When I was little and being a kid, every now and then I’d get a splinter.
It hurt. I couldn’t forget that it was there. But I was terrified of having it removed. I avoided telling my mother. I waited and waited and waited until it became unbearable and then, when she rightfully went for the disinfectant and tweezers, I’d break down in tears. Somehow the trade-off – the promise of brief pain that would spare me later and more enduring problems – didn’t seem worthwhile.
I’d laugh at my younger self, except I haven’t changed much. Perhaps you haven’t, either. Even as an adult, I do everything that I can to avoid or alleviate situations where I sense I will encounter any of the following: pain, discomfort, fear, or grief. If a person has a habit of making cutting comments to me, I try not to hang out with them. If I know going into the woods means encountering ticks, I cover myself head to toe and wear a hat. If the thought of trying a new ministry makes me uncomfortable, I shrug and skip it.
It’s not necessarily wrong to avoid pain, and to do what we can to minimize the pain, discomfort, fear, or grief in our lives. But a while back I was struck by something our church’s licensed therapist said during a seminar on anxiety:
“How comfortable,” she asked, “can you get with being uncomfortable? That’s the first step.”
It had never occurred to me that I might have to accept discomfort. My goal was to eliminate it. Being anxious meant feeling fear, and I had the general goal in mind that I wanted to be free of fear, period. That faithfulness and faith in God meant I would somehow transcend the experience of any negative emotions or feelings. To think that I might have to come to terms with a less-than-optimal situation wasn’t anything that I’d ever considered before.
Since that time, I’ve noticed that a common theme has emerged in many of the incidental reading I’ve been doing, and the theme is this: stop resisting. Stop fighting the things that hurt, that scare you, that make you uncomfortable, that spark dread, that leave you sad or upset. Stop fighting not to feel those things. Stop fighting to ensure that your life is 100% pleasurable and stress-free all of the time. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Jesus did. He was deeply vulnerable. He was open to enduring and understanding pain. Although He asked if there might be another way in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:42), he did not reject the idea of experiencing pain or struggle. He wept at Lazarus’ grave. He grieved deeply over Jerusalem. I’m sure he experienced frustration and hurt at times when His disciples could not grasp, or didn’t care to grasp, His teachings. He seemed to realize that being human came with its share of unpleasantness, the price of living in a fallen word. He did not demand better. He did not ask for a life free of pain. He did not fight or resist or struggle against what was unsatisfactory, hurtful, or difficult. Instead, He embraced it and then He redeemed it.
When I used to read Paul’s credo that “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21), I often imagined Paul as being a man inured to and invincible to hardship. I pictured him in pitching ships and jail cells and unfriendly crowds beaming, experiencing no real pain because anything that might have hurt was numbed by the love of Christ. But now I think I understand a bit better. I’m sure Paul had lonely, uncomfortable nights and a body that pained him and experiences that left a lump in his throat. His ability to “live in Christ” came not because he didn’t feel pain but because he accepted it for what it was: a temporary struggle in the face of a larger and eternal promise. He got comfortable with being uncomfortable because he fixed his eyes on what was ahead.
I can’t explain to you how much of a difference this subtle realization has made for me. Recently, an unexpected change at my husband’s job gave us all a jolt: everything was up in the air and nothing seemed certain. Instead of praying for God to fix it (which I often do) or to take it away (which I often do), I prayed this:
God, I welcome this uncertainty. Because nothing is certain but You. Since You are certain and steady, nothing else matters. Please help me to praise you as I accept the discomfort of not-knowing and being unsure. If you choose to fix or change this, then I will be grateful, but if you do not, then nothing about my response will change. This is an opportunity for me.
It made the most enormous difference in how I was able to react and respond, and I hope to be able to handle more issues like this in the future.
A few years ago, I broke a little glass candleholder in my bathroom. The pieces were infinitesimally small and, though I thought I’d gotten them all, I hadn’t. Two days later I found myself wondering why my toe was hurting; three days later it had gotten so bad that I could barely walk. When I sat down and took a look, I realized a shard of glass was embedded in my toe. The urgent cares and local doctors were all closed; if I wanted someone else to do it, I’d have to wait until morning. But it hurt.
No one else was home. I acknowledged aloud, to the bathroom, “Well, this is going to be horrible.” I got out the tweezers and a towel and a bottle of disinfectant. And I can tell you: it was not pleasant. It was actually far worse than those innocent days of my mom removing splinters from my chubby toddler fingers. And it took a whole half hour. But I got the glass out. And as I bandaged up my toe and walked to put everything away, the pain already fading, I felt better. And stronger. And somehow more capable.
I wish I’d learned then what that experience had to teach me: we can handle more than we think. We’re stronger than we imagine. And yeah, things are going to be bad. Uncomfortable. And sometimes seriously hurtful and soul-shatteringly painful. But the more we resist those things and strive to clear our lives of them, the more we’re missing.
The great love that abides in us will hold up in the face of discomfort, pain, fear, and grief. But we have to be bold enough, and vulnerable enough, to rely on it and give up the fight against feeling all of those things.