Pain And Purpose

I imagine everyone who confronts the travails of chronic pain has asked deep philosophical questions, even if they don’t consider themselves philosophical. We ask “Why?” or “Why me?” When we ask “Why” we are really asking, “What purpose is there in my suffering?”

Some recent conversations have shown me that I have a tendency to readily see purpose in most circumstances. Don’t misunderstand me; I am not echoing the cliche, “Everything happens for a reason.” Nor do I believe the theological version of that, “It’s all in God’s plan.” I live with the firm conviction that a great many things happen that are neither God’s plan nor is there a particularly good reason why certain things happen. Jesus taught us to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” which implies there’s a lot going on in this world that is not in accordance with God’s will.

However, I absolutely affirm God’s sovereignty and his ability to work his purposes into every situation. I think this is the basic idea behind the oft-quoted (and oft-misunderstood) verse, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

Back to these recent conversations, not everyone finds God’s purpose in suffering as readily as I do. That does not make me more spiritual or discerning. It probably means that I have a harder time living with unresolved tension between the unforgiving pain of suffering and God’s purposes for our lives. A lot of hurting people simply do not know why they are experiencing such unrelenting pain. They can see no good reason why God allows it to continue.

Of course, not being able to see something does not mean it does not exist. Yet, I grant to those hurting, seemingly without any purpose in it, that your experience is no less valid than someone like me, who likely goes purpose-hunting prematurely. Unlike Job’s friends, I want to sit with you in your suffering and know that I do not have to answer for God or diminish your spirituality to make God look better. God will answer you in his time, when he’s ready, or more likely, when you’re ready.

I love the story of Jacob, culminating in his wrestling match with God the night before he faced his aggrieved brother. I heard Tim Mackie in his Bible Project podcast say recently Jacob finally surrendered to God only when he was wounded by God dislocating his hip. Reversing his policy of just the previous day, Jacob moves himself and Rachel to the front of the welcoming line to meet Esau. His newly resolved trust in God’s promise allows him to take the risk that only the day before he wanted others to take for him.

My point isn’t that you are Jacob. My point is that we are all Jacob. We are all in a wrestling match with God for control over our lives. Chronic illness and pain are jolting shocks to the system that brings us to our knees with the realization that we are not in control of anything. Accordingly, we need the promises of God in Christ Jesus, which the apostle Paul tells us are always “Yes.”

Will you find purpose in your pain? Maybe or maybe not. I know that isn’t telling you anything you didn’t already know, but my conviction is that God will work purpose in your pain. I don’t believe that because you are going to arrive at some higher spiritual realization about what you are enduring, but rather I believe that purpose will be worked out in more down to earth ways through ordinary relationships.

There are a lot of hurting people out there. People need to know that they are not alone. If your illness allows you to bless one person through your presence and empathy in their life, then your pain is not purposeless. That does not means you have to agree your pain was worth it, but only that you be able to see that there is always meaning in blessing others. And when others bless you, can you see how they are finding purpose in their suffering by blessing you?

I could have focused on what the Bible says about what suffering does for our own spiritual maturity (cf. Rom. 5:1-5, 1 Pet. 1:3-8), but it is hard to appreciate that while in the crucible. It is enough that we can trust that God is doing something even if we don’t understand it.

The kind of suffering you are undergoing is not specific to Christians, but neither are you exempt, but you do have a tremendous advantage over those with no faith or hope. This advantage is not only about the resurrection life to come, though it is certainly that, but it is also about the abiding presence of God’s Spirit in the midst of all trials. When you can do nothing else but hold on to God’s hand, then do that, and don’t give up. For we worship the one who is “making everything new.”

David Heflin

David Heflin

Executive Director

David Heflin is the founder and president of Broken and Mended. He is married to Katie and has three kids. David has been a preacher for 17 years and founded Broken and Mended in 2018 after being inspired by his own battle with chronic pain to connect other hurting people to Jesus and each other. David has a B.A. in Bible from Oklahoma Christian University and a Master of Arts in Religion from Azusa Pacific University. He resides in Woodward, OK.

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