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Books for those in ministry organizations who desire to take their leadership, teams, governance, and ministry effectiveness to the next level.

04 Nov '13

The unlikely gift of pain

Posted by T.J. Addington in pain, suffering
I experienced my first real failure at age 28. My dreams were broken, the vision for my life in shambles, I had resigned from my church after four years of deep pain, had no idea what I would do next and was suffering from clinical depression. What I did not know then was that my “failure” would be used by God to mold, direct, soften and sharpen, and forge things in my heart that could not be forged except through pain.

It was not a fair suffering by any stretch of the imagination. One of the lessons I have learned over the years is that “fair” is not God’s greatest concern for our lives. His greater concern is that we become what He wants us to be for the sake of what He wants us to do. Life was not fair for Moses, Joseph, Paul, Jesus, David, Esther, or most of the great characters of Scripture.

In every case there was a testing of the soul, a forging of character, a decision that had to be made whether to trust in the midst of suffering and the learning that can only take place through pain. As a focusing agent, nothing does it like pain – regardless of the source of that pain. As a young leader I did not know the cost of leadership in terms of suffering and pain. As an older leader I realize that the lessons learned in suffering and pain would not have been learned in any other way. Suffering is both the cost of leadership and a prerequisite of becoming a leader of deep influence. There is no other way.

As I survey my life over the past thirty years I can trace all the major themes of my life to periods of deep pain. It was in those times that God most forged character, faith, heart, soul and mind. I would not willingly choose to repeat those periods of pain but I would also not trade them for anything. Without the pain I would not be who I am today. As one who wants to have deep influence I can say with honesty: “Thank you God for the pain I have endured. You used it to make me who I am.”

A sage of the faith once wrote, “God cannot use a man greatly until He has first hurt him deeply.” This is not a statement about God’s character but about what it takes to mold our character. A reflection on the great men and women of Scripture reveal periods of great pain and brokenness which made them who they were. One of the prices of developing great influence is the presence of suffering in our lives.

Peter, speaking to those who were suffering because of their faith put suffering into an eternal perspective. “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:6-7).

Peter is clear that suffering is not a random event but is intimately connected to what God wants to do in our lives – to refine our faith and make us the kind of people who are genuine and authentic which results in praise, glory and honor to God.” There is an authenticity to the faith of those who have gone through deep waters and rather than abdicate to bitterness and a diminished life, follow even harder after God, trusting Him when it makes no sense to trust and learning his sufficiency in their pain.

Paul, understood the deep connection between understanding Jesus and suffering. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).

To know Jesus is first to understand what it means to be “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isaiah 53:3). While health, wealth and prosperity are proclaimed today as God’s will for all of His people, Scripture says that those who suffer share in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings and the writer of Hebrews encourages us with the truth that “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:8-9). If the very Son of God was molded by suffering how can any of His followers not assume that they too will be molded by the same?

Think about this. Without the dark nights of the soul, David would never have been able to write the Psalms, the place all of us turn when we suffer our dark nights of the soul. Without his wilderness experience, Moses would never have become God’s most humble leader with whom he spoke face to face. Without Abraham’s willingness to follow God not knowing how it would turn out he would never have become the paradigm of faith for all the generations after him. Without suffering, the messiah would not have become the bearer of our sin!

When all is said and done, God is more concerned about the refining of our faith and lives than He is for our comfort and ease. The picture that Peter uses of faith “refined by fire” is the picture of the heating of metals in the forge so that the dross floats to the surface and can be scraped off to be thrown out – leaving something pure and beautiful behind. Pain and suffering do for our hearts what the fire does for precious metals like gold. There is no other way to purity metal and there is no other way to purify and mold our hearts.

When I packed my truck on a September day to leave my pastorate, I had no money, no job to go to and no hope. I was devastated, sad, tired, depressed and had a lot of questions for God for which I was receiving no answers. My name and reputation were being trashed, lies were being told and I could not answer back but had to leave my reputation with God. At that moment I was in survival mode unable to see beyond the pain – and there was nothing at that time to see! It was a simple hanging on to God and that is all. There was no great faith, no assumption of what He would do. I was just trying to survive my faith.

I now have the perspective of 30 years to look back on those painful days. It was through that pain that my theology of grace became a lifestyle of grace where I no longer needed to prove myself to God or others. It was because of those circumstances that I ended up at the national office of the EFCA, something I had no desire or intention to ever do. It was through my dark night of the soul that I started to consult with church boards and staff on healthy leaders, intentional leadership and empowered structures which in turn birthed two books, High Impact Church Boards, Leading From the Sandbox and two others.

Through the tough days I learned that God would be faithful if I would just trust Him. I let go of my need for “justice” (sometimes vengeance) and left that issue with Him. My depression led me to counseling and medication which in turn gave me great empathy for those who suffer from emotional pain on a regular basis. Slowly over time, the pain gave way to mercy, grace and a spiritual perspective and memories that once tied my stomach in knots for days became merely parts of my biography that informed who I was today. Over time, the perspective of my pain turned from that of hopelessness and suffering to one of God’s gracious grace in my life that forged a more perfect me – the me God designed me to be.