As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. We count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful. –James 5:10–11
Time is a valuable element in our lives. In our fast-paced world, we want everything instant and fast! Instant coffee, instant noodles, fast lane, express counter, express delivery. We also want efficiency. We want everything to work out smoothly, according to our plans. We plan based on what we know. Plans guide us so we know what’s next. We want assurance and security. We dislike uncertainty, because it makes us feel unstable.
So it is difficult to wait patiently in the midst of suffering. The Chinese character for patience (忍) is a compound word with knife (刀) on top of heart (心). When we are patient, we endure a painful stab in our hearts. Yet we bear up to the pain, and our hearts keeps pumping in spite of the wound.
After I had a bad fall and fractured my right ankle, a friend wisely encouraged me to be patient with my healing. I knew that patience was a virtue, part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit. But I wanted to get better faster. I wanted to know when I would walk again. I kept asking my doctors how soon I could get back to normal walking, when I could put weight on my right leg. When? When? When?
It took me four months of physical therapy before I could walk normally. Seven months after the surgery, I still felt tightness in my right ankle whenever I walked down the stairs.
During this season, God began teaching me to embrace pain with joy. Job is the character in the Bible who is most associated with suffering. Yet he was able to say:
Then I would still have this consolation—
my joy in unrelenting pain—
that I had not denied the words of the Holy One (Job 6:10).
Job’s comfort and encouragement, his joy in suffering, was that he did not deny God, but remained loyal to God throughout his trials.
Of course, nobody would volunteer to take a difficult test from God. I certainly didn’t volunteer for cancer, and I didn’t volunteer to break my ankle!
Yet from hard splint to air cast, from swelling to healing, from sitting to standing, from hopping to shuffling, from strength to strength (Psa 84:7), God holds my hands and brings me through each difficult time, inviting me to experience his peace that passes understanding.
And because of my fall, I learned how to use a wheelchair, navigate the stairs with crutches, and practice patience—an experience that has made me more compassionate with those who cannot walk.
Before I had my ankle surgery, a friend told me that her doctor brother said, “We do not have to tolerate pain unnecessarily.” With all of our medical advances, we certainly do not need to bear pain unnecessarily. Yet there is another kind of pain that no painkiller can fix—the pain of a broken mind, heart, spirit, and soul.
Psalm 34:18 declares that “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalm 51:17 says that “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.”
We live in a broken world, where we cannot fix things or run away from pain and grief. Yet Christians have assurance that our pain and sufferings are not in vain. For God works out all things—good and bad—for our good, for those he calls for his purpose.
Because of my cancer, I have become more compassionate towards others who are suffering. Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.
As Henri Nouwen wisely observed: “The dance of life finds its beginnings in grief. . . Here a completely new way of living is revealed. It is the way in which pain can be embraced, not out of a desire to suffer, but in the knowledge that something new will be born in the pain.”1
When friends come to me for comfort and help, God helps me comfort them with the comfort that I received from him. As Paul writes, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:3–5).
Paul prayed three times for God to take away his thorn (2 Corinthians 12:7–8). God told him, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:8). God wanted Paul to rely on his power and not to exalt himself.
My pain allowed me to experience fully God’s grace and mercy. I will always remember how God warmly embraced me when I was going through cancer treatment—how he walked me through the deep dark valley of depression, even when my emotional and mental being denied his presence. We embrace pain by remembering pain and how it was overcome. The pain we experienced yesterday can become a steppingstone to joy today.
But until I learn the lessons of patience, God will continue to send difficult people, and put me in places that test my patience. Until I learn the lessons of love, there will always be unlovable, unreasonable, and rude people to test my patience.
The thorns in our life could be God’s means of teaching us something. God wants us to depend on him, to hone our characters and make us more like Jesus.
And so I choose to embrace pain. The world is filled with evil—those who cause violence, calamity, and death. All nature is filled with natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, droughts, famines, and floods. Children of God are not exempt from these troubles. But they stand out from the world, because they choose to rejoice amidst the sadness. They have faith in the One who holds the world in his hands. They have hope that one day, Jesus Christ will return to conquer evil and death. They look forward with gladness and hope to spend eternity with their eternal God, forever free from the stronghold of death!
Lord, have mercy and thank you for being patient with me while I learn patience. May I learn to learn it neither too quickly, nor too slowly, but in your beautiful time. Amen.
Henri Nouwen. Here and Now Living in the Spirit. (New York: Crossroad, 1994).