Putting Pain In Its Place
Words by Gloria Furman // Image by Dianne Jago
"So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal." (2 Cor. 4:16–18)
It is remarkably easy to wallow in misery. Nobody likes misery in and of itself, but it’s a different story if someone notices your miserable circumstances, isn’t it? Sometimes all it takes is a word of sympathy. Someone says, “That must be really hard for you,” and we’re shaking our heads like the melancholy donkey in the classic children’s books by A. A. Milne. Thanks for noticin’ me. Could be worse. Not sure how, but it could be.
A well-intentioned, outward-focused comment from a friend is distorted by our self-centered hearts as affirmation that we are, indeed, being slighted by the universe.
I catch myself doing this, and I hate it. What someone means as a blessing or a mere observation—“You have your hands full with your kids”—gets twisted by my heart into fodder for a mommy martyr complex. Mmhmm, preach, sister. I’m breaking my back over here, and it’s high time somebody noticed. Oh friend, what is it about our nurturing work that tests our hearts in this way? It’s service we (mostly) love to do for the benefit of the people we (imperfectly) love. So why is it so hard to mother others with steadfast hearts full of love?
Searching for Real Hope
If you feel this tension, praise the Lord! It’s a grace to realize that you need grace for your motherhood and wake up every day saying, “Lord, I can’t do this without you.” It’s hard to nurture our children and not lose heart because life in a fallen world is hard. Our lives are replete with hardships of various kinds. Fake hope is like using toothpaste to spackle a hole in the wall. It’s a poor filler for that cavity, and all you get in the end is a colony of ants with minty breath. This is a goofy illustration, but it’s a fraction of how goofy we look when we patch up our need for enduring hope with solutions that don’t last.
Our pain is not meritorious. Using pain as a pedestal to boost our ego is one of those fake hope solutions that doesn’t last. When pain builds our pride, then the diagnosis is that we have a heart problem, and the gospel is the cure. The Son of God bore the wrath of his Father and bled his heart out on the cross so that we might be liberated from bondage to sin.
When we stop building our pedestals of maternal glory (and stop looking sideways at other moms), we can direct our focus somewhere else entirely. Wavering hearts find lasting hope only when they look to Christ.
In our passage above Paul presents a dichotomy of focus— the seen and the unseen. Now, if there’s anyone in the world whose daily life is filled with all things “seen,” then it is mothers. (Remember: this isn’t fodder for our mommy martyr complex!) You’re surprised by an empty pantry and turn into a prosecuting attorney when the next person enters the kitchen. You see Mount Laundry about to erupt with cotton blends, and the thought occurs that your family is trying to bury you. You see morning light peeking under the curtains, and you’ve already had enough. These may be exaggerations of our responses to what is seen (or they may not be). How can we keep our focus on Christ while our outer selves are wasting away at breakneck speed?
On the Other Side of the Groaning
Paul wants us to see the connection between what we see in front of us and what we are really looking for—the (yet) unseen hope of glory. “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Rom. 8:22–23)
Friend, picture it. Paul is saying that a mother in the throes of labor helps us understand that our suffering in this life is far outweighed by the joy we will experience in the resurrection. Everything in the realm of the “seen”—the sweat, tears, uncertainty, anticipation, pain, groaning—gives way to the yet “unseen”—the profound relief and joy you feel when everyone hears the sound of a wailing baby. Whether or not she is aware of it, a mom in labor is a picture of eschatological hope. She perseveres through contraction after contraction with endurance because of what happens after labor is over: delivery. One of my friends said, “I’m not scheduling my Cesarean section because it sounds like a fun way to spend a Friday. I just want to hold my sweet baby.”
God doesn’t ordain our pain so we can pat ourselves on the back. Fertility struggles, marital stress, pregnancy and labor, adoption complications, the struggle of being a sinner who is raising sinners in a fallen world—even when our eyes are blurry with tears, we see with eyes of faith that God has purposed our suffering to produce an incomparably glorious outcome. When we undergo light and momentary affliction in our mothering, then we see it for what it is—a reminder to look to the unseen. Birth is not about us, but about God.
Are you fighting to not lose heart today? Be encouraged! It’s so easy to give in and be obsessed with the outer self that is wasting away. We’re so content to dig, research, interview, and pursue fixes to the transient decay everywhere around us. We take care of the transient, but we don’t throw our hearts into it. Let’s be obsessed with what we’re going to be obsessed with thirty zillion years from now: the glory of Jesus. That’s bona fide hope. And we know it’s real because our inner self is being renewed day by day.
Content taken from Labor with Hope by Gloria Furman, ©2019. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.