Years ago, when I taught in an inner-city school district, almost all my male students had one of two dream jobs in mind: rapper or NBA athlete. They could imagine themselves on the court, scoring the winning basket, or lyrically mesmerizing a packed stadium, with both scenarios having their names chanted by thousands of admirers. I’d often ask them how they were planning on achieving this dream, and they would usually respond by telling me that it was just going to happen. I’d inquire about a plan, but they almost never had one, thinking that if they wanted it badly enough, they would achieve it. They could picture the end result, and they believed that the detailed image was enough to get them there.
There seems to exist a pervasive lie in our culture that if you want something enough, you will get it. However, this equation doesn’t factor in the cost of achieving that goal. Many of us want to have a great body and can picture ourselves with one, but few are willing to put in the long grueling hours at the gym. Several want to be rich and can imagine how we’d live, but the idea of starting at the bottom and working your way up doesn’t appeal to many. We want a successful romantic relationship, but we treat love more as a feeling than an action, and end up not acting much more beyond how we feel. We forget that work is needed to achieve our dreams, and to get what we want takes time, patience, and more importantly, pain.
One summer, I was visiting a pain-management specialist regarding an injury I had sustained in my shoulder. In helping me deal with my injury, he reminded me that he was in the business of pain management, not elimination. So, he then asked me an appropriately key question: how much pain was I willing to live with? How much pain could I tolerate in life? I considered the question, and came up with an expectation, as he explained to me that pain is not the sign of an unhappy life. With pains come gains.
We often feel entitled to have a pain-free life, but how does a pain-free life benefit us at all? Pain teaches and guides us. Most of us can agree upon the idea that there is no success and happiness without struggle, but we forget that we also need pain throughout the struggling process. If you’re not feeling pain, you’re not making any progress, and if we truly want to achieve beyond ourselves, pain is necessary, especially when it comes to happiness. Think about the last major victory or accomplishment you had in your life, and chances are there was a great deal of pain that preceded it. Without the pain, there is no reward.
To achieve the glittering goals we set for ourselves, we must be willing to put up with pain. Hence, if you want to be a successful rapper, you should be willing to endure the pains of practicing for hours every day, developing and sharpening a working sense of language and rhyme schemes, recording numerous songs, sending out demo tapes to promoters, working small clubs, building up a following, etc., with a similarly rigorous regiment for being an NBA star. If you aren’t willing to have that much pain in your life, then the goal is not realistic or what you want is just a fantasy.
Similar to the pain in our lives and the ways in which it shapes us, in the smelting process of developing excellent tools, there is a great deal hammering, scraping with sharp objects, and heating with intense fire. From that process comes sharp, strong tools. Without the pain, the tool is blunt or weak. Isaiah 48.10 shows us a similar process when comparing the making of tools to the fashioning of our spiritual lives: “See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.” If we want to be stronger in who we are, we must be subjected to the Refiner’s fire, the pain and testing that brings us closer to perfection and closer in our walk with Him. Without it, we will never grow much beyond where we are now, and with a lifetime of wondering what could be with our dreams, we will look back at a mostly pain-free but stagnant existence, wondering with a disappointed glance what happened. We must invite and embrace pain in our life if we want to be refined and develop our level of success and happiness.
By inviting pain, we allow for risk, but we have become averse and fearful of negative experiences because we feel that our life is defined by them, thus deeming us failures. So, we tend to avoid risk and passively accept the lulling coldness of mediocrity. However, by taking risks and embracing hard and painful experiences, we develop ourselves in ways that help us grow towards a stronger, happier life, one filled not with regret but with satisfaction. Instead of asking yourself what do you want out of life, maybe it’s time to find out how much pain you are willing to endure, thereby setting you on a course towards greater gains in life. Amen.