When the Apostle Paul says that pain is a gift from God in Romans 5, is he experiencing a moment of temporary insanity? No. He understands that pain draws us closer to the Savior like nothing else. So join Stephen in this message as he brings us Paul's timeless challenge regarding suffering.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the game of gift exchange called The White Elephant.
For several years now, our church staff has enjoyed playing this game at our annual Christmas party. If you’ve played it, you know how it goes; everybody brings a gift they really don’t want . . . the worst gifts end up in some unfortunate person’s possession, while the best gifts become the prized possession of the winners.
It can be really funny. In fact, our staff developed a tradition where one of the gifts that showed up every year was a coconut, shaped to look like the head of a pig, painted with gaudy eye shadow and lipstick. Somebody was going home with the worst gift of all. We all usually sat around and laugh at the poor staff member who got the pigs head at the Christmas party!
Christmas parties drew our staff so much closer together!
The origin of a White Elephant gift is actually quite literal.
It was a custom the Kings often used in ancient India to deal with a difficult member of his kingdom or his own political cabinet. The king would give the problem person a very special present – a rare white elephant. A real one!
Now what might have seemed like a great honor, and the King acted as if it was, in reality, it was a clever form of punishment. A white elephant was considered sacred and it couldn’t be used for work. So, it just ate . . . and ate and ate.
The responsibility to feed, protect and care for the elephant, usually became too much of a burden to finance. But since it was a personal present from the king, the owner couldn’t think about giving it away.
So, he was stuck, literally, with a white elephant! The recipient of this special gift most often disappeared or went bankrupt!
Have you ever received a gift from somebody that you really didn’t want? You knew as soon as you opened the box that you were holding something you were gonna wrap up and give away next year to some distant relative.
I love the story of the woman who had a crystal water pitcher – with a curved handle. Well, the handle of it broke off and she was so stingy that she decided to send it to a distant acquaintance that Christmas who had surprised her with a Christmas gift the year before. You know, she didn’t want to appear ungrateful. So she took it with her to the mall and left it with other gifts to be wrapped by mall personnel – which is such a wonderful idea for people like me, by the way – she mailed the gift off. A couple of weeks later, she got a thank you note that said, “Thank you for the crystal water pitcher with the beautiful handle – what a lovely gift. P.S. It was so kind of you to wrap both pieces separately.”
Be careful what you give those people at the mall.
When you became a believer, whether you knew it or not, you became the recipient of a number of gifts.
These, by the way, are perfect gifts that you unwrap throughout the course of your Christian experience.
The Apostle Paul lists a number of them in Romans chapter 5. Gifts like peace and grace. Gifts we would expect to receive from our loving and attentive heavenly Father.
Keep moving through the list, however, and you discover Paul includes one that just doesn’t seem to fit. He writes in verse 3. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations.
In this inspired list of gifts from God, the third one listed is a surprising gift that surely landed on the wrong list.
It’s the gift of pain.
It’s the kind of gift that we might think deserves a rebellious life in return – look what God gave to me – I think I’ll run my own life from here on out.
The truth is, we can use pain and suffering and discouragement as an excuse to sin.
But take a closer look at this text. Notice the paragraph beginning in verse 1. Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2. through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we triumphantly praise/exult in hope of the glory of God. 3. And not only this, but we also exult – that is, we triumphantly praise Him in our tribulations
There it is in black and white. Not only does Paul enthusiastically praise God for grace and peace and assurance, he enthusiastically praises God for tribulation – thlipsis – a Greek word that could be translated pressure . . . pain.
Is Paul experiencing a moment of temporary apostolic insanity? He’s actually praising God for pressure and pain?!
I have never yet been to prayer meeting yet where somebody said, “You know, I’ve been suffering so many problems lately and I just want to thank God for ‘em.”
I’ve never heard anybody say, “There’s so much pressure in my life right now and nothing’s working out . . . thank you, God!”
Surely, pain is a white elephant gift from a clever sovereign who really doesn’t like you.
The truth is, there are several things about pain that we ought to understand before we try to trade our gift away – to somebody we don’t like.
What about physical pain.
1) First of all, physical pain is an unavoidable part of life.
Nearly 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to his friend in which he said, “The art of life is the avoiding of pain.”
Warren Wiersbe, The Bumps Are What You Climb On (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI), 1980, p. 59
That may sound good, but I totally disagree.
The art of life is not avoiding pain; the art of life is learning how to respond to pain.
Let me put it another way: the experience of living has everything to do with how you live through experiences.
Consider your earliest experience – one you have no memory of – birth. You actually began life with pain.
Listen to the way Philip Yancey described that event:
Your world is dark, safe, secure. You are bathed in a warm liquid, cushioned from shock. You do nothing for yourself; you are fed automatically, and a murmuring heartbeat assures you that something larger than you fills all your needs. You life consists of simple waiting – you’re not sure what to wait for, but any change seems far away. You meet with no discomfort, no threatening adventures. Ah, it’s a fine life.
Then, one day you feel a tug . . . then another . . . stronger . . . harder. The walls seem to be falling in on you. Those soft cushions are now pulsating and beating against you, crushing you – pushing you downwards. Your body is bent in half, your limbs twisted and wrenched. You’re falling, upside down. For the first time in your life, you feel pain. You are in a sea of roiling matter. There is more pressure, almost too intense to bear. Your head is being squeezed and you are pushed harder, harder. The pain; the noise; the pressure; you hurt all over.
You begin to hear the faint sounds of crying and groaning . . . louder and louder. And an awful, fear rushes in on you. Your world is collapsing. You’re sure it’s the end of whatever there is. But then you see a piercing, blinding light. Cold rough hands pull at you . . . everything suddenly grows bright and cold . . . and then, you feel a painful slap . . . you respond with a cry of anguish while everyone around you begins to cheer.
Congratulations . . . you’ve just been born.”
Adapted from Philip Yancey, Where Is God When It Hurts (Harper Paperbacks), 1990, p. 203
Listen, that first experience in life delivers a message to every one of us – pain is an unavoidable part of life.
2. Physical pain is not only unavoidable, it is an essential.
Most people I talk to believe that pain is God’s one major mistake.
The nervous system, with millions of pain sensors always get bad press; if God is so wise, why didn’t He create us with a built in ability to never feel pain?
Dr. Paul Brand revealed the gift of pain in his life long work with people who suffer from Hansen’s disease - we know it by another name – leprosy.
The word leprosy immediately conjures up in your mind images of stubby fingers, ulcerated wounds, missing legs, distorted facial features. Believe it or not, leprosy is not the cause of those physical problems.
Hansen’s disease is a defective pain alert system in the nervous system – it slowly destroys its victim’s ability to feel pain. The disease acts like an anesthetic, numbing the pain cells of hands, feet, nose, ears, and eyes. While most diseases are feared because of their pain – Hansen’s disease is deadly because it causes its victims to never feel pain.
In villages in Africa and Asia, where Dr. Brand worked, a leper would reach directly into a fire to retrieve a dropped potato. Nothing in his body told him not to, and he never felt his skin burn in the flame.
Patients at Dr. Brand’s hospital in India would work all day gripping a shovel with a protruding nail cutting into their hands; patients would casually extinguish a burning wick with their bare fingers; they would walk unconcerned over sharp stones or broken glass.
Patients would slowly go blind, only because their eyes never felt the discomfort that causes the rest of us to know we need to blink. Patients would turn an ankle, tearing tendon and muscle, but simply adjust their gait and walk crooked until the rest of the leg was ruined, infected or deformed.
The warning system of pain was gone.
No wonder Dr. Brand was led to conclude, “Thank God for inventing pain.”
The above quote and comments have been adapted from Philip Yancey’s, Where Is God When It Hurts, pp. 14, 23, 24
Physical pain is a wonderful warning signal, built into our bodies by our Creator God. Without that signal, no one survives for very long.
Paul is revealing this insightful perspective; just as physical pain is inevitable and essential, so also, suffering, pressure and the pain of adversity is also inevitable – and essential.
For the sake of our study, I think we can put the trials of life into 6 categories:
I experience suffering and pain because:
- Those things I want to experience, never happen to me;
- Those things I don’t want to experience, happen to me;
- The things I’d like to have, I never get;
- Things I don’t want to have, won’t leave me alone:
- Things I’m expecting – and waiting for, never arrive;
- Things I’m not expecting – arrive without warning!
But surely a good and loving God would design only good and loving things for us.
Solomon answered when he wrote, “Consider the work of God, for who is able to straighten what He has bent? In the day of prosperity by happy, but in the day of adversity, remember, God has made the one day as well as the other.” (Ecclesiastes 7:13-14)
The average Christian will resist such a statement about God, believing instead the shallow promises of preachers and teachers who say that “anybody who suffers adversity must be out of the will of God . . . sufferers are sinners . . . and if you don’t experience prosperity, you don’t have enough faith.”
Well, listen again to Paul’s personal testimony to the Corinthians – “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; we are perplexed, but not despairing; we are persecuted, but not forsaken; we are struck down, but not destroyed. (2 Corinthians 4:7-9)
That same word, crushed, is used by Paul here in Romans 5:3, translated “tribulation;” it’s a word that referred to olives being squeezed in the press; or grapes being crushed underfoot.
You could accurately translate the word, “pressured with excruciating pain.”
But Paul moves beyond that to write a rather shocking statement at the end of his personal testimony – notice further in verse 3; And not only this, but we exult – we triumphantly praise – in the midst of our tribulations. (Romans 5:3)
In other words, Paul is saying to every believer, “It’s possible to praise God when you go through the squeezes – the pressures – of life.
First of all, by understanding that tribulation is not only inevitable, it is essential.
Like physical pain, so also the pain of the soul – the pressure on our emotions and the stresses of life in general are both inevitable and essential.
And according to the Bible, God uses tribulation in two ways:
First, God uses pain to correct us.
David wrote in Psalm 119, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Thy statutes . . . I know, O Lord, that Thy judgments are righteous, and that in faithfulness Thou has afflicted me.
Like a parent who disciplines their child, they bring pain to their hand or bottom to keep them from even greater pain – from a hot stove or traffic in the street. So also the Lord allows pain which often grabs our attention and protects us from even greater harm.
- Like the painful break-up of a relationship which protects us from immorality, or a marriage to the wrong person.
- What about embarrassment and arrest for crimes which have protected some from even greater crimes and longer sentences. I personally know several inmates who’ve written our radio ministry, testifying that their arrest and incarceration brought them to saving faith in Christ and a new direction in life for God’s glory.
- What about being dismissed by an employer which led to a much better job.
I remember candidating to become the pastor of a church during my final semester in seminary. We were so excited – it was clearly the Lord’s will for us; it was a young, but wealthy church and they were able to pay me enough so that without any sacrifice, my wife would be able to stay home and care for our twin boys who were 5 months old at the time. After 3 intense weekends of candidating – traveling between Texas and North Carolina – we were thrilled at the prospect of serving in the pastorate full time as soon as I graduated. A week after graduation, one of the church leaders called me and said that they had voted among the 4 elders of the church and only 1 had voted in my favor – so I was not being invited to come. Now what do I do . . . how do I take care of my family . . . literally, where’s our next meal and where in the world is my ministry going to be?
Several months later we put an ad in the Cary newspaper and planted Colonial – this month, 25 years ago.
That church I candidated in no longer exists – that was not a prayer request. But what a different path and plan for us!
- What about something much more painful as the death of a child which then creates an incredible passion for the welfare of other children. I know one man whose daughter’s death led him to establish a camp for children where literally thousands of children have come to know Christ personally.
- What about the despair of a lingering disease that brings a person to deeper faith and trust in Christ, as well as a sensitivity to the hurts and needs of others.
The list could go on for pages . . . chapters . . . libraries!
God often uses pain to correct us; to wake us up; to get our attention; to turn us around; to create an entirely different pursuit in life.
And that leads me to the fact that God not only uses pain to correct us:
God also uses pain to construct us.
This happens to be Paul’s approach to pain and pressure in Romans chapter 5.
Paul closes out verse 3 by writing, “And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance;
That’s the first thing.
Paul has been talking about what justification does for us. Now he talks about what tribulation does in us.
Among other things, pain produces perseverance.
Has it ever occurred to you that salvation gives you peace, but it does not make you patient; justification gives you grace, but it does not make you godly.
That’s why the church at large today is filled with people who are growing old in the Lord, but not growing up.
Part of our problem is that we think the Lord is interested in doing a minor construction project in our lives;
- He might want to change the wallpaper in the living room,
- Or repaint the kitchen cabinets –
- Maybe He’ll pull up the carpet and refinish the floors.
Listen, God isn’t into remodeling – He shows up with a sledgehammer – and a bulldozer; and His construction projects don’t last for a couple of days – or a couple of weeks . . . construction takes place as long as you’re alive!
And it’s painful.
And that pain – when surrendered to – produces perseverance.
Then next - Perseverance produces purity.
Paul continues in verse 4. And perseverance [brings about] proven character.
The word translated “character” carries with it the idea of an 1st century goldsmith who worked at refining the gold ore in his crucible. The only way to separate the gold from unwanted impurities was to reduce the ore to liquid form, through intense heat.
The impurities would then rise to the surface to be skimmed away. The skilled goldsmith would continue to add more and more heat to the liquid gold until the impurities were skimmed off the surface. When the goldsmith could see clearly his reflection on the surface of the liquid, he knew the contents were pure.
Kenneth Wuest, Bypaths in the Greek New Testament (Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids,MI), 1954, p. 73
The analogy is obvious!
Character is the reflection of Jesus Christ – who continually removes the impurities for the sake of clarity.
Pain produces perseverance; perseverance produces purity and next, Purity produces perspective.
Paul writes in the last part of verse 4. And proven character produces hope.”
Have you ever thought about the fact that God has never promised to remove your pain, or even to relieve it; but He does promise to transform it and use it to construct lives that are marked by a perspective that stretches out into eternity.
In other words, pain reminds us that God has promised to one day set things right.
So let history finish! If you’re breathing, God isn’t finished the construction process!
You are under construction – and while you wait, you give Him glory. While you suffer, you honor Him. While you get that which you don’t want and don’t get what you do want, you praise Him.
Paul goes on to say in verse 5 that your hope will never be disappointed.
How many times have you said, “Oh, man I had hoped . . .”
- I had hoped in that cure;
- I had hoped in that person;
- I had hoped in that interview;
- I had hoped in that loan;
- I had hoped in that election;
- I had hoped in that purchase;
- I had hoped in that child;
- I had hoped in that friend;
- I had hoped in that parent;
- I had hoped in that investment;
- I had hoped . . . oh how I had hoped!
And I was disappointed!
Paul says, when your hope is in God it will never be disappointed.
That’s why Jesus Christ said in the last Book of the Bible, “Hold fast the truth that you have, until I come.” (Revelation 2:25)
How do you hold fast the truth? I’ll tell you how. By accepting the gift of pain. Its correction . . . its construction.
Accept it as one of God’s perfect gifts to create in you perseverance, purity and perspective.
No wonder Charles Spurgeon once exclaimed, “We are at our spiritual best when we are shipwrecked on the island of God’s sovereignty.”
Shipwrecked? Yes. But the island is in the palm of our God’s sovereign hand.
A few years ago a young man who had attended our church sensed the Lord directing him into vocational ministry. He and his wife were enthusiastic and made plans to eliminate debt and begin Bible College. After months of preparation they were accepted and left for an out-of-state school.
During his first semester he developed a nasal infection that required surgery. The doctor blundered in surgery, cutting through sensitive nerves. What began as simple outpatient surgery became a nightmare. He was wracked with incredible pain in his face; eyes, nose, teeth, mouth, jaws all screamed with constant pain. He was told that surgery wouldn’t repair anything and that only time might heal him. After 2 years, his recovery was still incomplete. He had to drop out of school and was unable to work. They lost what little they had and eventually moved back home.
When he came to see me, he could only sit for a few minutes; he was on the maximum pain medicine allowable – with a morphine pack on his hip. Even still, he sat in my office with a lollypop in his mouth, laced with more drugs to help the pain in his mouth and teeth. No bitterness . . .he told me he’d just wanted to come by and pray with me so that we could worship God for a few minutes together.
We have a lot of hymns in our hymnal written by Fannie Crosby, a blind poet. When she was only 6 weeks old she developed a minor eye inflammation and the doctor’s careless treatment left her blind. She would later write,
“It seemed intended by the blessed Providence of God that I should be blind all my life and I thank Him for it.” She would write that her blindness was God’s gift to her so that she could write songs for His glory.
Fannie Crosby would go on to write hundreds of hymns including, Face to Face, To God be the Glory, Blessed Assurance, All the Way My Savior Leads Me, and hundreds more.
What interested me was a poem she wrote as a child. Actually, it was her first poem, written when she was only 8 years of age.
Listen to her perspective, purity and perseverance, even at the age of 8 . . . listen to her exultation in God:
“Oh what a happy child I am,
Although I cannot see!
I am resolved that in this world,
Contented I will be.
How many blessing I enjoy
That other people don’t!
So weep or sigh because I’m blind,
I cannot, and I won’t.
Warren Wiersbe, Victorious Christians You Should Know (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI), 1984, p. 23
That is what I call accepting the gift of pain; turning a white elephant gift into a wonderful expression of praise to God for the perfect gift of pain.