What’s the Purpose of Pain?

eric-liddellWhen we go through storms in life- trials, pain, heartache, stress, etc.- Christians almost always ask “Why?”  We want to know the purpose behind pain.  We know from the Scripture and from experience that God sometimes sends or allows hardship in our lives to correct us when we have strayed from him or to teach us some lesson (the old saying, “storms of correction and storms of perfection”).  Let’s face it- none of us would ever testify that we grew closest to God in times that were smooth and stress-free.  It is in the midst of the storm that God gets our attention and brings us to the end of ourselves.  C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”  Pain is so often the crucible of learning.

There is another possible purpose in our suffering that doesn’t revolve around our being corrected or instructed.  Sometimes God simply wants to use our suffering to do a work in the lives of others.  Think of it- how many times have you seen the faithful response of a follower of Christ in the face of suffering that encouraged or emboldened you in your faith?

The Apostle Paul is an excellent biblical example of God using a person’s suffering to benefit others.  Look at what Paul told the Philippians in 1:12-14- “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.”  Notice that he doesn’t say the gospel made progress in spite of his adversity (that’s how we think of it often in our lives), but rather the adversity itself had turned out for the advancement of the gospel.  Paul’s suffering of imprisonment led to elite Roman troops coming to faith in Christ and giving courage to Christians in Rome to live out and share the gospel with boldness.  There are times when the purpose of suffering is God working in the lives of others.  That’s a perspective we need to learn regarding our own suffering.

A powerful modern-day example of God using our pain in this way is the story of Eric Liddel.  In his book If God is Good, Randy Alcorn tell us “the rest of the story” regarding Liddel.

Eric Liddell, “The Flying Scotsman” of the movie Chariots of Fire, shocked everyone by refusing to run the 100 meters in the 1924 Paris Olympics- a race experts favored him to win.  He withdrew because the qualifying heat took place on a Sunday, and he refused to “violate the Sabbath.”  Liddell went on to win a gold medal- and break the world record- in the 400 meters, which was not his strongest event.  Most know about Liddel’s life as it relates to the Olympics and his refusal to run on Sunday.  However, many do not know what happened to Liddel after the Olympics were over.

For a number of years Liddell served as a missionary in China, but when the Japanese occupation made life dangerous, he sent his pregnant wife and two daughters to Canada.  Japanese invaders delivered him to a squalid prison camp where he lived several years before dying at age forty-three of a brain tumor, a few months before the war ended.  Liddell never saw his family again in this life and never got to see the youngest of his three daughters.

Why did God withhold from this great man of faith a long life, years of fruitful service, the companionship of his wife, and the joy of raising those beloved children?  It makes no sense.  “Where is God in that?” we might ask.

And yet consider another perspective on the suffering Eric Liddel endured…

Margaret Holder was born in China to missionary parents.  In 1939, when Japan took control of eastern China, soldiers separated thirteen-year-old Margaret from her parents and imprisoned her for six years.     In an interview, Margaret recounted many stories of her experience in the concentration camp.  Many of these stories included a godly man who tutored her and the other children, organized sporting events, and brought God’s Word to them.   All the children in the camp loved him deeply.  He was their inspiration.  He helped to protect and care for them.  In the interview, Margaret then revealed the man’s name:  He was known as “Uncle Eric.”

Through fresh tears, Margaret said, “It was a cold February day when Uncle Eric died.”  If all Scotland mourned Liddell’s death, no one mourned like the children in that camp.  Only five months later, paratroopers rescued the camp’s survivors, so the children were at last reunited with their families.

Eric Liddell’s presence in that camp broke the hearts of his family.  But for years, nearly to the war’s end, God used him as a lifeline to hundreds of children, including Margaret Holder.

May the example of Eric Liddel cause us to look at our suffering, and the suffering of others, from the perspective that God may well be using our pain for the benefit of others and for God to do a work in their lives.  Would you be willing to suffer so that God could use it for His purposes?



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