Emotional pain can lead us to some very dark places, but embracing the pain may open doors for the Christ light to come and eat with us.
It was another email of pain. I looked at my inbox, and someone had sent me an email in response to my ‘God, I want to die’ blog post. They wanted help. They wanted me to pray or offer suggestions. Most of all, I believe they wanted a connection with someone somewhere.
I get about two emails a week from someone in a dark valley. I’m glad they have reached out. I email them back and say that I am praying for them. Sometimes I get a response, but mostly I don’t. For some, this dark place was a brief moment of pain, and in the morning, the darkness clears, and they resume the journey.
For others, the dark valley of pain is more like home. Memories and traumas sit with them and talk about the old times. What happened, why, and how it’s all hopeless, and there is only despair.
I have found that there is not much I can DO for them, but I can BE for them.
The pain of others makes us uncomfortable. It triggers our pain points. Our shadows of guilt, shame, betrayal, loss, and despair. All the ghosts that still haunt and taunt us. Sitting with a fellow pain bearer can catapult us into our dark valley.
Embrace the pain
Pain is pain. Their pain is their pain. It can’t be objectively measured on a painometer. It can’t be precisely compared to another’s pain. It’s their pain, and it’s their journey.
But what if we helped the other to embrace the pain. To not try and avoid it or run from it, but to look at and see it for what it is.
Pain is the price for being human. A robot doesn’t have pain. Puppets don’t have pain—machines we are not. We are human beings created out of a God-like nature. God knows pain.
Pain means we are alive. Alive to knowing both dark valleys and high mountain tops.
Pain is a cross we carry.
The Cross Jesus asked us to carry is yourself.
It’s all the pain inflicted on you in your past
and all the pain you’ve inflicted on others.
But I wonder what might happen in us if, instead of running from the pain, we learn to embrace it. Hug that cross we are carrying even tighter. Not in a masochistic way of continually beating ourselves up, but more in a way of looking at it for what it can teach us.
What is the invite Christ is calling us to learn?
Repentance as a door
I currently attend an Anglican church called St. Andrews. At the rear of the church is a large stained glass window. It is a depiction of Revelation 3:20.
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. Revelation 3:20.
I look at this window and notice a few things.
- The Christ is knocking. He wants entry but not forcing it.
- The door, like most doors, is hinged on the inside. The person on the inside has to open it.
- There is a lamp in Christ’s left hand. Jesus, the light of the world, wants to bring light into the dark space.
- There is a kingly fashion to this image of Christ. He is crowned, robed, glorious.
- There seems to be compassion in his eyes. Compassion for me?
- The door is overgrown with vines. It hasn’t been opened for some time.
I have pain, but I have Christ wanting to come and sit with me. To eat with me. Not to necessarily remove the pain but to quietly commune and connect with my fallen world experience.
In verse nineteen, before the image of Christ knocking at the door, there is the invitation to repent. Repentance in the original language of greek is ‘metanoeó: to change one’s mind or purpose.’
I remember this verse being trotted out like a manipulative tool to get me to ‘open my heart’ to Christ. It was said and conveyed with such emotional energy that guilt and shame were triggered. ‘I better do this or else …’
I now see the word repent as more of a delightful option to course correct. I’ve been going one way, and Christ says I need to adjust my course direction. I change my mind and purpose, and if I am truly honest, I am in a constant state of repentance – course correction.
A change requires me to turn from self-driven pain relief options to opening the door and asking the Christ to eat with my sorrows. He brings light to dark places and a way through. He helps me course correct.
Holding the Christ light
There is a beautiful song called the Servant Song.
There is a line I think that was written particularly for those who want to help people in pain.
I will hold the Christ-light for you
In the nighttime of your fear.
I will hold my hand out to you;
Speak the peace you long to hear.
I’ve shared that first verse with many people. There is a moment when you can’t hold your own hope. You need someone else to come as Christ and hold some light for you. To sit and Shiva with the pain of Job.
Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. Job 2:11-13
In the pain of Job’s course correction, his friends came, sat, and offered a little ‘Christ-light’ to him. It only lasted for seven days before they reverted to our humans’ desire to F.A.S.S. – fix, advise, save, set one straight.
Please embrace me
When I was pastoring in church life, I would sadly come across people who stubbornly refused to embrace the pain of living in a fallen world. Instead, they would run and hide from it. They would self-medicate and self-harm.
Then there would be those who would bury it and try and stuff it down.
It would always reemerge somewhere else in some other way. Resentment, unforgiveness, bitterness, depression, control. It would be ‘transmitted,’ as Richard Rohr would say.
If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it—usually to those closest to us: our family, our neighbors, our co-workers, and, invariably, the most vulnerable, our children. Richard Rohr
Perhaps they had decided their pain was too big for anyone to help them with. Maybe they considered it too insignificant to be considered important to share.
But I believe that as we learn that course correction is expected and embracing the pain is normal, then perhaps we will find the light of Christ opening up to us. We see the comfort of a Good Shepherd, rod, and staff leading us through and out.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
Repentance can be a sweet delight of course correction. A knowing the fullness of pain and turning oneself to the open and welcoming arms of a Christ embrace.
Quotes to consider
- Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light. Brené Brown
- The men and women who are truly filled with light are those who have gazed deeply into the darkness of their own imperfect existence. Brennan Manning
- Despair is what happens when there is a lack of new creation. When things are just are what they are and there is a deep sense of impotence that there is nothing you can do about it. Rob Bell
- Despair is a spiritual condition. Despair is when you fall under the belief and conviction that tomorrow will simply be a repeat of today. Rob Bell
- Out of the wound we pluck the shrapnel.
Thorns we squeeze out of the hand.
Even poison forth we suck, and after the pain we ease.But images that grow within the soul have life
Like cancer often cut, live on below the deepest of the knife
Waiting their time to shoot at some defenseless hour
Their poison, unimpaired, at the heart’s rot,And, like a golden shower, unanswerably sweet,
Bright with returning guilt, fatally in a moment’s time
Defeat our brazen towers long-built;And all our former pain and all our surgeon’s care
Is lost, and all the unbearable (in vain borne once) is still to bear. C.S. Lewis, “Relapse”
- An embrace involves always a double movement of opening and closing.
I open my arms to create space in myself for the other.
The open arms are a sign of discontent at being myself only and of desire to include the other.
They are an invitation to the others to come in and feel at home with me, to belong to me.
In an embrace I also close my arms around the others – not tightly, so as to crush and assimilate them forcefully into myself, for that would not be an embrace but a concealed power-act of exclusion; but gently, so as to tell them that I do not want to be without them in their otherness.
I want them in their openness.
I want them to remain independent and true to their genuine selves, to maintain their identity and as such become part of me so that they can enrich me with what they have and I do not.
Judith M Gundry-Volf, Miroslav Volf. A spacious heart: essays on identity and belonging.
Questions to answer
- What is your emotional response to hearing the word ‘Repent’?
- Embracing the pain seems such a counter-cultural activity to do. What are your ‘go-to’ pain avoidance strategies?
- What would Christ say to you about the pain load you carry?