The Purpose of Pain

by Dani Maddox

Several days ago, I had an interesting experience. Perhaps it will seem minor to you, but God was in the midst of teaching me something significant through it. My family and I were out running errands when my jaw started bothering me. At first it was just a slight irritant, but as time went on, it was downright painful.

I don’t remember doing anything out of the ordinary or eating anything that would bother my jaw, so I was totally confused. Still, I wracked my brain trying to figure out what was going on.

It seems as though God has been trying to teach me to embrace pain and discomfort as a symptom or warning sign of a deeper issue, so I decided this was His way of reinforcing this lesson for me. So I prayed: God, what could this be? What is causing this pain?

No answer.

I couldn’t handle it anymore. The pain was so unbearable by the time we got home, that I finally reached for some Ibuprofen. As I popped the pill in my mouth and swigged some water, it immediately occurred to me—my headband! Yes, the headband I had put in my hair this morning was apparently pinching a nerve, causing my jaw to throb in pain.

How quick we are to eliminate pain and discomfort in our lives! God has been trying to show me what a good thing pain is. It is always a signal that something is wrong whether it be a physical ailment, my sin, the sin of another person, distance from God, or merely the result of living in a fallen world. Either way, the message is clear—God wants to speak to us in the midst of our pain.

Let me tell you another story that happened last fall. I had had several days of dull back pain, which I thought was brought on by holding my baby. I didn’t think much of it until one night after I had finished putting the baby to sleep. Pain suddenly shot out from my back throughout my entire body. I ended up on my bed, my body seized up and I couldn’t speak.

That night I wound up in the hospital with a severe kidney infection that took me by surprise. I had not felt any other symptoms other than a slight back ache. By the time I felt enough pain to think something was wrong, my body had already begun to shut down from the amount of trauma.

Without going into too much backstory, I grew up learning to push my pain aside and just toughen up. Somehow, my body was able to toughen up to the point where I didn’t feel much pain at all. While this has been very helpful in recovering from three c-sections and not being inhibited by pain in general, I realized how dangerous it is to be unaware of your pain.

It’s not just our physical pain that we’re trying to escape either. It’s painful emotions as well. Anything that causes us hurt or discomfort is seen as something to avoid. But God is speaking to us during these times. When we try to numb our pain, we’re essentially deadening our hearts.

What does this numbing process look like? The process usually begins very early in life. We get hurt and we’re told to “toughen up.” A good friend moves away and we’re told to “get over it.” Our parents get divorced and we hear, “Well, that’s life!” These experiences cause real hurt and real pain, but our feelings are not validated or taken seriously. We learn early on in life that certain emotions are just not acceptable, so we bury them.

Slowly, we shrink back from life. We feel shame whenever an unwanted emotion begins surfacing, so we force it back down. We get better and better at stuffing and repressing these emotions the older we get. Some people may say these types of people have “hearts of stone”, but I think of it more like emotional leprosy. The center of their emotional being is slowly dying and they have no idea.

It may seem helpful to be able to go through life with such a well-fortified heart, but it actually closes us off from other people and, more importantly, God. We are so disconnected from our hurt and emotions inside that we cannot even understand our own motives and desires, much less understand the hearts of others. “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water” (Proverbs 20:5). On top of this, we will continually struggle to connect with God, not realizing that it is our own heart that has been seared.

My challenge to you is this: The next time you experience something painful—whether it be physical pain, the effects of sin, or a difficult circumstance—instead of trying to escape the pain or repress the emotions, begin to ask God for clarity. What is God trying to show you? Is there a past hurt this is bringing up? Is there unforgiveness in your heart? Are you running from God or willfully sinning, receiving the natural consequences for poor choices? Has someone sinned against you?

While we definitely shouldn’t intentionally seek out painful situations, we do need to begin engaging with the struggles as they come. This is definitely a difficult process in the beginning. If you allow God to open up your heart and show you the truth, it can be pretty painful, but the results are beautiful.

What I’ve been learning in this time is that God wants to bring us on a journey of growth and fruitfulness. He wants an intimate relationship with us in which we learn to trust Him more and more with each step that we take in obedience. Along the way, He’s going to show us where we took a wrong step. He’ll show us dangerous cycles that we’ve been in. He’ll point out sin and unforgiveness. He uncovers shame, hurt, and brokenness. And He brings us along the path of restoration and freedom.

God is so good. Trust Him with your heart.

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