The Question of Pain

No one has ever asked me directly. But over the last eight years since my son died, I have often contemplated whether I—if given the opportunity—would erase the pain. If I had seen it coming, would I have sidestepped the struggle?

And my answer? Well, it’s complicated.

You see, our human reaction to pain is often to get away, to get out. You put your hand on a hot stove, and you’re going to pull away fast. The same is true with our circumstances. Suffering is uncomfortable and exhausting and consuming, often leaving us raw and ravaged in its wake. It’s rational not to want to stick around.

But lately I’ve been wondering: What if that instinct to “get out” is causing us to miss out on something better? I would never go so far to say that God places all pain into our lives, that He ordains suffering—especially not when it comes to sin or its effects. That’s not the way God works. But are we so preoccupied with getting out of hard situations that we miss seeing God in them?

I recently read Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan—a memoir written by a young investigative reporter. A vivacious, twenty-something, Susannah was the picture of youth and vitality. She was sharp, witty, and had already proven herself an asset at the New York Post. Susannah was on a direct path to journalistic prowess when her life took a drastic turn. She began to experience concerning behaviors. Her confidence was replaced with fear, tenacity morphed into apathy and distraction, and important relationships were masked by paranoia. This sudden change quickly snowballed until one day Susannah woke up in a hospital bed with only scraps of memories to explain how she got there.

While the story itself is haunting and beautifully written, the last few lines resonated with something deep inside me. After all she had been through, all the pieces of herself she had lost along the way, Susannah wrote, 

“I wouldn’t take that terrible experience back for anything in the world. Too much light has come out of my darkness.”

And there it was. Finally I had the words to describe the answer I already knew in my heart.

You see, on one hand I desperately miss my son. He lived only an hour, so our time together was much too short. I miss not only the parts of him that I knew (like his slender toes or dark, wispy hair), but also the parts I will never know—the color of his eyes or the sound his feet make coming down the stairs. It doesn’t take much to transport me back to that day when I was told my son wouldn’t live past birth or when I handed him over to the nurses and said my final goodbye.

When I look back at my journey of brokenness, at all the raw grief and the rage and the anguish my heart has been through, it’s no secret that pain has left its mark. But even so, I don’t think I would wish it away. Too much good has come out of my grief.

You see, if I had not come to the end of myself and begged God to show up, I wouldn’t know just how close He is, how His presence can fill a room. If I had not stared my worst fears in the face, I could not confidently say God is more than enough in all things. And if I had not dropped to my lowest point, I would not know just how far God goes to bring His people back.

That season of suffering has become one of his deepest graces on my life. Because it was in the pain, in the waiting, in the hurt, and the hopelessness that I saw just how big God is and how much I need Him.

I don’t pretend to know your hurt. But I know what it means to walk this earth wounded, so if you were sitting in front of me today, full of big questions without answers, I would hug your neck. And then here’s what I would want to say: God knows you and He sees you and He loves you—just as you are. He is bigger than the pain in front of you, and He is not afraid to be in it with you. Don’t settle for quick fixes, but seek Him out, right in the murky mess. Throw yourself at Him, and He will pull you closer than you ever thought possible. Let His fullness cover you. Wait for Him to reach out His redemptive hand, because there’s sacredness to be found in suffering. God’s grace doesn’t always come packaged the way we want, but it is always the answer we need.

“God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” —Gen. 41:52 (CSB)