by Michael Pruett
( As originally featured in OnFaith magazine )
When Christians talk about God, it is typical to hear Him described as Love. This concept is found throughout Scripture, and even for many nonreligious people, Love being the force behind the universe is appealing. Most Christians believe that to truly know God means to feel this love. But then, where does this leave us with the question of pain? In some religious circles, pain is unavoidable and suffering what God uses to teach us about humility. The reality of pain has also caused many of us to turn away from the Church, or worse, faith in God. Unanswered questions have plagued us all. How could a good God allow such pain in the world, so much war and disease and genocide? I can’t say that I know what so many others have failed to answer, but what I do know is that in the midst of human suffering God is still good and that to live fully, we must be willing to face our fear of pain.
Embracing pain is difficult for all of us—especially a self-made man like me. Graduating from Vanderbilt at the top of my class, marrying my high school sweetheart, and receiving a top sales job right out of college was a source of pride. Then everything fell apart. I entered a desert experience twenty years long that involved divorce, near bankruptcy, and distance from God. My near-death experience as told in The Hard Road, releasing April 28, 2015, unexpectedly catapulted me into facing the pain I had run away from and, strangely, allowed me to enter into a deeper relationship with God and a life full of joy. Many of us have gone through similar trauma, and as I look back, I realize that if I hadn’t gone through it, I may not have ever been able to move into His glory that was waiting on “the other side of the cross.” Here are five things I learned about conquering pain and finding joy.
1. Surrender Pride and Let Go of Control
“I’ve got this,” was what I’d say when I felt God nudge me about something that wasn’t quite right. I thought it was up to me to make things happen. This is difficult for men. We feel like we need to have it all together, especially when we are the breadwinners and need to take care of our wives and children. The fact is that things I had hoped and waited for, like reconciliation with my stepdaughters, happened while I was incapacitated. They didn’t occur as a result of my efforts. God showed me that He was the one managing my life timeline, and He was the only one who could make things happen for me.
2. God is a Good God
What has baffled my mind every day since I woke up from a coma is the idea that God cares about the details of our lives. When my family and I look back at all of the circumstances that led to my rescue, we know they were not accidental. They were strategic and on purpose—from the first responders who happened to be fifty feet away at a restaurant, the ambulance that was filling up with gas a block away, the safekeeping of my nearly severed spine, to the doctor who stated, “You must have a guardian angel.” If we truly believe that He is a good God, then He has our best interest in mind and will cause good to come out of tragedy. We either believe this or we don’t—and this is the true test of our faith.
3. Don’t ask “Why?” but rather “What?”
So many of us approach tragedy asking, “Why?” “Why did this happen to ‘so and so’ or to me?” We take on a victim mentality that makes us feel like we can’t do anything about our circumstances. Despite suffering in this world, God is on our side just as He was with His Son. When we are in pain, we should look to Him to witness His deliverance, not asking, “Why?” but “What are you doing, Father?” He will invite us to see Him, His light, goodness, and love even in the midst of despair. He will lead each of us to true, full, and fulfilling life, making us new along the way. There is an answer…it just may not look like what we expect.
4. If We Want a Deeper Relationship with God, We Will Suffer
For my heart to remain alive to divine love, it must engage in joy and sorrow. A heart that is fully awake to love cannot disown pain, and to believe that Christians will not suffer is naïve. God is a jealous God, and we are His “Beloved.” Much like a jealous husband, He will furiously protect us from that which separates us from His love. “Jealousy is a husband’s fury. Therefore, he will not spare in the day of vengeance.” Sometimes the Father’s jealous guarding will cause us pain because He is bringing us back from our choices that have led us astray to the place of pure love. Sometimes righting our path means that other things must fall away or be left behind.
5. The Only Way to Overcome Pain is with Him
God has given us the perfect example with His Son. His Son cried out to be saved from the cross, yet was fully surrendered to His Father even in His greatest pain. He endured the cross because He knew there would be joy on the other side of pain. The only way in which we can deal with pain in a healthy manner is to do it with Him, the One who underwent more grief than we could ever understand. When we embrace God’s love, allowing Him to love us fully, all other forms of love pale in comparison. If we but believe in it, that everything in the universe exists to display it to us, we will catch glimpses of it and come to know Him. For “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.” Without coming to know His love, our souls die.
When I look back at my story today, my eyes still well up with tears. These tears are not from sorrow. They are from a deep and personal actualization of a Father’s love through my near-death experience. My hope is that those who read my book will also experience love as a son or daughter from a good and jealous Father.