knows that sometimes it gets worse before it gets better, and that is certainly the case at this point in the journey. One of the things that is so hard about real pain is that for the first time our faith in God as we have experienced it so far just isn’t enough; it does not provide us with the answers we need to soothe our hurts, heal us, answer our prayers, fulfill our longings, change our circumstances, or solve our problems. We are left feeling hurt, angry, betrayed, and even abandoned. We may begin to question our strict adherence to a particular way of doing the spiritual life because it no longer works. There is a loss of certainty as things that used to seem so real and true start to unravel. Our questions become more and more unmanageable because they are questions about what we believe, why believe it, and how we should live with this pain. While we may be able to keep functioning externally, we are aware that there is a gap between what we present to the outside world and what is really true on the inside.

The invitation here is to let our questions take us right out to the edge of our fear and our faith and to begin searching for something besides easy answers. The pain drives us to ask truer questions in search of a spiritual reality that satisfies a deeper need than merely satisfying the ego’s drive to have things all figured out and buttoned down. I can never forget the questions that came in the midst of the pain that accompanied a profound letting go of my identity as a person in ministry. The details of this letting go are not important now,I write about this more fully in Ruth Hayley Barton, Longing for More and Invitation to Solitude and Silence, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010) but the questions were among the truest I have ever asked:

  • Am I really worth anything if I’m not out there constantly proving myself?
  • Who am I when I am not busy doing the things that tell the world who I am?
  • Why has it been so hard to stop the frantic pace of my life even when I know it is hurting me and those I love?
  • What do I do with the pain and sadness I feel?
  • What is real and true in my relationship with God and what is merely an illusion—things I wish were true but really aren’t?
  • Is God really enough to satisfy the loneliness, the emptiness, the longing of my soul?

A person just doesn’t ask those kinds of questions unless something like pain forces the issue. More often than not, it is only our desperate need for God—experienced most profoundly in the midst of our pain—that makes us willing to move beyond the safe questions and safe answers that no longer work anyway. I am a different person today because I asked those questions, and the only reason I asked them was because of the pain that brought them to the surface. For that reason, and that reason alone, it is impossible to overstate the fruitfulness of pain in the spiritual life. If we stay with the questions pain raises, they will take us everywhere we need to go.

05.  Meeting God

If we are faithful to the process, we discover—imperceptibly at first—that the openness in our souls created by the questions and the letting go creates space for God to be present to us in ways we have never experienced before. We discover that we are loved to an extent that we have not yet known; we are accompanied by a presence that never lets us go and that presence becomes more important to us than anything. Even though we know ourselves to be a mess of fear and doubt, unanswered questions and mixed motives—even though we are not performing well, if at all—we discover that God is bigger and more than all of it. We are met in ways we could not previously have imagined and would not have been able to receive because we were so full of ourselves. Things that used to seem so important recede in significance, as the presence of God becomes our ultimate, orienting reality—more real than the pain, more real than what we have lost.

Ironically, pain can usher us into one of the “fullest” experiences of the spiritual life. Finally, we are able to “know” in the depths of our own experience that God is God for us and with us and in us—even in our pain. This experience is hard to describe but the original languages of the Bible have much more nuanced words for describing a kind of knowing that is far beyond our cognitive, informational knowing. The Old and New Testament writers describe a kind of knowledge “that unites the subject with object.” It is a full participation in the truth or the reality being explored— which in this case is God himself. This is the most important kind of knowing and it only comes as we stop struggling against the pain and become quiet enough to experience the faithful presence of God holding us in our pain and brokenness until our brokenness is inexplicably healed by love. All other kinds of knowing merely set the stage for this. Whatever pain has brought us here, on some level, we know was worth it. The pain is still real but it is no longer our ultimate reality. God is. Eventually the pain is swallowed up in the presence and becomes another sweet place of intimacy with God.

This is the Promised Land, spiritually speaking. Being in the presence of God, fully yielded and fully surrendered—holding nothing as more important than God—has now become our destination. This is Moses sitting on the side of Mount Nebo, content to let go at God’s instruction with no bitterness at all. This is Elijah standing in the presence with his face wrapped in his mantle, needing nothing else. This is Jesus on the cross saying, “Into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46, NIVScripture quotations marked (NIV) taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™). This is the pearl of great price, and it is worth whatever price we had to pay to find it.

ResurrectionMary Ann Bernard, “Resurrection,” A Guide to Prayer, ed., Rueben Job and Norman Shawchuck, (Nashville: The Upper Room, 1983), 144. Reprinted with permission of the author, Mary Ann Bernard, Director of Pastoral Care, Bethany Village.
Mary Ann Bernard

Long, long, long ago;
Way before this winter’s snow
First fell upon these weathered fields;
I used to sit and watch and feel
And dream of how the spring would be,
When through the winter’s story sea
She’d raise her green and growing head,
Her warmth would resurrect the dead.

Long before this winter’s snow
I dreamt of this day’s sunny glow
And thought somehow my pain would
pass with winter’s pain, and peace like
grass would simply grow. The pain’s not
gone. It’s still as cold and hard and long
As lonely pain has ever been,
it cuts so deep and fear within.

Long before this winter’s snow
I ran from pain, looked high and low
For some fast way to get around
Its hurt and cold. I’d have found,
If I had looked at what was there,
That things don’t follow fast or fair.
That life goes on, and times do change,
And grass does grow despite life’s pains.

Long before this winter’s snow
I thought that this day’s sunny glow,
The smiling children and growing things
And flowers bright were brought by
spring. Now I know the sun does shine,
That children smile, and
from the dark, cold, grime
A flower comes. it groans, yet sings,
And through its pain, its peace begins.



Ruth Haley Barton is founding president of the Transforming Center, a ministry dedicated to caring for the souls of pastors and Christian leaders. A trained spiritual director (Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation), teacher, and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.