When we are in the throes of pain, it is difficult to feel assured of God’s wisdom and love. But if God is as big as Scripture says he is (and as big as creation itself demands!), then our inability to perceive his purpose doesn’t mean there’s not one at work. Our inability to discern God’s purpose has more to do with how limited our perspective is.
When my first child turned one, we took her in for a round of shots. They should require some kind of parent-debriefing before child immunizations because, as hard as it was for her, I was the one who almost didn’t make it. The doctor asked me to hold my little girl on my lap as she stuck a needle in her arm four different times. Each time, my daughter let out a scream that could have woken the dead. What was worse, though, was how frantically she looked around the room searching for help. When her eyes found mine, it was clear she expected me to do something to stop this cruel doctor. But there I sat—not only not stopping the doctor, but helping her!
She couldn’t understand why the one who loved her was not helping her. She couldn’t perceive that I was doing what I was doing because I loved her and not in spite of it.
Isn’t it possible that the pain that God allows us to go through might be like that too? Just as those painful shots produced a healthier life for my daughter, might it be that our pain in life yields a much greater and happier eternity?
The apostle Paul compares our journey in this life to the process of childbirth: temporary pain for long-term joy. I have watched my wife give birth to each of our four children. I’ve seen the very real pain she went through. One of them came so fast we weren’t even able to get the epidural—we barely made it through the hospital door! Each labor period, though relatively brief in the grand scheme of things, was real, intense, and agonizing. But when we held each of our newborn children, the pain was all but forgotten. And now, that pain seems like nothing more than a distant memory.
Paul said, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. . . . We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom 8:18, 22).
“Not worth comparing.” Paul is not saying the pain isn’t real. It is. He’s saying that something so awesome is coming that the worst pain we experience now can’t even be compared to it. Mother Teresa, intimately acquainted with great suffering, said that once we enter eternity the worst things we experienced on earth will seem like “one bad night in a cheap hotel.”
That’s not to minimize, trivialize, or explain away our pain now, but to enlarge our expectation and hope of what God has prepared for us in eternity. “What no eye has seen,” Paul said, “‘what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’—the things God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9).
A friend and father of three that I know was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer. Doctors told him initially that his chances of survival were not good. He is praying, as are many of us, for a complete and total healing. But he said something the other day that brought it all into perspective: “When we get to heaven, it’s not that we look back and see the reasons bad things happen and say, ‘Oh . . . that’s why that happened!’ Rather, we will say, ‘What bad things?’ In that moment, we will be so consumed with God and our future in him that we will scarcely remember the process he used!”
Scripture tells us that a day is coming when God will undo every injustice and heal every hurt and that his end “product” will be stronger and better for having gone through the process. On that day God will wipe away every tear, says the apostle John, and make all things new (Rev 21:4–5). To use the words of J. R. R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings, he will “make every sad thing come untrue.” God doesn’t erase our memory of them; he shows us how they were all part of a beautiful plan. The truth of their destructiveness is overwritten by the truth of his redemption.
One of my favorite promises about this wonderful day is found in Isaiah:
This is what the Sovereign LORD says: “[In that day], I will give a signal to the godless nations. They will carry your little sons back to you in their arms; they will bring your daughters on their shoulders.” (Isa 49:22 NLT)
The slave who watched his family torn apart by injustice will one day see them reunited again. The couple who lost their five-year-old son to tuberculosis will have him brought back on the shoulders of angels. What a day that will be!
God uses pain to prepare his people for that future, like a doctor who gives shots to improve your quality of life or a coach who presses you to the point of exhaustion to strengthen your endurance. Our current world may not be the best place we can imagine, but it is the world best suited to bring us to that best world. God’s plan is not just to take us to heaven; it is to put heaven into us.
Once you understand that, you’ll interpret the pain in your life differently. C. S. Lewis said, “If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.”
Sometimes we can see what God is doing. You can probably look back on some painful period of your life and see how the difficulty made you better. The illness helped you reexamine your priorities. The breakup helped you regain your self-confidence. Getting passed over for a promotion kept you from destroying your family. So here’s the thing: if already, with limited time and perspective, we can see some of God’s good purposes in our pain, don’t you think, given infinite time and perspective, we’ll see a reason for all of it? That’s not something we should expect to see fully on earth. No one, Solomon says, can comprehend God’s work while they live “under the sun” (Eccl 8:17). Our earthly minds are just not big enough.
Greear, J. D., and David Jeremiah. 2018. Not God Enough: Why Your Small God Leads to Big Problems. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
We have just released a new Bible Study based on J.D. Greear’s newest book, Not God Enough. These lessons are available on Amazon, as well as a part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.