Revisiting the Pain
OCTOBER 31, 2016
I recently taught a seminary class in Washington, D.C.
I stayed in the same hotel where I had the prior year when I got the flu. No, I got the mother of all flu bugs. I don’t think I’ve ever been as sick as I was during that week. I taught my class only one day and after that I never left the hotel room…well…uh…I never left the bathroom of the hotel room. On that Friday, I had enough energy to get to the airport and fly home, only to promptly get sick again.
Do you know what happened when I walked into the hotel lobby in Washington? I started feeling sick. In fact, I prayed a not-so-spiritual prayer: “Lord, you wouldn’t do this to me again, would you? If you really loved me, I wouldn’t get sick.”
I think he told me to cut it out and grow up.
But as I walked into the hotel lobby and winced, I thought about how often we don’t revisit places in our lives because they are so painful. A cat that sits on a hot stove will never sit on a hot stove again…and won’t sit on a cold one either.
Let’s talk about revisiting the pain.
In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas are in the city of Lystra. Their time started successfully with the healing of a crippled man, but then everything turned south. The people thought that Paul and Barnabas were gods and tried to worship them. Not only that, Luke wrote, “But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city…” (vv. 19-20).
That’s what Christians do. We go back to the city. Christians return to the place of pain, dark and fear, and “kiss the demons on the lips.” But it isn’t just “places” to which we return; it’s places of the heart to which we can now return.
There are places in our hearts we erase because they are so painful. Sometimes it’s abuse, or places of shame and sin, or the dark corners where somebody hurt us. Sometimes it’s a person, other times a place, and sometimes a memory.
I discovered once that I had childhood memories—painful and dark ones—I had erased. I didn’t even know I was doing that until I realized there were years in my early childhood for which I simply had no memories. It was only when Jesus said, “Let me go back with you and look at the pain together” that I decided to “go back to the city.” Some of my childhood was painful and difficult, but when I went back to “kiss the demons,” they lost their power.
Isaiah 40-66 are chapters of great joy, hope and promise. If you’re reading Isaiah in your devotions, though, don’t read those earlier chapters at night…you won’t be able to sleep. Those are chapters of judgment, admonishment and condemnation. But at chapter 40, everything changes. God rolls back the veil on the future and one can hear the laughter of forgiveness, acceptance and promise. In Isaiah 65, God says, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy and her people to be a gladness” (vv. 17-18). That is a covenantal and national promise and hope…but it’s also the way of God. It’s a pattern of joy and release from the past.
Paul wrote, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
So where am I going with this? Among some other good things that happened when Jesus found us, there is the surprising realization that our past shame has been erased. And we are free to revisit it without fear. We are new creatures and, because we are, we can walk toward the dark knowing that we are now bathed in the light of his love.
Jesus takes us to a place of restoration and healing so that the fearful places of the past are no longer fearful and the dark not nearly so dark. No matter how dark the past or the future, no matter how profound the pain, and no matter how deep the wounds, we can go there and make an “obscene gesture” at the demons. Those demons don’t matter to a new creature in Christ.
As part of the requirement for the class I taught, I ask students to write a biographical essay (“Points of Grace”) where they are forced to go back and examine the dark of their past and relate it to God’s grace. Over the years, I’ve read some difficult stories…and they reference a God who was always there even if they didn’t know his name. They came to realize the incredible love of Christ and as a result, can say with John, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…” (1 John 4:18).
Are there places in your life you don’t want to go because they are just too dark and too painful to even think about? Are there people you avoid because of how you have been demeaned and shamed by them? Are there situations that scare the spit out of you and that you avoid? Are there dreams at night that turn into nightmares when they reference the pain and trauma in your life? Do you know the nighttime panic? Me too.
Don’t run away. You don’t have to anymore.
I may have told you this, but when I went through some hard examination of places in my life in order to find out why I was so screwed up, I called my friend, Lea Clower, who had “been there and done that.” I told him that I planned to wake up some “sleeping dogs,” but I had a 38 so if they tried to bite me, I was going to “shoot those suckers.”
Later Lea said to me, “Steve, I was praying for you this morning and I have a message from the Lord. He said to go ahead and wake up the sleeping dogs, but to put your gun away. Those dogs don’t have any teeth.”
He was right.
Let me close with a principle in dealing with the dark and fearful places in your life: You take the first step; Jesus will take the second step; and by the time you get to the third step, you’ll know it was Jesus who took the first step and walked the whole way with you.
Go ahead! Those dogs don’t have any teeth.
Time to Draw Away
Read Mark 4:35-41 & Isaiah 41:10
What are the “sleeping dogs” in your life? Revisiting pain is hard, but you never go it alone. Jesus is with you…and has already gone before you. Remember that everything in our lives has passed through the palm of a loving, nail-scarred hand.