19 June, 2024

The Gift of Pain

by | 5 June, 2024 | 2 comments

By Micah Odor 

Did you ever get a gift you didn’t want?  

When I was a teenager, my bedroom was a converted attic that was always too hot or too cold. One year, for Christmas, my grandma got me the biggest, thickest, warmest blanket she could find. It was also printed with massive pink and purple jungle flowers. I begged my parents to return it to the store, but it wasn’t possible. I remember being embarrassed when my friends saw it. I hated that gift. Now, 30 years later, I still have that blanket, and it’s still the biggest, thickest, warmest blanket in my house. 

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul told his readers to “eagerly desire the greater gifts.” Instead of hoping and praying for gifts of tongues or interpretation, Paul said we should desire the greater gifts of faith, hope, and love. As we seek to be formed by, with, and like Christ, those three represent the top tier of our aspirations. But if those represent the top shelf, what do you think goes on the next shelf down? 

I can’t explicitly prove it from Scripture, but I think the next shelf might include patience, humility, and perseverance. While these might not be the greatest gifts, they surely represent “the pretty good gifts.” We all respect people with the gift of patience, the gift of humility, and the gift of perseverance. But whatever you do, don’t eagerly desire these gifts. That’s just asking for trouble. 

There’s only one way to learn patience. Nobody is born patient, and you can’t take a class. The only real way to learn patience is by waiting. The terrible truth is that if you pray, “God, make me patient,” then God will give you the desires of your heart. He’ll probably do it, though, by giving you abundant opportunities to practice. The terrible thing about patience is that you can’t learn it quickly. 

For a lot of us, the pathway to learning humility is humiliation. Believe me when I say that when your last name is Odor, you have abundant opportunities to practice humility.  

My grandpa Ivan (yes, his name was really Ivan Odor) loved to smile and say, “It’s pronounced just like it’s smelled.” So, I learned humiliation early, and every time I’ve gotten a little big for my britches, God has graciously allowed me to reacquire the gift of humility. 

But the gift I really didn’t want, the jungle flower blanket of the gifts, is the gift of perseverance. Very few people are born with perseverance. We learn it through having to persevere, and no one perseveres through things that are pleasant. To learn perseverance, you must go through something painful and discover that you’re able to keep going. 

None of these gifts are for a select few; God wants everyone to have them. He gives these gifts “generously without finding fault.” That New Testament phrase is from where James talks about God giving wisdom. The passage isn’t just about wisdom, though: 

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you (James 1:2-5). 

Wisdom is another of those paradoxical “pretty good gifts” that we gain primarily as the result of pain. When I was younger, I always assumed James was being hyperbolic when he said we should consider it pure joy when we face trials. I no longer think that’s a figure of speech. I think James is saying exactly what he means. 

Paul said something similar: “We . . . glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance” (Romans 5:3). Again, we should at least consider the possibility that Paul wasn’t being masochistic or hyperbolic there, but that he meant exactly what he said. The sufferings themselves are something to glory in, because of what they produce. 

Is it possible that the pain itself could be a gift from God? Could we interpret it in that way? The younger me would have said, “God doesn’t cause pain, but he also doesn’t waste it.” Younger me might be right, but I’ve also learned that God cares more about character than success, and sometimes he has to lead us through pain to build our character.  

Every meaningful period of growth in my life has been a time of tremendous pain. There isn’t space in this article to share all of the messy details, but the details don’t really matter. You probably have some stories like that yourself. We all do. 

Jesus said, “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13). 

If we can accept that God wants what’s best for us, and if what’s best for us might sometimes be pain, doesn’t it follow that a good and loving Father would sometimes give us exactly what we need? In theory, I can accept that when I think about myself, but it falls apart when I think about my kids. I would never want them to feel pain; I’d save them from ever experiencing it if I could. But maybe that’s because I’m not as good of a Father as God is. 

“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). 

Before I’d gone through pain, I don’t know if I ever really trusted God. I believed in him, I loved him, but I mostly trusted in me. If I’d been strong, if I’d been successful, could I ever have really known what it meant to trust in him? And if that’s the case, doesn’t that make the pain itself a gift?  

People say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” but it’s not always true. Sometimes what doesn’t kill you leaves you with a scar and a lifelong limp. But when I look back on those painful times in my life, I’m not angry. I’m grateful. I didn’t want it, I’d have given anything to avoid it, but now I wouldn’t return it for the world. 

I almost never think of pain as a gift when I’m going through it. There’s always a gap between when I feel the pain and when I see it as a gift. But the shorter I’ve been able to make that gap, the happier I’ve become. 

I don’t wish you a painless life. I wish you a life that shapes you into something unrecognizable to you now. I wish you a life so full of trust and surrender to God that even in the midst of your worst days, you can say, “Thank you, Jesus, for this gift.” 

Micah Odor serves as executive director of the Christian Church Leadership Network and as vice president of church services for Central Christian College of the Bible. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, with his wife, three kids, and codependent husky. 

2 Comments

  1. Roland Richardson Moore

    Very nice article.

  2. Betty Rose-Zumwalde

    Micah, wonderfully written. Thanks for sharing.

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