The Painful Part of Wholeness
KJ Ramsey | October 17, 2018
They led a church small group. They opened their home every single week to a group of fifteen, making space for prayer, Scripture, and connection—which is why it shocked everyone when the husband shared he recently found out his wife was having an affair and didn’t plan to stop.The church’s pastors and elders were stunned; the small group was confused; no one knew quite what to do.
Shame and pain lurk under the surface of every soul, and most of us aren’t quite sure how to acknowledge the havoc they create. The more stories of hidden pain I encounter as a therapist and pastor’s wife, the more I am convinced there is no greater threat to the health of the Church than Christian leaders avoiding their own pain. And the even more sobering truth is that avoiding our pain, wounds, and sin is a subtle, often subconscious force impacting each of us more than we realize. It’s not just the small group leaders with secret marriage problems.
As leaders, we face pressure to project an image of being more than the gospel actually asks us to be. We languish in the tension between two powerful narratives: the alluring cultural narrative of strength as success and the more vulnerable narrative of weakness as the ground of both our greatest redemption and most powerful ministry.
We believe the gospel is for sinners, but we aren’t sure we want people seeing the ongoing impact of brokenness in our lives. We avoid the ways we escape grace’s grasp and instead exert unnecessary energy on appearing wise, successful, and respected. Out of shame and a pressure to succeed, we distance ourselves from the very place God longs to dwell and redeem, and as a result, we end up feeling burnt out, confused, and sometimes depressed.
Pain isn’t the enemy, but it does feel like it.
To be in pain is to be vulnerable. When we experience pain of any origin, our bodies almost instantaneously process it as a threat. Cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline course through our bodies without our conscious consent, signaling to our bodies it’s time to fight or flee the danger and exposure at hand. From a neurobiological perspective, our avoidance of pain makes sense. Experiencing or being reminded of pain, wounds, or weakness unleashes a physiological cascade culminating in feelings of shame and a momentary inability to access reason. Because pain makes us innately vulnerable, it makes sense that we would automatically avoid facing it.
In a culture that minimizes weakness and disowns grief, it can feel risky to face our pain. Surrounded by a Christianity gleaming with the veneer of effectiveness, facing pain can not only seem scary but also like a waste of energy. Don’t we have Kingdom work to get done?
But a Christianity more focused on impact than pain is not the Christianity of the Man of Sorrows. Ignoring or minimizing pain robs us of taking part in the world-changing story of the God who chose suffering in order to redeem it.
United to Christ, we can face what we fear.
Jesus says, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)
He will give you rest.
But first you must acknowledge your weariness and burden.
The curious Christian story is that God joined us on the floor of this earth by embodying himself in fragility and participating in ours. Jesus fully united himself to our hidden, widespread pain before ever redeeming it. And because Jesus acknowledged our weariness and burden first, we can face what we instinctively fear.
In the gospel of incarnational descent, following the example of God-made-flesh, pain can become a friend and a guide on the path to true rest and transformation. As we descend into the brokenness of our stories and present pain, we can more fully access the wholeness of the story God is writing.
How to treat pain like a valuable part of your story.
Beautiful descent requires conscious effort. Here are some postural shifts you can make toward embracing pain as valuable part of your story. Partnering with God in leaning toward the pain in your life is going to take time and community, but it will always be worth the effort. These shifts are only a start and are far from exhaustive, especially as they are internally focused. But we must always begin somewhere.
Choose to try. Taking a different posture towards your pain is something you can only do if you think it is worthwhile. Choose to try out believing that pain is something God wants you to pay attention to. Like any virtue, gentleness toward your pain is going to take practice to cultivate and enjoy. But without trying, you may never know the tenderness God has for you to receive and participate in as darkness is touched by light.
Slow down. Busyness is the socially-acceptable drug addiction masking vulnerability. It’s keeping you from acknowledging wounds God wants to heal and sin that needs repentance. In a sea of constant noise, distractions, and opportunities to mistakenly find our worth in effort, silence and solitude create inner space to hear God’s voice. Giving yourself room to slow down daily through the practice of silence and solitude are a foundational way you can learn to physically engage the transforming presence of Christ in your pain. And you can begin with as little as two to five minutes a day. This short piece from Pete Scazzero offers some practical guidance for getting started.
Pay attention to your body. Often our physical sensations are our surest guide to acknowledging the pain looming under the surface. Try a guided meditation. Notice how you physically feel throughout the day. We must cultivate habits of noticing how our bodies feel in order to acknowledge the bulk of the emotional and spiritual reality happening underneath our conscious frame of reference. This contemplative prayer video course from Chuck DeGroat is an helpful resource for combining mindful awareness of our bodies with prayer.
Read the Psalms daily. Let your soul be formed by the space Scripture holds for both desperate cries of excruciation and the bold affirmation of God’s consistent care. I particularly love following the Book of Common Prayer’s selected Psalms for each day, as the external structure pulls me into the perspective of passages I may not have chosen based on my surface-level desires for the day. Meditative reading of the Psalms expands our ability to enter the space God already has made for our deepest darkness and longing to be acknowledged and held.
Pain is not the end of the Christian story. But it is a powerful character in our present chapters. When we avoid its role in the story, we unintentionally allow it to write a story of striving and shame where we could know love and rest. The results can be more damaging than we want to admit. Instead, allow pain to be an invitation to walk the beautiful descent of the God who chose suffering. Know the power of the crucified God in facing the tangible cross of pain that exists in your life. For as we lean towards our pain, we actually lean into the embrace of the God who holds both us and our pain and is making us mysteriously new.