When Pain is a Gift

In reflecting about the past year, my mind drifted back even farther as I began to think of all the things I am grateful for. God has been unbelievably generous to me (as I believe He is to all His children) and I was able to fill a page in my journal with just a few of the most wonderful life-changing highlights. But when I look at the trajectory of my last 55+ years as a Christian, there is one event that stands out as one of the most valuable gifts in my life. And it was not a mountain top experience.

It was the lowest point of my life.

If I could graph my general emotional and psychological health, like most people it would look like an image of the stock market with its many ups and downs over time. But for the first 34 years of my life, the line gradually drops lower and lower, with the very lowest point in the entire graph being a day in August 1985. Alone in a trailer home in the woods of Northwest Wisconsin, I crumpled to the floor and sobbed for the better part of two days. My life was in shambles. And what I could not understand was why, when I had tried to do all the right things, I was left in complete despair. I was the guy every pastor wants to have in his congregation. I did everything. I knew my Bible. I could argue theologically, lead adult classes, and fill in for the preacher. But none of that had preserved my life. At 34 years of age, I was a broken man. But somewhere during those two days, a thought came to me that changed my life.

"Whatever it is I'm doing — it's not working."

It was probably the most painful thing I ever said out loud. Whatever I had been trying to accomplish with all my effort for so many years was completely lost to me. I did not know how or why, but I had been on a road that led nowhere. And at the time, it seemed like more pain than I could bear.

But it was also a moment of surrender, with my only clarity being an awareness that I knew nothing at all about life. My self-deception wafted away, and I knew I would have to start over and re-learn what it meant to be alive, to be with God, and to become who I was meant to be. I became teachable in a way I had never known before.

As I look back, the graph from that point on is still jagged like the line for the stock market. But its overall trajectory has been upward, to greater joy and greater gratitude and more of God and His goodness. So that place in the line where my total bankruptcy is well-noted with a deep downward spike — that painful point has now become one of the most sacred memories I have. It divides my life in half, from a downward journey to one that leads up toward goodness. And although I would not have said this at the time, the pain of those two days was one of the most important gifts of my entire life.

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