On the list of clichés that annoy me, “No pain, no gain” probably tops the list. Perhaps it conjures up images of this pudgy middle-schooler running wind-sprints while an angsty coach yells at me with all the zest that a middle-aged man can muster.
Even the supporting lectures did little to appease me. I knew that I had to sweat to get stronger and faster, but at the end of the day, I also knew that at my best I might be able to add another five-pound plate to the bar or shave a millisecond off my forty-yard dash.
The pain simply wasn’t worth the gain.
But, the frustrating thing about many clichés is that they often have some element of truth. It is a fact that gains—even miniscule ones—come through pain. This truth has a corresponding, and far greater, application in our maturity and conformity to Christ—one that I have vividly observed in my own life this year.
Pain is, more often than not, the only way that God gets my attention and actually produces marked growth in my life.
I wish this were not the case. I wish I was mature enough to flee from sin and pursue holiness simply by reflecting on the grace of God through Christ. How sweet would it be if I sensed the Spirit’s conviction for my every sin and immediately repented?
But I don’t.
And I’m guessing you don’t either.
God knows our frail, fickle state, and because He has promised to conform us to the image of His Son (Rom 8:29), He gives us the gift of pain.
- You are confronted by your wife about the harm your neglect or addictions have brought to your family.
- You get busted in a sin pattern that you’ve kept hidden for far too long.
- You achieve the success you’ve always wanted at work, only to realize that it does not deliver the fulfillment you longed for.
- You find yourself in a predicament that no amount of manipulation on your part can change, forcing you to see that your prayerlessness demonstrates that you’ve depended on yourself for far too long.
- You get word that a close friend has been killed in a tragic accident, and you realize that you never once spoke to him about Christ.
- You erupt in anger and find your precious child cowering at your volatility.
Most of us are aware of the need for change. We aren’t blind to our addictions. We know the sinfulness of our secrets. We intuitively know that work can’t meet our deepest needs. We know that our fervor for prayer and evangelism has waned.
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But, we can’t seem to change—at least not for long.
Pain has the ability to produce the change we so desperately need. It seems that this is critical way that God parents his children. We are prone to think that God parents us like we might parent an adult child. God gives us a great degree of freedom and we come to him when we need a little help along the way.
But God parents us like toddlers. He knows what we need far better than we do, and when we spurn His love and pursue our own destruction, He uses pain to teach us that His ways are best. The writer of Hebrews reminds the church of this stark reality:
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. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live (Heb 12:7–9, ESV).
The necessity of pain is humbling. It reminds us that I’m weak. Parents discipline their children because of their immaturity. There’s just no other way they will learn.
I’m no different. Pain also breaks us. Like a child crying before a spanking, we know that we are where we are because of our own choices. There’s just no way around it—pain hurts.
But pain can also be our greatest blessing in this life. Once again, we read in Hebrews that, “He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb 12:10 – 11).
Holiness. Peaceful fruit. Righteousness.
God’s children long for their lives to be defined by these characteristics.
The only way most of us will ever get there is the path of pain. I’m not sure I’ll ever grow to the point where I quickly and consistently count it all joy when I face this type of discipline, but I’m beginning to experience enough pain to know that it is for my good.
Pain is not the path I would choose, but it’s the one God has mapped out for His kids.