Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. James 1:17
What do you think of when I use the word 'gift'? Most likely, you think of times of celebration, Christmas and birthdays, of beautifully wrapped packages containing lovely items that bring real joy to the recipient. In the Bible, the word 'gift' is used in this way, particularly through the Old Testament. Moving into the New Testament, the emphasis becomes more on spiritual gifts - of the gift of the Holy Spirit and of salvation itself as being a gift. In that sense, many of the good things God gives us relate to our spiritual rather than material prosperity and growth.
So, could pain and adversity be a gift? Could this be something we give thanks for?
The Psalmist wrote, 'It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees' Psalm 119:71 (NIV). Other translations of this include, 'Suffering was good for me; I learned your laws' (ERV), 'It was for my good that I was humbled; so that I would learn your statutes' (ISV), 'The punishment you gave me was the best thing that could have happened to me, for it taight me to pay attention to your laws. They are more valuable to me than millions in silver and gold' (TLB - I know we need to take care with this one, since it is a paraphrase, but I think it captures the meaning well).
Such trials and hardships, whether external to us, relating from our circumstances, or internal physical or mental pain, can help us to have real perspective and see those things that matter most. This has been something I have thought over considerably lately. As it approaches ten years since my firstborn daughter died, I have been reflecting on the aspects of our faith that can help a believer be prepared to stand firm in trial (here, here and here). I have had a couple of weeks of extreme physical pain due to a chronic medical condition that flares up from time to time. And some days, I have just felt sadness - sadness at the state of the world, locally of the hardship I see in some communities around me, and loneliness resulting from living and working cross-culturally and often feeling misunderstood. In all these things, I have been greatly encouraged in my faith, and have come to realise that these are part of the 'life in all abundance' that Jesus promised.
Let me explain a little more:
1. Pain is a reminder that this world is fallen and broken. When life is comfortable and easy, I can forget that every day, people who do not know Christ are heading to a lost eternity. Pain reminds me of this reality - that the harshness of life can serve a purpose.
2. Pain reminds me to stop and reflect on all the things that are not painful, and to count my many blessings. For me, it is often a sharp rebuke to self-pity, reminding me that God has provided so many blessings, and that this pain is only a small part of the picture.
3. Pain is humbling. Sometimes you have to ask for help physically. Sometimes it is necessary to be more vulnerable emotionally. Spiritually, one can only cry out with 'groans that words cannot express' (Romans 8). It is a rebuke to the 'I am strong and can do it all' mindset that can become proud in having a 'can do' approach to problems. I think this was what the Apostle Paul learnt: 'Therefore in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleased for the Lord to take it away from me. But He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.' 2 Cor 12:6-9
4. Pain brings empathy. 2 Corinthians starts with a reminder to believers in a suffering community that they can 'comfort others with the comfort which they themselves have received from Christ'. Understanding some aspects of pain equips a person to draw alongside another and to 'weep with those who weep'. The circumstances and specifics will differ, but the turmoil and confusion, sadness and sorrow, fear and doubt may be similar.
5. Pain helps me understand others. This may relate to the point above, but I am aware of how different people respond to pain. Some speak very freely of it, in real life and on social media and seem able to communicate their distress and need. Others deal with it more internally, giving little outward sign of distress. I probably fall into the latter category (although I do sometimes try to communicate, I often feel I am not 'heard'). This makes me aware that a smile can hide a lot, and that when I care about somebody I should seek to listen carefully, to draw alongside them and to understand. Sometimes, this involves asking specific questions which I would not have done ten years ago.
6. Pain helps counter idolatry. It can be tempting to put confidence and faith in relationships, in things, in family, in work, in status, in comfort. Pain makes me realise that any one of these could be stripped away in the blink of an eye. I feel I have had a glimpse into how these are unstable foundations for a life - whereas perhaps if life always felt smooth and comfortable, I may not have done so.
7. Pain draws me closer to Christ. I love the description of 'a friend that sticks closer than a brother' (Proverbs 18:24). I am aware that He both knows and cares, and walks with me through these trials. I am reminded that 'it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him...' Philippians 1:29. Many of the types of pain I describe may not be in direct consequence of living for Christ in this world, but they do remind us that Christ suffered immensely for our sakes, and God the Father suffered in having His only beloved Son die for our sin.
8. Pain causes me to long for eternity. Revelation 21:4 specifically tells us how there 'will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain''. Eternity is forever and ever. We can look forward to that with real hope.
9. Pain teaches patience. There are times when things cannot be done in the timescale that I might have wanted, or where plans have to be adjusted. This is a reminder that God knows what each of us needs to endure, and does not expect more of us than what is possible. Sometimes I may not have strength to do everything I may want to, and I need to trust that God gives me strength enough to do all that He requires of me.
I am thankful for the hope that we have in Christ, a hope that does not disappoint. I often wonder how on earth a person can make sense of trials without an eternal perspective. I am thankful that in recent situations where I have either been in physical pain, or have felt very sad, that I've known the love and comfort of my Saviour. And I hope, if you are reading this, that God brings such comfort to you also.