Pain has the potential to spark change in our lives
We’re continuing this theme of spark when faith comes alive. What I’d like us to sit with this weekend is that pain that enters our lives. It has a particular potential unlike any other to spark something great within us. It really does. We have to be able to listen to what it’s trying to wake up. We live in a society where one thing is for certain, pain is the unavoidable reality of human existence. It’s one of those things nobody can resource away; nobody can insulate away. Nobody has the capacity to remove it completely because if we do, we actually remove every other aspect of life that is worth living for. To not feel the pain of a love being at risk is to choose not to love.
It comes so closely connected to the best aspects of the human experience. Yet, we live in a period in history, where many times, if pain enters the picture, we have so much access to different ways of avoiding, numbing, silencing, successfully ignoring, or even entertaining it away. We have the ability now more than at any other point in previous generations to live an existence where we have the ability to turn down the pain levels. We have access to that, and it’s a remarkable thing. Pain is an interesting thing. It’s one of those things that I have to say, I have not nearly as much experience with it as others in the world. My life in many ways has been kept from extreme tragedy or harm.
I have had, by comparison, an insulated upbringing where I was loved and cared for. I was provided for. Yet, given that’s the case, even though I had that experience, the worst moments of my life were the ones that taught me the most significant lessons of my life. This is something that I’ve shared before, but my faith journey is so intimately connected with what pain feels like. I remember being a teenager being told there’s no way I was going to graduate high school. I remember being told that there was no way, in essence, I could continue to lie to myself or to those around me. I remember feeling the wave that came over me and feeling the shame. I remember feeling the failure and grief, and that point, looking back as a 16-year-old high school student, being sat in that counselor’s office, was by far the lowest point I had had up until that moment.
Grief wasn’t as strong as it was then. Even though that’s the case, I can also tell you that looking back, that became the beginning of a spark of something igniting within me. The beginning of my faith journey that truly altered the remaining days I have lived in a remarkable way. As I’ve gone through ministry and gotten to hear people’s stories and live with other people, what I’ve begun to recognize is there’s somewhat of a pattern. The worst moments in our lives have the capacity to transform us. Doesn’t mean it happens, but they have the ability to radically transform us. They do.
I recently read that if you were to search on Google for ‘the best thing that ever happened to me,’ you would be surprised at what comes up. Think about it. If you were to search, don’t do it now, Okay? That’d be cheating. But if you think about it, if you were to search on Google the best thing that ever happened to me, what do you think would be number one on that list? I was talking to my wife. I was thinking, “What do you think, honey? What do you think would come up number one?” So, we started talking about it. What would be the best thing that ever happened? What would people say?
I can assure you I think most of us here, not knowing what you have decided would be number one, unless you’ve looked it up, we would all be wrong. The number one that would come up on Google would be the best thing that ever happened to me. That is the Gladys Knight song titled The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me, with the YouTube video, lyrics, her Wikipedia, and everything she’s done. I didn’t even know Gladys Knight, but The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me is there as number one. As you scroll through it, we might expect to find things that would be more closely connected to the greatest events of life. We would say maybe the day I landed my dream job. Others perhaps would say, the day I met my spouse, maybe when a child came into our family, the birth of a child.
Those were the examples closely connected to what my wife and I were talking about. But those moments would actually be somewhat of a distant third. After you scroll through the pages of Gladys Knight, what ended up coming to the surface are people’s blogs, articles, books, and different perspectives given around ‘the best moment that ever happened to me.’ “The best thing that ever happened to me was actually surviving a fatal car accident, having an extended period of unemployment, hearing the news that I have cancer.” People readily share in hindsight the best thing that ever happened to them were categorically the worst moments of their lives, where they did not feel anything other than pain.
That might be surprising. But if we think about it, it actually makes sense. Because if we have the painful experience of discovering firsthand how fragile life actually is, you know what happens? It can actually move us toward living the rest of our life well. If we hear the awful news that the number of days we have left is actually far shorter than we expected, then if we allow it to, it can move us to make sure there is not one day we live that is taken for granted. At least we do the best we can with it. Pain has the ability to move us in a way that nothing else can. It is there that if we allow it, it can spark something. It can awaken something far greater than the pain we might experience.
In fact, C.S Lewis wrote in his book, The Problem with Pain, he said, “Listen, God whispers to us in our pleasures. He speaks in our conscience, but he shouts in our pain. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. Pain is like, if we could imagine it, it would be the equivalent of the amp and the wattage necessary to revive somebody who is being resuscitated back to life. In order for a beat to occur, something needs to be shocking. Something needs to pull it out of death and into life. It needs to awaken it. That seems somewhat of what God does through the very customized points of pain in our lives if we allow Him to.”
As we think about what we may be experiencing, which by the way, if some of us aren’t in that season of life, that is fantastic. But if we are, there’s no doubt we want it gone and fixed. It might also be good to ask ourselves, “What is my pain trying to awaken? What is it trying to bring to life?” We might have access to something that God is doing that is rather special in this season of our lives, unlike any other. Perhaps that’s why this account of this man named Nehemiah, really his memoir, is so fascinating to me. He is a man of noble character. He had compassion in his heart. He’s a man worth admiring, but I believe he’s a man moving beyond admiration. He’s a man putting in a place a saying, “I want to emulate him.” Some of what he shares describes what it looks like to walk through real pain in a way that allows God to spark something truly beautiful and magnificent.
If you open up your handout, we’ll go ahead and read through the opening lines of his memoir. In order for us to truly understand what we’re going to interact with here, we have to know what Nehemiah has written. This memoir was written in a period in Israel’s history in which they were coming back out of captivity. They had been exiled, uprooted from their land, and shifted throughout the known world by the Medes and Persians who had conquered them. On the other side of it, the group of Jewish people was allowed to go back to their city Jerusalem, which they loved, to rebuild its temple and the city itself. Nehemiah finds himself as a trusted Israelite in the royal court of King Artaxerxes, the Persian king. He’s the cupbearer. In other words, Nehemiah tastes the chef’s menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s his job. He does it.
We joke around when you see good food, “Well, someone should test this,” right? We know it’s delicious and want to get some before anyone else does. That was Nehemiah’s job so that the king would not be put at risk. This is the position he holds. We’re told in verse one that these are the memoirs of Nehemiah, son of Hacaliah. He opens up and says, “In late autumn, in the month of Kislev, in the 20th year of King Artaxerxes reign, I was at the fortress of Susa.” The best way we can put what Nehemiah is saying is, “I want to make sure you understand exactly what moment in time this conversation occurred.” It was a conversation unlike any other. In fact, this memoir was sparked out of what happened on that date. It was a date that he was ignited, but he’s also telling us something else.
Nehemiah is also telling us that he was insulated from the pain and discomfort of his people. He’s telling us that he was in the royal courts of the king. He is literally living behind a fortress of the most powerful kingdom in the world. He’s telling us that we could surmise he had a situation that gave him the advantage. The best society had to offer him. He would have access to the best meals, lodging, and apparel. Anything he desired was at his disposal. Yet, this man, Nehemiah, had a genuine interest in the whereabouts and wellbeing of his people. He didn’t allow the place of opulence and luxury to deafen his ear to what may be going on outside the fortress.
We’re told in verse two, “Hanani, one of my brothers,” he’s writing in the first person, “came to visit me with some other men who had just arrived from Judah. I asked them about the Jews who had returned there from captivity and about how things were going on in Jerusalem. They said to me, ‘Things are not going well for those who return to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down and the gates have been destroyed by fire.’” The report he receives is filled with terrible news. We may not see it because it may not jump out at us, but we have to understand it in order to appreciate this. The law of the ancient world was the law of might. It was the law of strength and power. The walls, in other words, made the nation. The strength of the wall determined the strength of its people.
Once a town had walls, its citizens would be able to bring order and stability to the area. They could accumulate property, enact laws, and elect magistrates to make sure those laws go into effect. In essence, walls, to the ancient world, commence the beginning of civic society. It allowed societies to grow and prosper. It had a huge amount of significance and implications. The report Nehemiah is given is one that gives him insight into the emotional, social, and physical conditions of his people. We could say emotionally he’s told there was great trouble in that the walls have been torn down and the gates burned down. This word of great trouble and distress in Hebrew speaks of evil having come upon his people.
It would be almost as if they’re saying to him, “Nehemiah, if you were to connect the dots, you understand that they are a people living somewhat of a paranoid existence. They feel haunted by the insecurity and anxiety that comes along with their position of vulnerability. There is no defense for them. There’s nothing protecting them. They are constantly on edge. They’re in great trouble, Nehemiah. They socially are a disgrace,” is the word that’s used. They’re looked down upon. They’re not respected. They’re disregarded. They’re seen with contempt. They’re not in good standing with their neighbors. If anything, they’re seen as a nuisance that needs to be removed. Their walls are exposing them to high levels of ridicule, or their broken-down walls, rather.
Physically, they’re at great risk of invasion. A wall in ancient times spoke of protection, wealth, and security. A town of any size was at the mercy of any roving, plundering horde looking to invade. There was no system to protect a town from a group stronger than the town, just coming through, roving, taking everything that’s valuable, and leaving. Nothing was in place without the wall. This news would be far more significant. Their physical condition impacted every other aspect of their lives. This is why Proverbs if you were to read Proverbs, has multiple metaphors around the idea of a wall around a person.
Solomon said, “Listen, a person without self-control is like a city with broken-down walls.” It’s to say that a person who has no ability to fortify some degree of structure or boundaries from them with the rest of the world. That person is like a city without walls, completely vulnerable, insecure, unable to protect or accumulate any wealth. It would be very difficult for them to prosper because anything could plunder them. That’s the idea. It’s the warning. The idea is that imminent destruction is closer than anyone might realize when the protection of self-control is gone.
This is the same way that a person could feel. That is what the entire city of Jerusalem felt like. Nehemiah would understand the gravity of the news he received. He would end up responding in kind. We’re told in verse four that he says, “When I heard this, I sat down and I wept. For days, I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven. I took the sin.” It’s here, not just the fact that he was a man in relative comfort and the highest levels of security, resource, and protection. Yet having had that position, he had compassion enough to reach out and see how his people were doing. But his reaction, in my opinion, starts to walk the path of anyone who does something great in this world. Great in the eyes of God. Do you know what Nehemiah doesn’t do upon hearing this?
His original inquiry for his people in the city he loved didn’t turn into him being numb to their circumstances. It didn’t turn into Nehemiah being desensitized and calloused to what was going on. It didn’t turn into him silencing his ear and refusing to ask more for fear of what actually could be shared. He allowed the news to penetrate his exterior and enter into the inner parts of his soul. What’s more, he allowed grief, pain, and sorrow to well up and find authentic expression. He didn’t allow the news to simply penetrate and then stuff it down. No, he permitted it to inhabit his soul. He genuinely allowed it to express itself. This, in many ways, became this outpouring of grief. It awakened his soul to a calling of something he needed to respond to.
Nehemiah allowed this pain to identify him. In his case, it ended up becoming the moment his pain, grief, and sorrow turned into action. We know it. He shows us. He shows us how to grieve. Nehemiah didn’t allow it to lead him toward destruction, but he allowed himself to actually mourn genuinely and sincerely. He determined in his pain that this would be the incident he identified that God was allowing to enter his life, to call him into action. We know that it would not be too long after this incident that Nehemiah ends up becoming the catalyst or agent by which God ends up raising up walls of protection. Real walls of protection around the city of Jerusalem and its inhabitants, to the point where those fortifications allowed his people to grow, prosper and gain degrees of security.
Hundreds of years later, Jesus would come upon that city. He who was mourning and weeping over the city 450 years prior to Christ would join with Christ when Christ would sit at the top of this mount of Jerusalem. He would look down upon it, Luke would tell us, “Would that you, even you, would have known this day the things that make for your peace,” all the while weeping. Jesus would weep over this city and the people who lived within it. His heart would be torn asunder for them. Nehemiah ends up stepping into that place of allowing grief to move him, awaken him, and determine; I must do something about it. Jerusalem has always and will always hold a special fascination for every generation.
There are more ancient and bigger cities, certainly, though I have not been to Jerusalem yet. I’m sure it can be said there are more beautiful cities, But what can never be said about Jerusalem is that it will be a point in history in which it does not hold special importance in the world. Even today, the city grips the international community with rapt attention. There’s something unique about it. God cares for it. It’s certainly the case for us today, thousands of years removed from Nehemiah’s day. If that’s the case for us, it cannot be overstated what an impact this would have had on Israel. Living in captivity from his land where faith in life meets, where real faith meets, they jump out of the pages and into roads, buildings, structures, and paths where people walked and talked.
This would certainly be part of the reason why Nehemiah responded so passionately and what moved him to action. If that’s the case for Nehemiah, I think he also offers us something to reflect on in terms of our struggles and our pains. I want to suggest in these moments we have here, that this model we are given in Nehemiah, can give us some footprints. It tells us something about how God may want to work through our pain. I just want to put it up there. Firstly, do you know what Nehemiah reminds us of? That some life pains have the power to snap us out of denial. They have the ability to grab our attention and to wake us up to something.
There are some pains in life. They are not necessarily meant to wake us up. But there are certain times in our lives where God might be whispering, to use C.S Lewis’ term, through a megaphone shouting to our deaf hearts and ears; he’s trying to wake us up. The instrument is being utilized. We might think to ourselves, “What is going on here? Where’s God in this pain?” It might be that he’s actually in the very pain we might be experiencing to wake us up and move us forward. It’s so critical in order for anything to wake up. The friction and tension point of life coming into this world, being protected, being resuscitated, is a rather agitating, violent, and extraordinary event. High levels of friction. Doesn’t just happen smoothly. Many things need to come together all at once.
I was reading a book by Amanda Ripley called The Unthinkable, Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why? I thought, “Wow, that’s a captivating title.” The opening chapter ends up recounting the horrific events of 9/11. In it, she ends up describing the environment people found themselves in within the two towers that were struck. We would imagine that the environment would be chaotic. The time environment would be filled with people who understood what happened. Planes coming into these buildings, seeing the smoke, smelling the gasoline and fumes. They would leave their stuff behind. They would just run down whatever exit point they could and desperately escape. We would imagine that would be the case in any disaster.
Amanda describes something far different. She describes something that’s rather haunting and reason to be concerned because what she describes by firsthand accounts and from people who spoke to people inside the buildings was actually something far different. When the buildings were impacted, the smoke started rising, and flames started erupting, people actually looked to one another to know how to respond. They realized that nobody was making too much of it. They decided they would continue to just close up their computers and shut down slowly. They would make phone calls, let their clients know they were gone for the day. Others would make personal phone calls. The initial moments would fill with this quiet, subdued reaction.
Amanda says they would look at each other. This calm settled upon both towers, especially if you were just a little bit removed from the impact zone. As time went on, she said this would occur because there would be not only the impact of people’s reactions around them, but something psychologists called a normalcy bias. Normalcy bias is the pattern in which we interact with our world in which we utilize patterns that we’ve come to identify in our past to define what is happening in the present. To predict to us what is going to happen in the future. Normalcy bias tends to tell us everything’s going to be okay. When our peers don’t overreact, because we don’t want to risk social embarrassment, we tend to drop down. Not to just stay normal, but we tend to de-emphasize the pain or the impact of what we’re experiencing.
Rather than overreacting or reacting normally, she says most people in that level of situation under-react because they assume this is normal. It would not be until somebody from the outside would run into office buildings and declare how grave the situation was. Rather forcefully would wake people up and tell them, “You must leave now. You must leave everything behind you. We have to get out of here.” Not until an outside catalyst invaded that environment would people recognize just seriously how much in danger they were. Then they would proceed to exit as quickly as possible. Amanda said this is why denial is so powerful. This is why every single recovery program says that the first step toward moving forward is always admitting there’s something wrong. Because if that was the case, just psychologically, we live in a culture, in a society in which we underplay.
If we don’t, do you know what happens? We overplay, and it becomes destructive. This is where Nehemiah shows us there are some wounds we need to sit down and acknowledge. We need to grieve. There are some pains that the first step is to recognize there’s something going on. It’s okay to weep. It’s okay to feel it. It’s okay to step out of denial and toward reality. It is one of the most courageous things we could ever do. To do it and invite God in. Do you know what Nehemiah shows us? Is not without hope, but it is to grieve, inviting God into the grief and into the pain. I sat, I wept for days, I mourned, and I prayed to the God of heaven.
Some of us need to recognize pain is trying to wake something up. It won’t wake up if we don’t acknowledge it. If pain does this to us, do you know what it also can do? It can infuse a deeper sense of compassion for others in pain. It has a remarkable capacity to not shrink our soul. When God is very much a part of our journey and is invited into the most painful parts of our journey our soul expands. When we allow this to occur, when we refuse, this is why numbing ourselves is not actually the best option. This is why in our culture, we can eliminate discomfort with all kinds of different distractions in ways of soothing ourselves, altering our mood.
For example, we can do it with something like a tub of ice cream. We could do it with what they call retail therapy. Now we can watch a show, all seven seasons at once, to the point where programs on Netflix ask us, “Are you still watching?” Right? We have been given the capacity to truly avoid what we may be walking through. This is why when we do that, we end up removing the power pain has to enlarge our ability to identify with the rest of the human experience. We need not step into somebody’s exact situation to understand what we most long for when pain invades our lives. Yes, we want remedies. Yes, we want it to be fixed. Yes, we want it to be solved. Who doesn’t?
We start to discover that what we most long for is a companion, somebody to walk with us, somebody to join our journey, which is what makes Jesus so remarkable. It would be Jesus, the one who wept over Jerusalem, who would step down from that point of weeping and move into action. Taking upon Himself the penalty of all of the human brokenness. Feeling the entire gravity and weight, all the pain this world has to offer. Becoming the man that Hebrews describes as saying He is the high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses. Becoming the man that is described in many ways, but one characteristic that is commonly described of Jesus is that of compassion. Its Latin root is Pati, and the prefix com- means with. Compassion originates from compati. It literally means to suffer with.
When we sense our souls being discomforted, we have unique access to the very heart of God for everyone in pain. We then become people who can extend to one another, to a neighbor, family member, friend, or coworker, and have the ability to say, “I may not completely understand what you’re going through, but I’m right here with you.” When we mourn, we know what those who mourn need. “I’m right here.” When we invite God into that place, it has the ability to soften us rather than turn us numb or bitter and resentful. It can enlarge our compassion, which is exactly what happened with Nehemiah. If it happened with Nehemiah, then pain can remind us, if we allow it, of our need for grace only Jesus can give. It has the ability to remind us that there is no amount of resources, fitness, success, or relationships in this world that can remove us from the place of needing grace.
A lot of times, one of the most challenging things to grapple with is if God is loving, then why did He allow pain? I think many times it is in the suffering of Jesus that we discover it is actually the fastest way to access God. David said in Psalm nine, “Listen, the Lord is a shelter,” if we can put this up, “The Lord is a shelter for the oppressed, a refuge in time of trouble.” Where is God in my pain? He’s far closer than we might realize because it is there that He runs and seeks to become. What we may feel we are lacking, this is what Nehemiah becomes an instrument for. God is the fortress. He is the wall that fortifies. He is the shelter, and He doesn’t leave us there. He doesn’t leave us in our pain.
He never ridicules us. He never demeans us. He never mocks us. He strengthens us. Isaiah said, “Listen, the weak, they have a unique access point to God. He gives power to the weak and He strengthens the powerless.” He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. He is able to absorb our grief and our pain and our agony. He’s able to whisper back into our soul life, hope, and strength. He is able to absorb us and not be overcome by us, absorb our darkness, and allow His light to overpower it. He’s the one who is able to do this. We think, how is that even possible? I have in my seven months of being a father discovered something. Well, I’ve discovered many things, especially being a father of a little girl, they have power.
I have discovered, how do you do that, God? It’s interesting. The most intimate moments I’ve had with my daughter are moments when she is in pain and I’m holding her; she’s yelling, screaming, shrieking. It doesn’t overwhelm me. It doesn’t overpower me. It doesn’t make me distraught, but she is overcome with grief for whatever reason. I’ve discovered there’s something in the role of a parent. Our job is to absorb it and then to speak about life. “You’re going to be alright, you’ll get through this. Even if you keep me up the rest of the night, we’ll get through this.” Those moments of tender pain and agony are moments I get to whisper tender love, hope, and strength. If that is the case for a father and mother, with the weaknesses and contradictions, how much more is that the case for our heavenly Father?
When we run to Him with our pain, He longs to awaken something within us with the whisper, “I’m right here. You’re going to be okay. We’ll get through this together.” I’m going to do something new. I’m going to do something beautiful. May that be the case. May we hear His voice. Even in our closing moments with our closing song, as we receive our time of giving and the band comes up. I just want to pray. Thank you, God. I thank you that you are not one who ever allows a single tear to go wasted, a single wound to be thrown aside. I thank you that you are able in your own gracious, loving, tender way, to utilize the worst of our moments and transform them into the best moments because you awaken something new. We pray for your blessing. We ask for this in Jesus’ name, amen.