Last week in a Sunday school class I was teaching, someone asked about being delivered from depression. I noted that God is surely able to do so. But I tried to give another perspective on thisâ€”that pain may actually be a means of blessing. As C.S. Lewis observed, pain is Godâ€™s megaphone to rouse a dulled world.
In our culture, we have a tendency to be preoccupied with the alleviation of pain. But there is a danger: we can become so absorbed with â€œrecoveryâ€ from pain that we make this a higher priority than knowing Christ or being delivered from sin.
Do we find ourselves more upset with our discomfort than with our lack of Christ-likeness and sin? Our main problem is not pain; alienation from God and idolatry and sin are. Once we realize that God is not obligated to take our pain away (as Paul experienced with his â€œthorn in the fleshâ€ in 2 Corinthians 12), our relationship with God can be enriched and deepened.
We are living and even hobbling about in a fallen worldâ€”in anticipation of the new heavens and earth. Christ offers us hope and grace in the midst of suffering, not always relief from it. Theologian Vernon Grounds eloquently writes:
An individual, quite completely free from tension, anxiety, and conflict may be only a well-adjusted sinner who is dangerously maladjusted to God; and it is infinitely better to be a neurotic saint than a healthy-minded sinner. . . . Healthy-mindedness may be a spiritual hazard that keeps an individual from turning to God precisely because he has no acute sense of God. . . . Tension, conflict, and anxiety, even to the point of mental illness, may be a cross voluntarily carried in God’s service (Vernon Grounds, “Called to Be Saints–Not Well-Adjusted Sinners,” Christianity Today [17 Jan. 1986], 28).
Paul reminds us that it is often in our weakness and inadequacy that we are most conscious of Christâ€™s power resting upon us: â€œwhen I am weak, then I am strongâ€ (cp. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Having Godâ€™s power means that we can please God whatever our circumstances or condition. I think of my grandmother (we called her â€œOmaâ€) who, though bedridden, always had such a sweet, gracious demeanor; she never complained. Christâ€™s power enabled her and enables us to carry out Godâ€™s will and purposesâ€”despite our weakness and frailty. Consider the powerful British preacher Charles Spurgeon would be laid up in bed for long stretches of time due to depression, yet he was a remarkable instrument of God. Or think of the noted hymnwriter and friend of John Newton, William Cowper, who battled severe depression as well. Yet God used this manâ€™s gifts to bless the church. Below are a few stanzas from Cowperâ€™s â€œGod Moves in a Mysterious Wayâ€â€”one of my favorite hymnsâ€”that reflect the theme of pain as a possible means of blessing:
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
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Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.
If we allow it, weaknesses and pain may open our eyes to see how much we need God and prompt us to cast ourselves upon his mercy. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:9: â€œindeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.â€