When Pain Gets Proud

God knows your pain. 

He holds your tears in his bottle. 

Your name is engraved on the palm of his hand. 

Yes, right. I’m sure. And I’d hug, nod and grimace my way through these and dozens of similar sympathetic and kind encouragements.

Then I’d walk away from my would-be-comforters thinking, You’ll never know. You can’t understand my pain. 

Those words from you-you mother of five, holding your third sweet surprise-don’t console. Your words are water off a duck’s back. They don’t bring comfort. And not just your words, but the words from the kind widows and single sisters and the concerned co-workers. None can know my sorrow. 

Each heart knows it’s own bitterness, the Proverb says. But that’s no excuse to let common-to-man sadness morph into self-righteous pride. Here’s how that happens. 

Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen

Clothe yourself with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, [by] casting all your cares upon him, for he cares for you.  1 Peter 5:5-7

The Devil, the Accuser, would love to separate us from God and the grace He gives to the humble. One of his big guns is to tempt us to doubt God’s love. Did God really say? Does Job fear God for no reason? He’d have us believe God doesn’t really care about us. Pain makes us easy prey when it leaves us preoccupied with ourselves. Nobody knows my sorrow.

Suffering can push us to God, refine us and result in praise, glory and honor when Christ comes again. It can help us plumb the depths of God’s love and rely on it more fully. The fellowship of sharing Christ’s sufferings is a sweet, sweet fellowship. But we forfeit the grace that could be ours.

We let pain puff us up and pull us away from the God of all comfort and the Body he lovingly equips to bind up our wounds. No one, we think, has felt the pain of my loss, abuse, miscarriage, marital strife or ___. Therefore, we reason, no one is qualified to comfort me.  

Marshall Segal’s assessment of the pain-pride link is so insightful. Segal writes:

Pain becomes proud because it believes no one else understands. No one feels what I feel. And so pain distances itself from anyone who might try and speak into its suffering. But pain afflicts itself even more the farther it separates itself from others. God has given us himself, his word, and each other to produce faith, and even joy, in the midst of pain, even the most severe and unique pain. 

One test to determine whether our pain is producing pride is to ask how we respond to encouragement from others, maybe especially from other believers who don’t understand our pain. Are we willing to hear the word and hope of God from someone who has not experienced or cannot comprehend our current suffering? If we’re unwilling, then pain has driven us into isolation, and Satan’s succeeding in his purpose for your suffering.

The humble let themselves be comforted. They take hugs. Paul didn’t let his pain isolate. I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, Paul wrote to Philemon (1:7). Aristarchus, Mark and Jesus, called Justus brought him comfort, too (Colossians 4:10-11).

Are you willing to let the Body do its healing work? Or will you let Satan succeed in his purpose? Will you humble allow God’s people to speak His healing, comforting truth into your pain? Or will you proud stiff-arm his hug? 

The Two Sides Of Pride

1. My Pain’s Worse Than Your Pain

Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man… It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)

This might not sound like it has anything to do with your pain or your pride. But it might. 

After a hard church parting and a decade of pain-filled estrangement, overlapping with more years that that of infertility, I now see how I used my pain to set myself apart and above. My year after year without pregnancy, the gut-wrenching loss of a dear church family and the mistreatment and injustice of it all. Clearly, my pain was worse. 

Pride is competitive. And since I can be too, my pain went mutant. Pride wanted to be the center of attention, so pride- so I– byway of pain, set myself above others’ others pain and their comfort. And, as Lewis said, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you. 

2. Woe Is My Pity

But, you say, I don’t have a competitive bone in my body, so how can my pain possibly be proud? Only God knows your heart. But I know that there is another side of the proud coin. 

If one side is the boasting, I suffered more side, than the other side is the self-pitying side. It’s the side that says, This shouldn’t be happening to me, I don’t deserve this

Boasting is the voice of pride in the heart of the strong. Self-pity is the voice of pride in the heart of the weak. The reason self-pity does not look like pride is that it appears to be needy. But the need arises from a wounded ego and the desire of the self-pitying is not really for others to see them as helpless, but heroes.  (John Piper, Desiring God)

Ultimately either side of pride can separate us, both from God and from others. Both sides won’t hear God’s comforting voice. Pride would silence the well-instructed tongue, he gives others, to know the word that sustains the weary (Isaiah 50:4). It would rather wallow than rejoice and look down instead of lifting eyes to the heavens, from where help comes. 

A God-Honoring Way Out

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort others in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.  2 Corinthians 1:3-4

It is true that no one on earth has or will ever experience exactly my own little batch of suffering. But that’s okay. No one needs to have walked in my exact shoes to be able to offer me the exact right balm for my broken soul. 

That’s because God already gave the exact right balm for my soul: He spoke his Word. Marshall Segal notes,  

God wrote a book to overcome all of [the] inevitable ignorance and insensitivity. With the Bible, people can bring you the always-relevant wisdom and hope of an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God.

And the all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God gave gifts to men. One of the gifts he gave was encouragement. Another, comfort. Another, teaching. And if, in proud pain, I stiff-arm the members of the Body he gave to comfort me, I forfeit those gifts. 

When we stiff arm His Body, we fall far short of His glory. Because, ultimately, pride is a worship issue. When we push away those who’d speak God’s word to us, we’re thinking more about ourselves and our pain, than of bringing glory to our God. Rather than glorify him in the day of trouble (Psalm 50:15), we wallow. 

The only way out of that proud mud is to think less of ourselves and more of God. The rivers of self-forgetfulness flow down from the Godward heights of worship. He alone is worthy of all worship and praise…Therefore, God’s children cannot be ambivalent about pride. We must hate it and hunt it down until it’s dead. (Jason Meyer, Killjoys)

Hunting down pride means stalking it to the strangest of places, like our pain. And killing it means taking up the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God (Eph. 6:17). And that sword, the Word, might very well be wielded by a saint who doesn’t know your sorrow. 

But who knows One who does. 

Because, Nobody knows but Jesus. 

Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows…

Isaiah 53:4a

Does It Count?

The real test of the saint is…doing the things that do not count in the actual estimate of men but count everything in the estimate of God. 

-Oswald Chambers

Mom, do these [dishes] count for my work today?

Does this [Monopoly money] count for my math? 

Does this [vacuuming] count for exercise? 

Does this [Fruit Loops box] count for my reading?

No kidding. Our eight-year old asked me each of those in a single day last week. Because at our house summers off aren’t entirely.

We still do work in the summer. We learn to do dishes and sweep floors and fold laundry. We do math and reading, and play piano and exercise. And Gabe, God bless him, doesn’t want to waste his efforts. He wants to be sure reading the cereal box at breakfast and scrubbing dinner dishes and counting play money are entered on his ledger.

He wants it all to count.

In Vain?

We all want to know that our work counts. We crave assurance that our labors are not in vain, that our love is not wasted. We long to know that somehow, in some way our efforts will be rewarded. We wonder:

Lord, do these [dishes] count for my work today?

Does this [meal for a new mom] count for love?

Does this [hard forgiveness] count for faith?

Does this [check to our church] count for some reward?

The worst moments in our lives are those that scream: Wasted! All in vain. They etch themselves deep, these moments. My husband was into balsa-wood building back in the day. Hours, a day and maybe a night was how long a diligent twelve-year-old labored over one little model home.

Finally, exultant, he set the delicate little dwelling on his bed. Dan came in, then, and they bantered as brothers can and Jim flopped joyful back on the bed. And the balsa-wood house was smashed in a second into smithereens. And Jim cried.

Waste feels awful. When hours of dinner prep are lost in a smoky oven and days of writing are lost in a hard drive crash. When weeks of study are lost-one click shy of submitted-and the test is outside its window. When months nursing peach trees are lost to a summer storm, tiny fruits hard on the ground. No counts hurt.

These crushing flash points hit us hard; when work seems irretrievably, irrevocably lost and love looks irretrievably, irrevocably wasted. As if labor was in vain, and love wasted. Lost.

But are they?

Not In Vain

Paul was like us. He wanted to be sure his own work, his ministry, wasn’t in vain. He wanted his work to count.

Fourteen years after Damascus Road, Paul went up to Jerusalem. Why? To make sure [he] was not running in vain (Galatians 2:2). He wanted to be sure he was doing his work right, proclaiming the gospel truly. He told the Philippian church, Hold fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain (Phil. 2:16).

You’ve probably heard it said, You must preach to yourself. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, an English pastor last century, may have coined the adage. The futility of wasted, no-counts are preempted by preaching to ourselves.

We must constantly be reminding ourselves that we are always in the presence of God, that He sees and knows everything and we can never escape his sight. Where can I go to flee from your presence? 

If we were to practice this it would be revolutionary. I am quite certain a revival would start at once. Think of all the pretense and sham, and all that is unworthy in us. If only we realized that God is looking at all, and is aware of it all, and is recording it all. (D.M. Lloyd-Jones, The Sermon on the Mount, V. II, p. 17)

So don’t phone it in because you don’t see a reward. That’s what faith must be. It’s precisely the work no one sees, the hours that no one notices and love that’s not returned that God will reward. It’s just then-when love or labor seem in vain- that God tells us, It counts.

That’s one reason, I think, that the great day of the Lord will be so great. We’ll know that our work of faith counted. That the efforts pleased our Master. Isaiah foretold this day, when They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat…They shall not labor in vain (Isaiah 65:22).

What About Rewards?

The whole issue of rewards troubles people. But reward is central to Christian belief. Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him (Hebrews 11:60). So we make it our goal to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one should receive what is due for what he has done in the body (2 Cor. 5:9-10)

Each believer will receive his own reward according to his own labor (1 Cor. 3:8) and, Whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord (Eph. 6:8). In one span of eighteen verses, Christ spoke four times of reward. He spoke-not to put such talk of reward to rest-but to assure us that it is perfectly good and right to seek it.

Provided, of course, that the reward is rightly sought from the righteous Judge.

The key thing is to remember that rewards come once. If you seek yours from man, you won’t get it from God. So, don’t let your left hand know about the check your right hand wrote.

But, it doesn’t follow that we should be unconcerned with reward. Only be mindful that God keeps accounts. He sees what you do in secret, and one day out in the open will be gathered all the nations. And the King will say, “Come you blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom…For I was hungry and you gave me food, a stranger and you welcomed me.” 

How To Make It Count

1. Beware

If you seek your reward from men you may very well get it, but that is all you will get. You’ve cashed your check. Think, every time you wonder If this counts, of our guiding truth about reward:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 6:1). 

Lloyd-Jones prods us again. Work through your religious life, think of all the good you have done in the past, in the light of that pronouncement. How much remains to come to you from God? It is a terrifying thought.

In an age when it’s so easy to showcase our righteous acts, and reap rewards the instant we post them, it is a terrifying thought. We’d best beware.

2. Let Him Keep Accounts

Leave the book-keeping to Him and his grace. Let Him keep the accounts…There is no need to waste time keeping accounts, He is keeping them. And what wonderful accounts they are. May I say it with reverence, there is nothing I know if that is so romantic as God’s methods of accountancy …The whole world is turned upside down by grace” -D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones*  

Do you live for God’s glory? Do your work and play, your Facebook posts and text threads make God look great? Praise Him if they do, but don’t keep track. Seek the Kingdom first. Quit asking if it counts. Like my NYC sister-in-law says, Forget about it. 

3. Keep Doing Good

To those who by patience in well doing seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life (Romans 2:7). And your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:4, 6,18). 
So keep right on rocking those babes in the nursery and writing checks to your church and doing dishes after hosting group. Love and labor for God count. He sees and knows what’s done for his sake.

So don’t grow weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up (Galatians 6:9).

4. Keep On Trusting

The Hebrew Christians were like Gabe. They wanted their work to count. And since whatever was written for them is for our benefit, too, we have hope. For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints (Hebrews 6:10).

In a sermon on that text, John Piper reiterates this great truth:

The great battle of the Christian life is not to produce merit so that the justice of God will repay with salvation. The great battle of Christian life is to keep trusting God patiently until he freely gives the final inheritance.  

Do you trust Him? That he saw how patiently you listened, how silently you cleaned her kids’ mess? That these checks year after year will bring reward one day? That He saw the smile forced for the man who slandered my man? Can I trust this hard forgiveness He’s helping me do counts for something?

*     *     *     *     *

Yes, Gabe. Your work counts. Scrubbing dishes and counting Monopoly money counts. It all adds up to something good. By God’s accounting, and by his grace, it makes the man.

Yes, Christian, it does. It all counts for something. In God’s economy no labor or love for his name’s sake is ever wasted. He will reward the righteous acts you do for Him. They matter.

In fact, nothing on earth matters more.

The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. 
Galatians 5:6

*Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure, p. 131

Small Things

For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice. 

Zechariah 4:10a

Hi, Mom. This is Sam, our introvert ten year-old announced. You told me to call at two o’clock. It’s two o’clock.

It may seem a small thing, Sam’s call. But it’s big, because Sam isn’t much for talking on the phone. Besides that aversion, he was digging deep in Minecraft when the appointed check-in time came. In days past, he forgot. He lacked self-control. This time, Sam called. It was big small step.

Sorry for whining, Mom, our eight year-old reluctant writer confessed. I just don’t want to write it all again, but I will. 

That after self-cues to take three big breaths. And so Mr. Emotion took a small step toward perseverance. Instead of the usual moan-and-groan act we see when he’s asked to redo, Gabe took correction. Without a whine or tear, he rewrote the note. A small thing, and big. 

Small things are there for the seeing, if we look. Resisting an ice cream urge at nine at night is small. And big. Refraining from, I told you so, when you did tell him so is small. And big. 

Saying I’m sorry and Thank you and I forgive you are all small statements. But they have potential to cause huge growth, both in the speaker and the listener. The lips of the righteous nourish many.  

Eyes To See Small Things

It was 520 B.C. The Jewish exiles had come home to Jerusalem. Decades after their temple had been destroyed, the rebuild restarted. The foundation was laid. But the sight of the stacked stones struck onlookers as small and scant, at least compared to the former glory of Solomon’s temple. 

So friends of Israel wept while her foes jeered. Many doubted the project would ever be finished. It was a day of small things. 

Enter the prophet Zechariah and the angel who spoke God’s word. To the Prince Zerubbabel and the mournful or scornful around him, Zechariah (4:6, 9-10) offered big encouragement: 

Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts…The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house, and his hands shall complete it. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you. For who has despised the day of small things shall rejoice and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel

Just you wait, Zechariah assures. It’ll get done. Zerubbabel will soon drop the plumb line down those straight temple walls. And when he does, you will rejoice. This little foundation, this groundbreaking, isn’t the sum total of the work God is doing. It’s the mustard-seed-small start of something big. 

The temple of the LORD will be rebuilt, because the Spirit of Almighty God is at work. 

Learning Zerubbabel’s Lesson

In some ways we’ve learned Zerubbabel’s lesson. We celebrate small beginnings of big buildings. We dig with silver shovels and cut ribbons and mark the new house starts with smily photo ops. 

We mark physical growth in all sorts of festive ways, too. Staggered lines and dates on the doorframe, walking, talking milestones in baby books, very big birthday bashes for very little people. We do these things-we celebrate and commemorate- because we know that big things start small. 

But what about the spiritual starts? Do we celebrate days of spiritual small things? Do we rejoice when the son shows growth in self-control? When he shuts off the iPad without being told and reins in complaint all on his own? Or the day the daughter uses words to build up and not bully her little brother? 

How about the day your friend chooses gratitude over grumbling, or timeliness over tardiness? Or when- after a quick fit of anger- a spouse turns and asks forgiveness? Do you rejoice? Do you praise the small actions borne of godly wisdom and fear of the Lord? A woman who fears the Lord is to be praised (Proverbs 31:30), and A man shall be commended for his wisdom (Proverbs 12:8). 

So maybe we should celebrate Spirit-led small things more.  Because, writes C.S. Lewis, 

Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature into a hellish creature. 

Sow an action, reap a habit. Nail is driven out by nail; habit is overcome by habit. Sow to the flesh, reap corruption, sow to the Spirit-the mighty working Spirit that builds God’s temples-reap eternal life (Galatians 6:8)Little seeds grow into big weeds or fruitful trees. 

So, who will despise the day of small things?

Worth Doing Badly

It’s not ours to judge how great the growth. We don’t even know the starting point. But it is ours to see-and celebrate- progress in the faith (1 Timothy 4:15, Philippians 1:25). It’s not the size of the thing we see that really matters. The world knows, Every journey begins with a single step. 

More and more I mouth this motto-as I scratch out a short note rather than a long letter or stop in for a 20-minute visit rather than stay for the day- A little bit is better than none at all.

When we say, I don’t have enough- we despise the day of small things. Not enough time to listen, enough money to make a dent, enough wisdom to teach, enough wit to put in a word for Christ, we despise the day of small things. If you find yourself here, take heart.

Because, Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. 
 G. K. Chesterton didn’t intend the line to be an excuse for laziness or low effort (though possibly for poor results). Instead, to a culture plagued both by not gonna bother if it can’t be perfect, and drive for good results with minimal effort-or someone else’s effort- Chesterton says, in effect: Be an amateur. 

Do the thing for love and not for money. Do it imperfectly, but do it still. If the things is worth doing, do it, even it’s not perfect. Don’t wait for weekend at a waterpark, head to the beach for an hour. Do it because it’s the right thing to do. Heed the Spirit and do the small thing.

Or do you despise the day of small things? The day when sons wash windows and multiply streaks and husband humbly bears wrong-size, wrong-color peace offering? Do you begrudge the hour because it’s not a day? 

Seek More Grace

Maybe you do see and celebrate the small things around you. But, what about in you? Do you despise the day of small things by not seeking more small things from yourself? I worked harder then them all, wrote Paul to the Corinthians, yet not I but the grace of God that was with me. 

In 1871, Charles Spurgeon preached a sermon on Zechariah 4:10, titled Encouragement for the Depressed. In it, he pushes us who do see and do rejoice in small things to do so yet more. Don’t settle. Don’t despise the day of small things by standing still, satisfied. Seek more grace. 

On the one hand, do not despond because you have the day of small things..but prove your value of the little by earnestly seeking after more grace. Do not despise the grace that God has given you, but bless God for it: and do this in the presence of his people. If you hold your tongue about your grace, and never let anyone know, surely it must be because you do not think it is worth saying anything about. Tell your brethren, tell your sisters, and they of the Lord’s household, that the Lord hath done gracious things for you; and then it will be seen that you do not despise his grace.

So I say-to the praise of His glorious grace-last week I was on time to the ladies’ group and went to bed without my Bear Tracks and didn’t say Told you so, when I did

Small things, all. But I rejoice. And want more grace.

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you 
will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. 
Philippians 1:6