In my early years of professional football, I played without wearing gloves. Not wearing gloves as an offensive lineman was definitely out of the ordinary; most linemen wore gloves for their own protection and safety. I rejected this protection for several reasons. First, back then I thought it proved how tough I was; it didn’t. Second, I found wearing gloves made me feel hot (temperature, not appearance) and as a ‘husky’ fellow I was always trying to keep cool. Third, I thought that bare hands helped me hold opponents better. And even though technically offensive linemen aren’t supposed to hold, we did and thus sought any advantage we could get. Finally, and most importantly, I found that very early in a game I would, without exception, hurt my hands.
Why would hurting your hands be a good reason to not wear gloves? Good question. You see, I found the pain that I would experience when my hand was smashed between a shoulder pad and a face mask would help me engage in the game. Getting my digits stomped on in a pile would help me get focused for competition, and I would get focused in a hurry. This pain-induced focus and the resulting engagement in the game was the main reason I didn’t wear gloves.
Now consider how much aggravation a simple hangnail causes. Think of the seemingly disproportionate amount of pain that come from a small tear in your fingernail. A small paper-cut can cause adults to whimper, and hitting a thumb with a hammer will bring men to their knees. There is something about the hands and fingers that make them especially susceptible to pain. And I would intentionally seek these aching, stinging, and throbbing sensations to promote a fixated intensity in the game of football.
I was not alone. Using pain as a preparatory mechanism is quite common in football. Before a game, in the locker room or on the sidelines, you will often see teammates hitting each other or slapping each other on their shoulders. Many football players claim that they can’t really get into a game until they receive or deliver their first hit. There is something about the pain that brings purposefulness and clarity in combative sports.
Detach or Engage?
It seems that pain in ‘real’ life, whether physical, emotional, or physical, does the exact opposite of what it does in football. For many people, pain leads to paralysis instead of performance. Pain doesn’t help us engage; it causes us to detach, disassociate, and disconnect from life. When the life gets tough, genuinely tough, the accepted response is to quit. We do not regain focus on the end and purpose of our lives. Instead, we abandon engagement in life.
One of the most profound studies of pain in the Bible occurs in the book of Job. In it we see an individual who finds purpose in pain. It propels him forward. We also see an individual, Job’s wife, for whom pain evokes passivity.
Both Job and his wife were subjected to an incredible amount of pain and suffering. We often overlook that Job’s wife also lost her children, her wealth, and likely the provision and protection a husband could provide. Job’s demise would likely be her demise as well. But these two people had opposite reactions to the pain.
The pain caused Job’s wife to exclaim, “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). She was done. She was beat. She was in shut-down mode. Job replied, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). What accounts for this difference?
Why can pain cause Job to engage, to fight, to persevere? Why was his wife ready to quit? What about us?
We will never, on this side of eternity, be free from pain. We will never avoid suffering. The pain and suffering of this life is relentlessly real. But the witness of the Word seems to be that we will persevere in it, grow through it, and eventually outlast it.
I believe Job hints at the answer to our earlier question regarding why pain caused him to dig in and hold on instead of shut down and quit. In chapter 19, Job speaks these faith-filled words despite the difficulties he was experiencing:
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God. - Job 19:25-26
Job indicates that prevailing over pain is a process of perceiving a person. Job's view of who God, that he was the redeemer lives forever and rules, sustained him. Suffering reveals our theology, what we really believe about God. For Job, God was good and worthy, the giver and the redeemer. We cannot even stand, much less move forward, in the presence of pain without the Good News of Jesus.
Long View of Pain
Paul locates the essential element to overcoming pain as the end-result of the gospel. The Apostle Paul was no stranger to pain; his list of sufferings is well-known:
Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. - 2 Corinthians 11:25-27
Paul went through all manner of anguish, agony, and affliction. He experienced pain, endured it, and engaged in life like few others in recorded history. This was a man that pain could not subdue. He, like Job, found the motivation and means for overcoming pain in the Good News of Jesus.
Consider the words this veteran of misery and misfortune used to describe pain. He called suffering “light” and “momentary affliction” (2 Corinthians 4:17). This is incredible. Or is this incredulous? Paul was not naive. Nor was he in denial. To understand his approach, and what ours should be, notice that his reference to suffering as light and momentary is in light of something else. The verse reads, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,” (2 Corinthians 4:17 ESV).
Paul did not respond to pain and suffering by shutting down and turning off. He leveraged his pain into praise and engaged in life. He contrasted the comparatively slight strain of temporal tribulation with the “eternal weight of glory” won for us by God’s Son and our Redeemer. Paul looked to the end which those who have believed in Christ are assured; it is nothing less than eternal glory.
David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great preacher who preached from the pulpit of Westminster Chapel for more than 30 years, notes the key to Paul’s attitude was found in the comparison: “He does not say that it was light in and of itself but that when you contrast it with this “far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” on the other side it becomes nothing.”
I mentioned at the start of this article that pain could be a mechanism for engaging in a game of football. I also suggested that pain could, in fact should, be a mechanism for engaging in life for those of us who have been born again. For the Christian this is possible because of the gospel. The incarnation of Christ, his perfect life lived, his death and resurrection, all ensure for us massive glory-an eternity spent with God-forever and ever. As we reflect on this glorious truth, our pain becomes light and momentary. Thus, pain becomes a life-engaging blessing when we perceive in light of the glory of the gospel. With every wound, scar, and loss our hearts are fined tuned to hope for and trust in the eternal presence of God. Christ's death and resurrection secures a future without tears and separation (Revelation 21-22). Pain reveals that day hasn't come yet. The suffering of Christ on the cross confirms the certainty of that day's arrival.
When we experience pain, and this is sure to happen, will we “curse God and die?” Or will we look to the “eternal weight of glory” won for us by Christ? I pray that we will look to our Savior and look to what he has saved us to and feel the life-crushing burden of pain become light and temporary. I pray that pain will be a signal not to withdraw or wilt but to praise our God and persevere to the end as messengers of hope.
Jude St. John (@judestjohn) played football professionally in the Canadian Football League for 14 years and currently teaches English at Saunders Secondary School in London, Ontario, Canada. Jude is married to Nicole and they share their lives with their 5 children: Ena, Adele, Mara, Judah, and Arwen. He blogs at quercuscalliprinos.blogspot.com.
Read Luma Simm's book Gospel Amnesia: Forgetting the Goodness of the News.
Read more in Abe Meysenburg's article: Grief and the Gospel