Thursday, February 19, 2009

pride (3) this welcome pain

Long ago, in the distant days when I had no children, I burnt my hand quite badly. I was at a campsite with one of those iron wood-burning heaters that stands away from the wall, and in a moment of absent-mindedness, I rested my hand on top of it. I grabbed a jug of cold water and plunged my hand into it, holding it there for half an hour or more. It didn’t do much to ease the pain.

When I went to bed that night, my hand was still throbbing. I lay there and tried to ignore the pain, coming and going, coming and going, but it was impossible. Until I decided that instead of resisting the pain, I was going to accept it. Oddly enough, this made it easier to bear. As each wave of pain came, instead of gritting my teeth, I let it flow through me. I fell asleep.

Growing more like Jesus hurts. God’s fatherly discipline is not pleasant, but painful (Heb 12:7-10). Perseverance, character and hope come only through suffering (Romans 5:3-4). The trials which refine our faith bring grief (1 Pet 1:3-9). The suffering which makes us more like Christ is real.

I’m learning that there are two ways to react to the pain of growing in Christ. You can thrust the pain away quickly, like an over-hot saucepan, or you can hold it firmly to yourself, like a sword spitting sparks on a grindstone. If you do the first, you’ll escape with minor burns, but they’ll persist for days, throbbing and ugly. If you do the second, you’ll be sharpened like a sword, made fit and useful for the service of the King.

So it is with the pain which God uses to help us grow: you can push it away, or endure it patiently and even with joy, knowing that suffering makes you more like Christ.

Here’s what I wrote to a friend in the first weeks after God showed me the ugliness of my pride:

God opening this area of sin to me was a thoroughly unpleasant shock at first, and my first instinct was to run and hide! But I want to welcome rather than to run from this struggle and pain, … for it’s how God is growing me in unexpected ways - opening up areas of sin I was completely oblivious too, humbling me, helping me to accept and even welcome criticism, helping me to serve others more self-forgetfully. A slow battle and a long one, but worth it, because it’s God who works in me! And so wisely and gently (although it feels like the surgeon’s knife) for he knows exactly how much and what kind of fatherly discipline I need, and leavens it with encouragement.

You won’t accept the pain of Christian growth unless you truly hate the sin. Why would someone who doesn’t see the full danger of a cancer submit themselves to the surgeon’s knife? But if God shows you the ugliness of your sin - whether it's pride, bitterness, self-pity, or greed - you’ll be only too glad to submit yourself to his painful discipline.

I have looked my pride full in the face, and seen its ugliness. CJ Mahaney calls it "cosmic plagiarism", stealing God's glory for myself. I hate it. I'm disgusted by it. I'd do just about anything to get rid of it. And so, instead of running from the painful failures which strip away my pride, I find myself welcoming them.

If someone touches your arm with something which burns you, the natural reaction is to pull away. But if they're a doctor, and they are cauterising a wound or burning away a growth, you'll hold your arm still. It won't hurt any less, but you'll gladly endure the pain, because it brings healing.

Oddly enough, as I view the pain differently, I feel it differently. Instead of something repellent, festering, unpleasant, it becomes clean, sharp, wholesome. It still hurts. But I welcome each wave of pain, knowing the humility it's producing in me.

Like gold purified in a crucible - like a tree pruned to make it more fruitful – like a lance to a boil - like a sword sharpened against a stone - like the pain of childbirth - like sand at the heart of a pearl - I hold this pain close. This is a pain I want. This is a pain I need.

It’s there to teach me something: about my sin, about my unbelief, about my heart. About God’s truth, which is so much bigger than my wrong beliefs. About how small I am, how insignificant peoples’ treatment of me. About how much I still need God's grace. It's there to grow Christ in me.

I'm starting to understand why Paul rejoiced in his suffering, which protected him from pride, and magnified God's power and grace:

To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with 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. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12:7-10)

images are from stock.xchng


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, Jean.
I read it last night and came back to comment on it, but can't find the bit that really struck me about holding the sword close for refining. I feel like I'm imagining things! I do love the way you have expressed the desire to hold the pain close, to relish the painful work because it is the only way to get rid of the ugly self-sufficiency. God has been kind enough to give me a situation with my children that as a mother has brought me to the end of my own resources. For years I mouthed the right words about God's sovereignty and timing, whilst really working hard to fix this (and every other) situation. Now, with the situation still unresolved, and no certainty that it ever will be(!) I can say thank you to God for giving me the opportunity to let go of myself and my resources, and to learn to trust (no, really trust!) in God and his strength and his goodness and his timing. I would have carried on SO self-sufficiently had it not been for this! Jo C

Jean said...

I'm so sorry, Jo, I was fiddling with the post and that paragraph got left out. I've put it back in now. I wasn't sure it was clearly expressed, but since you found it so helpful, there it is!!

I'm so glad you were encouraged by what I wrote. Thank you for sharing your own experiences with me. It's so true, isn't it? We think we trust God, and then something comes along and removes our props and supports, and we find ourselves forced to really trust God for the first time. God is amazing, the way he leads us so gently and firmly to him, our one true good.