Pain In Life and Understanding Why
About the Guest
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Dane OrtlundDane C. Ortlund (PhD, Wheaton College) serves as senior pastor of Naperville Presbyterian Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers and Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners. Dane and his wife, Stacey, have five children.
Why do I experience pain in life? Dane Ortlund offers answers to the hard, unavoidable reality that we as humans face in hurt and suffering.
Pain In Life and Understanding Why
Dave: You know, before we jump in our interview today, I’ve got to tell you I was speaking in Iowa a few weeks ago at a marriage conference. This couple came up, and it was so cool; because they said, “You don’t know us, but we feel like we know you and Ann. We listen to you every single day on FamilyLife Today.” She starts tearing up; she can’t even talk. I look at her, and I’m like, “What?” She’s like, “I just can’t tell you how you have saved our marriage,”—
Ann: Oh, that is so cool.
Dave: —meaning FamilyLife Today and the content that we bring every day. It was so cool to see them and feel their marriage be saved by what we do right here.
Ann: I’ve had that same experience. It’s so funny when people say, “I feel like I’m working out with you every day,”—you know? [Laughter]—because they are listening as they are working out. But that same thing of: “The culture is pulling us away from God”—but they are saying—“No, you are taking us back to knowing what it is to raise a family and have a marriage based on biblical principles.”
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Ann: —which is amazing. This is so important; we really need you.
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Describe a painful moment in your life or season that led to growth. [Laughter] Hopefully, you’re not going to say, “My marriage to you!” to me.
Ann: Every season, I feel like there have been painful moments that have led to growth. I mean, the most obvious would be our marriage in terms of—
Dave: You are going to say our marriage!
Ann: I totally am!
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: Describe a painful moment in your life that led to growth.
Ann: I mean, the most obvious would be our marriage; because I think that we have both been at the bottom of kind of the pit, in terms of feeling like we were desperate/we were losing our marriage. And yet—that “But God”-moment—but God has lifted us up, saved us/saved our marriage. I would say some of the most spiritual growth and the deepest times with Jesus were in those moments.
Dave: Yes; in those moments, I know I felt, “Where are You, God? Why are you letting this happen? This is not going to be helpful.” Yet, we’ve learned God often uses our pain to grow us up to Him. We’ve learned that; we’re going to talk about that today.
Ann: It’s going to be fun.
Dave: We’ve got Dane Ortlund back with us. Dane, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
Dane: Thanks, Dave and Ann. Good to talk with you.
Dave: We know you as a pastor of Naperville Presbyterian in Naperville, Illinois. We were just there,—
Ann: Oh, yes; we were just there.
Dave: —just a beautiful suburb of Chicago. You’re married with five kids; you’ve written several books.
This book that you’ve written called Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners is fascinating about how we really grow spiritually. We’ve spent a little time talking about that; but one of the things you get into in the book is what we just brought up: this idea of how God uses pain or hard things in our life to actually put us on a path of growth. Talk about that.
Dane: Well, we can’t read long in the New Testament without coming upon this theme. The first thing to say here is, when we talk about anguish and pain in the Christian life—this is not for like five or ten percent of believers; this is for all of us—just in its own unique manifestation for each one of us. Pain is simply—I mean, we’re talking about it in Deeper as “How do we grow as believers?”—pain is simply one unavoidable, key ingredient that the Divine Chef uses in causing us to grow and flourish as believers.
Ann: That is so depressing, Dane, honestly. [Laughter] We all hear that; and we get gripped with fear, “Oh, it’s around the corner.
Dane: I know; I know!
Ann: “It’s coming.”
But even on our honeymoon, this is—I mean, Dave and I have talked about this before—but in the middle of the night, I woke up. I get on my knees, and I have this sense of God just pressing in on my heart to start reading James, the book of James. I’m so new in my faith—I couldn’t have categorized at that time, “Oh, the book of James is about suffering or trials,”—I would have never been able to say that.
Dave: Yes, I just pulled it up—James 1, verse 2—“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” I’m like, “Why are we reading James for? We’re on our honeymoon”; you know?! [Laughter]
But Dane, I would love your perspective on this as we talk about how God uses trials and pain in our life. I’ll read it, and then you can just comment: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
Dane: Well, I remember going to the beach of Southern California, Corona del Mar, with my family, growing up. We’d wade out—I was six, eight, ten years old—wade out into the Pacific Ocean. The waves would start coming up at us. At first, they’d hit your ankles; then they’d hit your knees—and you keep walking out—then it’s hitting your waist, and you’re kind of destabilized. [Laughter] Then you keep going out—the Pacific is cold; it’s not like the Atlantic—you keep walking out there. Pretty soon, if you keep going, unavoidably, a wave will come along that goes over your head; throws you; you’re tumbling all over, upside down, totally discombobulated/disoriented.
That is actually what happens to us in life. We have garden variety—ankle-high, knee-high, waist-high—pain. What happens is: God loves us too much to let us only remain the level of depth that we will have if that’s the only kind of pain we ever have. But He wants, as James 1 says, He wants the testing of your faith to produce steadfastness so, when that over-the-head wave comes, then we are forced to, either get cold and cynical and abandon faith, or to believe what we always said we believed but have never truly had to bank on it. In other words, our professed belief and our actual belief have to come together or move further apart.
That’s what suffering is doing: it’s making us say, “Do I actually believe what I say I believe theologically?” At that fork in the road, the Lord—in His fatherly, tender, rugged kindness—is pulling us into depth with Him and giving us steadfastness so that we are not lacking anything but are perfect and complete.
Ann: Dane, have you experienced that? Have you gone through that?
Dane: There have been some episodes/a few episodes in my life, Ann, where I believe that I have. But I also suspect—and maybe, this is my own weirdness—I suspect the biggest one is probably out ahead of me. My wife and I have walked through a valley or two, together, that the Lord has enabled us to weather. Those have deepened us—but I’m just being real honest here, guys—I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced something that has been like a Job-like over-the-head kind of wave.
Dave: How would you sit with a dad and mom—which I’ve had to do a few times, not ten or twenty times—but as they’ve lost their child. Then you come to a verse like, “Consider it all joy, my brothers.” You know? You think, “Joy?!
Dane: Yes; right.
Dave: “Is there joy in the middle of a valley, and how do we find that?” That would be the question I think a lot of us would say: “How do we find joy?” and “Is he talking about happy?” Give us a little perspective on that.
Dane: Oh, man; you’ve been a pastor for many years, Dave, and you have walked through this far more than I have. I do remember, a few months ago, doing a funeral with two tiny little coffins for children, who had perished. Here are a few thoughts that come to mind, guys:
Number one: “This is real life; so let’s go deep with God now; so that, when that wave comes, we can weather it by His grace.”
Thought number two: The Bible says, “Weep with those who weep.” The Bible never says, “Provide theological answers for those who weep.” Romans 8:28 is true: “God works all things for good for those who are called according to his purpose”; but Romans 12:15 says, “Weep with those who weep.” We do Romans 12:15 before we say Romans 8:28 to someone.
Dane: If we actually try to tell them answers—even true answers—when the pain is raw, we are actually being like Job’s friends/his miserable comforters; and we’re being theoretical about it. We are—what we’re doing is exacerbating the pain—we’re actually making it worse.
But when we—when my wife and I walked through a tragedy in August of 2018—our pastor walked into the hospital room, and he didn’t say a word; and he was being a good pastor. He wept with those who were weeping.
Ann: I have a good friend, who has two teenage sons, who are really, really struggling with anxiety, depression/suicidal ideation. She’s actually been reading the book of Job, because she feels like she’s in it. I sent her this quote from your book; it says: “Our natural instincts tell us that the way forward is”—in the Christian life—“by avoiding pain; but the New Testament tells us the pain is a means, not an obstacle, to deepening in our Christian maturity.”
I thought, “Man, that’s so good.” It’s so true because, of course, it is natural to want to avoid it—we hate pain—we don’t want to go through it. Talk about that deepening part, of where it can take us.
Dane: You know, the Lord Jesus Christ, Himself, didn’t go from life to resurrection glory. He went from life, down into the ignominy/the shame of suffering, and rejection, and death up into resurrection glory. The New Testament teaches in Romans, Ephesians, and Galatians that actually we, who are united to Christ, have the same pattern. We share in His sufferings in that kind of way.
Second Corinthians 4 talks about this, too; the way we experience resurrection power/life in our mortal existence is by—not by avoiding pain but by receiving it, sent from God—receiving it, embracing it, turning it into faith, walking by faith not by sight—saying, “Okay, Lord, I’m all in. I’m Yours. I’m never going to suffer hell and condemnation the way the Lord Jesus did.” Any pain we ever suffer isn’t that—the ultimate pain—He went through that on our behalf.
Okay; but now, God is shaping us and chiseling us—and that hurts!—He is chiseling us to be something beautiful. So yes—you are right, Ann—it’s a way that God is actually, ultimately, bringing us into joy.
You’re right, Dave, it’s not chipper happiness. It doesn’t mean we smile more, necessarily. It might mean we cry more; but tears can reflect joy—real joy—biblical joy, not just pain; because we are in touch with ourselves and with reality/with actual life with God. Tears are some of our most sublime and joyous moments. Pain is one way that gets us there.
Dave: When that pain is there, and we are working through the valley, you say there are two choices—talk about that—because growth doesn’t happen if we make the wrong choice in the middle of that pain.
Dane: Sometimes, we’ll meet a fellow saint at our church or in some context; and they are a professing Christian—they are a true born-again believer—but you can tell that there is a certain hollowness; there is a certain artificiality to them; they are just painting it on.
I wonder if: “In many of those cases, what has happened is they came to that fork in the road—moment of deep pain in their life—and instead of moving towards God/instead of banking on Him, afresh, evermore deeply—they stiff-armed Him, and cooled towards Him, and went the other way toward cynicism”—is what it is—“rather than faith.” Cynicism is the opposite of faith; and therefore, instead of sweetening, they soured.
I can testify to ways that my own dad—through adversity, and pain, and deep mistreatment—sweetened rather than soured. He was experiencing a depth of fellowship, communion, friendship with Jesus Christ that he—or none of us—can, when life is a bed of roses, enjoy; we just can’t!
I mean, we praise God when life is going well: “Thank You, Lord!” But when life goes south—when we are fired unjustly; when one of the kids says, “I never want to see you again”; when the malignant report comes back—are we then going to say, “Okay, I guess God isn’t good after all; maybe, He actually hates me,”—or are we going to say, “Hang on! He already proved, in the death and resurrection of His own Son, which I deserve to experience that death, the depth to which He is willing to go to love me. Therefore, I know that anything that washes into my life now has to be from the very gentle and tender, if painful, hand of a heavenly Father.”
Ann: I think we all know when we are at that point/when we are at that crossroads. I was 38 years old when my 45-year-old sister died of lung cancer, and she had never smoked; my parents hadn’t. She had four kids/four boys, struggled in a hard marriage; but man, every morning at 4:30, she was up, reading her Bible. When she passed away, I/man, I remember being at that fork, thinking, “This doesn’t even make sense. I don’t get it. What is the point of her life being gone?” I couldn’t see anything good in it; you can’t explain it; and you can’t wrap it in this little bow, with: “Well, you know, God is good,”—even though I knew that.
But I remember being on the floor of my bathroom, face down before God, saying, “I don’t understand; but I will follow You, because I know You are good.” My feelings/my happiness didn’t come back immediately; it took a long time. I remember just soaking in worship, but I couldn’t sing because my heart and my soul felt dead; but I remember thinking, “I need to feed my soul, and I need to be at this point of being in His presence for me to get that back.” It’s still hard, but God is good; and He restores our joy.
Dave: I know that every time I have sat with a man or a couple that I walk away, going,—“Man, I want that depth of maturity; I want that dynamic relationship with God that they have,”—every time I have thought that about a person or a couple—it’s true every time, 100 percent—they have gone through real pain.
Dave: It isn’t without it. It’s like they are where they are because they went through pain; made the choice to be better not bitter.
Dave: I’ve been around others, just like you said, Dane—they are bitter—they have lost their faith; they are mad; they are angry.
Dave: It might have been the exact same type of valley; and yet, the choice in the valley is what determines what happens out of the valley. It’s like, “Yes, I want that faith”; but guess what? God’s like, “Yes, you’re not going to get it without some hard times. I’m going to be with you through the whole thing. And yet, if you want to grow, let’s go; because it’s going to be—not easy—but it’s going to be beautiful in the end.”
Dane: God wants us to learn to trust Him in the absurdities of life. It’s one thing to trust Him, when there is pain, but we can see what He is doing with it. When there is pain—and it makes no sense—Ann, like you just said, it makes absolutely no earthly sense—that is when He wants to say—oh, C.S. Lewis has a great line in Till We Have Faces, where he says, “God doesn’t want to give us answers when we are perplexed in life; God wants to be the answer. He is the One before whom all questions die away.” That’s the kind of Christian man I want to be.
Dave: Yes, and I would just add: if you are listening, and your pain is your marriage—like you’re listening right now, and your pain is your husband, or your wife, or your kids—you’re probably thinking it’s because: “I’m married to this person,” or “I’m married…”—no, it’s not because of that—it’s because life is hard, and pain is a part of it. I just want to say, “Hold onto Jesus; He is your only hope.” If you will allow Him to walk you through this, there is light on the other side. It’s actually beautiful.”
Ann: Dane, I was just hoping: would you pray? I’m thinking so many people are resonating with that pain part. Would you just pray for them and us?
Dane: Absolutely. Let’s pray, friends.
Our Father in heaven, we entrust our lives to You. We are so thankful for what the Lord Jesus said in Matthew 6, when He said, “Our heavenly Father knows what we need before we even speak it”; and yet, You are so good; You want us to speak it to You and enjoy that fellowship with You.
Won’t You take each of us into a deeper depth of fellowship, trust, and communion with You; so that whatever washes into our lives, it can only ultimately net out for our good, and glory, and growth, and deepening? In Jesus name; amen.
Dave: Thanks, Dane.
Dane: Thank you, guys.
Bob: I’m thinking of another quote from C.S. Lewis, as I’m listening to Dane Ortlund talk with Dave and Ann Wilson about adversity and pain in our lives, and how God uses that to mold us and to make us more like His Son. C.S. Lewis said, “We can ignore even pleasure, but pain insists upon being attended to.” He said, “God whispers to us in our pleasure, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain. It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” That is something Lewis knew a little bit about, having lost his wife, and having to walk down that very painful path, and deal with the pain of loss in his own life.
If you are in pain today, we don’t want to trivialize that or minimize that; but we do want to say, “God is present in your pain. He has a purpose for your pain, and He can accomplish great things in the midst of your adversity if you continue to run to Him in your pain.” This is something that Dane Ortlund talks about in the book, Deeper, the book that he has written. The subtitle is Real Change for Real Sinners. As we think about a new year, many of us are thinking about real change in our lives. Dane’s book is a guidebook to help us think about, not just changed behavior, but changed hearts, which is what God is interested in.
Get your copy of the book, Deeper, from Dane Ortlund when you go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to order at 1-800-358-6329; 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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With that, we hope you have a great weekend. Hope you and your family are able to worship together with your local church this weekend. Hope you have a wonderful New Year’s celebration. And hope you can join us back on Monday when Latayne Scott and Beth Robinson are going to be here to talk with Dave and Ann Wilson about how we can have important and effective conversations with our children, at the appropriate age, talking with them about human sexuality. We’ll hear about that on Monday. I hope you can join us for that.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back in 2022 for the next edition of FamilyLife Today.
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