Our natural instincts tell us that the way forward in the Christian life is by avoiding pain so that, undistracted, we can get down to the business at hand of growing in Christ. The New Testament tells us again and again, however, that pain is a means, not an obstacle, to deepening in Christian maturity. The anguish, disappointments, and futility that afflict us are themselves vital building blocks to our growth. We are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17). We most deeply know Christ as we “share his sufferings” (Phil. 3:10). “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. 12:11).

Pain will foster growth like nothing else can—if we will let it.

Slicing Off Branches

Each of us is like an otherwise healthy vine that has the perverse inclination to entangle all its tendrils around a poisonous tree that appears nourishing but actually deadens us. We have been warned that embracing this tree will kill us. But we can’t help ourselves. We wrap ourselves around it. There’s only one resort for the loving gardener. He must slice us free. Lop off whole branches, even. He must cause us to pass through the pass of loss, the pain of being diminished, of being lessened, in order to free us.

The world and its fraudulent offerings are like that poisonous tree. And our heavenly Gardener loves us too much to let us continue to commit soul suicide by getting more and more deeply attached to the world. Through the pain of disappointment and frustration, God weans us from the love of this world. It feels like we’re being crippled, like we’re dying. In point of fact, we are being freed from the counterfeit pleasures of the world.

In 1949 C. S. Lewis wrote to Warfield Firor, an American professor of surgery, and in refreshing honesty said:

It’s all there in the New Testament.… ‘Dying to the world’—‘the world is crucified to me and I to the world.’ And I find I haven’t begun: at least not if it means (and can it mean less) a steady and progressive disentangling of all one’s motives from the merely natural or this-worldly objects: like training a creeper to grow up one wall instead of another. I don’t mean disentangling from things wrong in themselves, but, say, from the very pleasant evening which we hope to have over a ham tomorrow night, or from gratification at my literary success. It is not the things, nor even the pleasure in them, but the fact that in such pleasures my heart, or so much of my heart, lies.

Or to put it in a fantastic form—if a voice said to me (and one I couldn’t disbelieve) ‘you shall never see the face of God, never help to save a neighbor’s soul, never be free from sin, but you shall live in perfect health till you are 100, very rich, and die the most famous man in the world, and pass into a twilight consciousness of a vaguely pleasant sort forever’—how much would it worry me? How much compared with another war? Or even with an announcement that I should have to have all my teeth out? You see? And what right have I to expect the Peace of God while I thus put my whole heart, at least all my strongest wishes, in the world which he has warned me against?

Well, thank God, we shall not be left to the world. All His terrible resources (but it is we who force Him to use them) will be brought against us to detach us from it—insecurity, war, poverty, pain, unpopularity, loneliness. We must be taught that this tent is not home.

Lewis here exposes our hearts. We who are honest with ourselves recognize how intractably entwined the vines of our hearts are with this world. That’s not to say we should refuse to enjoy the good things of the world—a favorite meal, a beautiful sunset, the intimate pleasures of a spouse, gratification at a job well done. To resist such pleasures absolutely is, according to the apostles, demonic (1 Tim. 4:1–5). Rather, we should acknowledge that our hearts will latch on to anything in this world short of God himself and will seek to draw strength from that created thing instead of the Creator and his love. The biblical category for this perverse inclination of our hearts to look to the things of this world to quench our soul thirst is idolatry. Idolatry, as I defined it in chapter 5, is the folly of asking a gift to be a giver. The Bible tells us to locate our supreme longings and thirstings in God himself. He alone can satisfy (Ps. 16:11), and he promises he will satisfy (Jer. 31:25).

The problem is that we cannot, out of our own resources, lift up our hearts’ deepest hopes from the world and transplant them in God. We think we can. We try. But it’s like a child going into heart surgery confident that he can fix his heart on his own. He needs a surgeon to tend to him and to bring all that medical expertise to bear on the operation.

We too need heart surgery. And we too need the resources of a physician, the divine physician, who not only has all the right expertise but also has embraced us into his deepest heart and loves us with a love as expansive as his own being (Eph. 3:18–19).

The operation takes a lifetime and often hurts. But it’s healing us.

Dane C. Ortlund, Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners, ed. Michael Reeves, Union (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 16–19.

We have just completed a Bible study to guide your group into meditating on and applying these truths. Deeper is our Bible Study based on Dane Ortlund’s book by the same name. It consists of 7 lessons with ready-to-use questions suitable for groups. It can be purchased on Amazon and is also available as part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service.