When pain enters our lives despair often follows.
Despair is an overwhelming sense of helplessness. It is like drowning, waiting for water to slowly replace the air in our lungs. It is the sense of being trapped, like there is absolutely no way out. Despair is the paralysis of pain. It is the shackles of hopelessness.
Pain can become despair when we have no hope while in the pain. Pain can lead us to be undone and ruined.
Pain is inevitable. Whether our decisions or the decisions of others or both, we all face their painful consequences. Sickness, death, adversity, and folly all bring pain.
While pain is inevitable, we who know God through Christ can overcome despair. A divine perspective of pain is despair’s enemy. Arming ourselves with God’s view of pain obliterates despair.
Relating pain to despair, John Chrysostom, a fourth and fifth century preacher, said God “imposes a penalty upon us – not to punish us for past sins, but to correct us against future ones.” Note first of all that Chrysostom assumes pain is an imposition from God. It is actually God breaking into our daily life. For the believer, when pain arrives we know God has arrived. That said, the pain is not a punishment. Our punishment has been paid in full by Jesus Christ. Rather, pain is a protection. God Himself gives us pain to fortify us against something more deadly than pain – that is He uses pain to fortify us against sin and temptation.
St. Augustine, a preacher at the same time as Chrysostom, noted, “What you suffer, what you complain about, is your medicine, not your penalty; your chastisement, not your condemnation.” From time to time, we’ve asked our kids to take a teaspoon of fish oil with their breakfast. I doubt they like the taste, but they drink it because we tell them it is good for them. The trusting children embrace the bad taste because they believe us that it brings physical health benefits. In the same way, we embrace pain because we believe God when He says it brings spiritual health benefits. Augustine added, “Do not put away the scourge if you do not want to be put away from the inheritance.” Instead of running or hiding from God’s medicine, we can embrace it lest we lose out on its reward.
Without the divine perspective, we can feel faint. Pain can sweep over us and suck the life from our hearts. Instead we should see pain as a blessing to train us and show us that God is preserving us for salvation. Psalm 94:12-14 reads, “Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O Lord, and whom you teach out of your law, to give him rest from days of trouble, until a pit is dug for the wicked. For the Lord will not forsake his people; he will not abandon his heritage.” Discipline from God is a sign that He truly loves us. “ It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons” (Hebrews 12:7-8). It proves that He is our Father and we are His children.
Something the ancient preachers and biblical writers understood is how to deal with pain. Whether consequences for our own sin, a result from another’s sin, or the result of sickness and death, pain itself is God’s medicine to protect us from future sin and keep us on the road to eternal life.
Perspective is God’s remedy for despair in pain. When I’ve taught each of my kids to swim, they were terrified of the water even if the kiddie pool was shallow enough for them to stand upright with head above water. If pain is the panic of drowning, divine perspective is realizing I can touch bottom and keep my head above water.
When our kids learned to crawl we used safety gates to keep them from the stairs. They all disliked it as they felt trapped in one particular area. If despair is the sense of being trapped, a divine perspective is realizing the wall I’m trapped behind keeps me from a deadly fall.
If despair is the paralysis of pain, a divine perspective is the sweet voice of Jesus saying, “Rise!” and “Walk!” so that the shackles fall off and we walk into His loving arms where we find hope and rest in pain.
I was helped by John Calvin’s Institutes, Book III, Chapter IV for much of this.