Athletes and artists alike learn that a long period of struggle and effort precedes nearly all worthwhile human accomplishments. It required years of toil and misery for Michelangelo to create the Sistine Chapel frescoes that have since given pleasure to so many others. And anyone who has built cabinets in a kitchen or tended a vegetable garden knows the same truth in a more mundane way: the pleasure, coming after the pain, absorbs it. Jesus used childbirth as an analogy: nine months of waiting and preparation, intense labor, then the ecstasy of birth (John 16:21).

I once interviewed Robin Graham, the youngest person ever to sail around the world alone. (His story was told in the book and movie Dove.) Robin set sail as an immature sixteen-year-old, not so much seeking his future as delaying it. In the course of the long voyage, he was smashed broadside by a violent ocean storm, had his mast snapped in two by a rogue wave, and barely missed annihilation by a waterspout. He went through such despair in the Doldrums, a windless, currentless portion of the ocean near the Equator, that he emptied a can of kerosene in his boat, struck a match, and jumped overboard. (A sudden gust of wind soon caused him to change his mind and he jumped back in to extinguish the blaze and continue the voyage.)

After five years, Robin sailed into the Los Angeles harbor to be greeted by boats, banners, crowds, reporters, honking cars, and blasts from steam whistles. The joy of that moment was on a different level from any other experience he had known. He could never have felt those emotions returning from a pleasure outing off the coast of California. The agony of his round-the-world trip had made possible the exultation of his triumphant return. He left a sixteen-year-old kid and returned a twenty-one-year-old man.

Impressed by the sense of health that self-accomplishment could bring, Robin immediately bought a farm plot in Kalispell, Montana, and built a cabin from hand-cut logs. Publishers and movie agents tried to entice him with round-the-country publicity trips, talk show engagements, and fat expense accounts, but Robin declined them all.

We moderns, in our comfort-controlled environments, have a tendency to blame our unhappiness on pain, which we identify as the great enemy. If we could somehow excise pain from life, ah, then we would be happy. But, as experiences like Robin’s show, life does not yield to such easy partitioning. Pain is a part of the seamless fabric of sensations, and often a necessary prelude to pleasure and fulfillment. The key to happiness lies not so much in avoiding pain at all costs as in understanding its role as a protective warning system and harnessing it to work on your behalf, not against you.

Philip Yancey, Where Is God When It Hurts? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010).

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