Because we live in a world broken by sin, life is painful. Almost everyone is living with some kind of pain. The type varies – it may be physical, relational, mental, emotional, financial, social, or spiritual – but it all hurts. Pain is inevitable; none of us is able to opt out of it.

As a minister for fifty years, I’ve spent my life helping people in pain, and I’ve never had to look far to find it. To cope with this reality, we desensitize ourselves and detach ourselves from others who are suffering. One of the great challenges in my ministry has been to stay sensitive while witnessing so much distress.

One way God has kept me empathetic toward others’ pain has been by giving me what the apostle Paul calls “a thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7). I’ve lived with chronic pain for most of my adult life. As I was writing this article, I had to pause for my fifth hospitalization in a year. So what I’m sharing with you is not just theory, but truths learned through pain that have enabled me to carry on in spite of it. I’ve learned that pain should not be wasted, but used for God’s purposes.

Scripture is clear that following Christ doesn’t exempt us from suffering. Instead we’re told to expect it (1 Pet. 4:12, John 16:33) and to consider suffering for Christ a privilege (Phil. 1:29). Peter says, “Those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (1 Pet. 4:19). Submitting to God’s will does not protect you from suffering. In fact, sometimes doing the right thing creates pain.

Vinicius Barajas, Easter Triptych I, 2018. All artwork used by permission.

Both believers and unbelievers experience trials. But Christians have a hope to hold on to that not only comforts us, but also empowers us to bless others.

What is our hope in pain? It is the promise of God that he can bring good out of anything, even pain, if we trust him. Romans 8:28 is one of the most beloved verses in the Bible, but it’s also one of the most misquoted. It does not say, “All things that happen to us are good.” That is obviously untrue: rape, cancer, war, disease, racism, and starvation are not good. It also does not say, “All things will have a happy ending.” That too is not reality: not every injustice is corrected; not every disease is healed; not every pain is removed. Here is what the apostle Paul actually says:

“And we know …” We don’t have to guess or wonder or doubt. We can be certain.

“That in all things …” This includes our hurts, mistakes, sins, genetics, and experiences, and even what others do to us.

“God works for the good …” Not everything is good, but God is always working for our good in everything. Anyone can bring good out of good, but God can bring good out of evil. He turns crucifixions into resurrections.

“Of those who love him …” This is not a blanket promise to everyone experiencing pain. If I’m living in rebellion against my Creator’s plan for me, or if I reject God’s love, everything will work toward my destruction and death (Prov. 16:18, 25).

“Who have been called according to his purpose.” The key to our hope is understanding God’s purpose for our lives, including our pain. Only then will we find meaning, benefit, and even joy in our suffering.

Scripture points to five purposes God has for his children while we’re here on earth:

1. We are here to learn to know and love Christ. God made you so he could love you, and he wants you to love him back. Expressing our love to God is called worship.

2. We are here to learn to love Christ’s family. God formed you for his family. Repeatedly, the Bible tells us that it is impossible to love God and not love his family. We are called to belong, not just believe. This is called fellowship.

3. We are here to learn to grow in Christ. You were created to become like Christ. God wants you to grow to spiritual maturity, and our model is Jesus himself. This is called discipleship.

4. We are here to learn to serve Christ. God did not create you to serve yourself but to serve him, and here on earth we serve him by serving others in Jesus’ name. Jesus says, “Only those who throw away their lives for my sake … will ever know what it means to really live” (Mark 8:35). This is called ministry.

5. We are here to learn to share Christ. Once we’ve accepted the good news, God expects us to pass it on to others. This is called evangelism.

God establishes and develops these purposes in our lives through the Word of God renewing our minds (John 17:17), through the Spirit of God transforming our character (2 Cor. 3:17–18), and through the often painful circumstances of life causing us to make choices (James 1:2–4).

I. Worship

Anytime something painful happens in your life, you have a choice. You can run to God or you can run from God. As a pastor, I’ve been involved in relief efforts after natural disasters in many countries. From those experiences I’ve noticed that in a crisis, typically about half the people run toward God with their pain and about half run away from God. That makes no sense to me. Why would I run from the only one who fully understands all the emotions I’m feeling? And why would I avoid the only one able to heal and restore me?

Our most passionate prayers are when we are in the most pain. No one prays perfunctory prayers when they’re in pain. Superficial prayers are replaced by genuine cries of the heart.

Ten years ago, my youngest son, who had struggled since childhood with mental illness, took his life in a moment of deep depression. It was the worst day of my life. My wife, Kay, and I and our other children were devastated. I’ve never felt such suffocating and paralyzing pain. What saved my sanity in the following months was spending hours, and even days, alone with God in worship, pouring out all my jumbled emotions. I used my pain to draw closer to God.

What I learned was that we draw closer to God by telling him exactly how we feel, not by telling him what we think he wants us to feel. God wants the real, not the ideal, from you. In pain, you cry out. You argue with God. You complain to God. You express all the negative emotions you’re feeling. You don’t suppress them, you confess them.

Vinicius Barajas, Easter Triptych II, 2018

Complaining to God when you’re in pain is a biblical act of worship – it’s called lamenting. One third of the 150 psalms in the Book of Psalms are psalms of lament. I learned to lament by praying those fifty psalms. Worship is not always celebration, praise, and thanksgiving. Expressing every aspect of grief – shock, sorrow, struggle, surrender – can bring you closer to God too.

All your emotions are God-given. You have emotions because you’re made in God’s image and God is an emotional God. In the Bible, God feels and expresses anger, grief, jealousy, frustration, and other negative emotions that we often try to suppress.

The apostle Paul used his suffering to draw closer to God: “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:8–9). Later, Paul writes to the Corinthians about the effect of their sorrow as a result of the letter he had sent them: “I’m glad I sent it, not because it hurt you but because the pain turned you to God” (2 Cor. 7:9).

II. Fellowship

We typically think we will attract others by impressing them with our successes, victories, and accomplishments. But talking about those things can create jealousy, competition, and distance between people. In contrast, sharing our weaknesses, failures, and grief creates a common bond.

Pain is the great equalizer because it is indiscriminate. Pain pays no attention to status, wealth, religion, education, age, or gender. Loss is a universal common denominator. So if you want to draw others closer to you in fellowship, dare to be vulnerable. That requires being honest with God and yourself first. It requires allowing others to see you in your pain and to bear your burden.

The day our youngest child lost his battle with mental illness and ended his life, Kay and I stood on the driveway of his home hugging and sobbing while awaiting the police. Within about twenty minutes of hearing the news, our small-group fellowship from our church showed up. On that driveway, the men gathered around me and held me tightly in a group hug while the women did the same with Kay. They didn’t say much, because no words were adequate for the agony we felt. They just hugged us. Finally one said, “There’s nothing we can say, but we’re not leaving you alone tonight.” They drove us home and they all slept on the floor and in chairs in our living room and kitchen. It was the ministry of presence: show up and shut up.

People who have little pain in their lives can be unsympathetic, even judgmental, toward those for whom life is a constant, painful struggle. On the other hand, if you choose to allow it to, personal pain will increase your sensitivity to others’ pain, deepen your empathy for their suffering, and enable you to connect with people you otherwise have little in common with.

III. Discipleship

God’s goal is for us to become more like Christ. That leads to two questions. First, what is Jesus really like? Galatians says, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23). That’s a portrait of Jesus, and to become Christlike is to have these qualities in our lives.

That leads to the second question: How does God make us more like Jesus? The answer is by taking us through experiences like those Jesus went through. Were there times when Jesus was lonely? Frustrated? Misunderstood? Criticized? Were there times when he experienced pain? Hebrews says, “Even though Jesus was God’s son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered” (Heb. 5:8).

We learn obedience the same way – through painful situations. Hebrews continues, “Suffering made Jesus perfect” (Heb. 5:9). If God used suffering to develop Jesus, we should expect him to use the same on us.

There is no situation we cannot grow from if we choose to respond correctly. Every problem or pressure is an opportunity to grow in Christlikeness. We can even grow from temptation, because temptation is just a choice between what’s right and what’s wrong. Every time we choose what’s right when tempted, we grow more like Christ.

How does God produce the fruit of the Spirit in our lives? By putting us in the exact opposite circumstance. We learn to love when God puts hard-to-love people around us. We learn joy in the midst of grief. We learn inner peace in the midst of chaos. We learn patience by being forced to wait. Every point of pain will either become a stepping stone to maturity or a stumbling block that keeps us stuck in immaturity.

There are some lessons we learn only through pain. The paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 7:11 in The Message version mentions nine possible benefits: “Isn’t it wonderful all the ways in which this distress has goaded you closer to God? You’re more alive, more concerned, more sensitive, more reverent, more human, more passionate, more responsible. Looked at from any angle, you’ve come out of this with purity of heart.”

IV. Ministry

Paul speaks of pain in connection with ministry in 2 Corinthians:

[God] comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ. Even when we are weighed down with troubles, it is for your comfort and salvation! For when we ourselves are comforted, we will certainly comfort you. Then you can patiently endure the same things we suffer. (2 Cor. 1:4–6)

Notice the phrase “when we are weighed down with troubles, it is for your comfort.” Just as God in Christ suffered for our benefit, sometimes God allows us to experience pain in order that we might use it to minister to others who are in pain.

Of course, God uses our strengths and talents to help others, but often in even more powerful and transforming ways, God uses our weaknesses and failures. Paul explains this in 2 Corinthians: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. … [The Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ … That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses … for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 11:30; 12:9–10).

Who could better empathize with someone going through a divorce than those who have experienced it themselves? Who could better minister to someone with an addiction or a chronic illness or depression than someone who has struggled with the same issue?

Every painful experience you’ve gone through in your life is a ministry opportunity. You can use both the pain you’ve already gone through and the pain that you are currently going through to help others who are experiencing the same painful circumstances.

You might be thinking, “But I have never found a solution or cure!” That should not stop you. We all face losses and pains that may never be cured or resolved on this side of heaven. Not every prayer for healing is answered the way we want. Life is filled with unsolvable problems, terminal diseases, lifelong disabilities, and chronic pain that will have to wait for the ultimate cure in eternity. Still, people need encouragement and support, and they need to be taught how to manage what cannot be changed.

The greatest witness of God’s love in all of history was not Jesus’ perfect life. It was not his teaching. It was not his miracles. The greatest witness of God’s love was Christ’s suffering on the cross.

Or you might be thinking, “But I’m still struggling with this myself.” That makes you even more relatable, because you’re dealing with it on a daily basis. God wants to use your pain now, while you’re in the messy middle of it, when you haven’t figured out all the answers. If God used only perfect people, nothing would ever get done. Everything good and helpful that has ever been accomplished on earth was done by imperfect people, doing it imperfectly.

Your suffering may be disappointment, like wanting to be married but being unable to find a spouse, or wanting to have children but being unable to. What do you do then, when the way seems blocked? You redirect your love. There are plenty of lonely people in the world who need your love. And there are plenty of children who need to be cared for. Instead of focusing on what you’ve lost, or never had, redirect your focus to helping others.

Jesus wants to redeem your suffering. What does that mean? Redemptive suffering uses your pain to help other people. Raising a child who struggled with mental illness, Kay and I both knew that our calling would include ministering to others in similar situations. And when we had to face our son’s suicide, we knew that helping other families devastated by suicide would become part of our calling too. It is not a ministry that we aspired to, but almost every week, God brings people into our lives who need help dealing with either mental illness or suicide. We’re not wasting our pain.

V. Evangelism

Our pain may be the most powerful tool for bringing others to Christ and fulfilling his “Great Commission” to make disciples of all people. It may also be the least utilized tool. I have five hundred books on evangelism in my library, yet I don’t remember reading anything about using pain as our greatest witness.

There are a number of reasons I believe sharing our pain is the most powerful evangelistic approach. First, Jesus did not remain aloof from our pain. He bore our sins and entered into our suffering and pain, all the way to the point of death, and his suffering and death and resurrection are good news that gives hope to the suffering today. Second, pain is universal. It is the great equalizer of humanity, the common denominator through all cultures and ages. Everybody is hurting somehow, so sharing how we hurt is a natural bridge-builder to literally anyone! Third, sharing what is hurting us adds credibility to our witness. A faith that is being tested daily by real-life troubles is worth checking out. Fourth, showing humility is endearing: we naturally like people who admit they don’t have it all together instead of pretending they do.

Many Christians believe God expects us to pretend to live a perfect life in front of our nonbelieving neighbors. Hide our problems. Mask our pain. Cover up our sins. The result is that Christians are labeled hypocrites and phonies. Everyone already knows we don’t have it all together.

Vinicius Barajas, Easter Triptych III, 2018

What if instead we did the exact opposite? What if we Christians were vulnerable, upfront, and honest about our mistakes, problems, and fears? That would be refreshing, authentic, and attractive. Unbelievers have the same problems we do. They can’t see how we deal with our problems biblically if we’re always hiding them. In many ways, Christians have it all wrong. We think people are impressed by our prosperity. But actually, they’re more impressed with how we handle adversity. It’s not our success but how we handle suffering that gives our witness credibility.

The apostle Paul knew this well. Writing to the church in Philippi about all the pain he’d experienced as a prisoner in Rome, he says, “I want you to know, my dear brothers and sisters, that everything that has happened to me here has helped to spread the Good News” (Phil. 1:12). And in a letter to the church in Corinth, he says, “In everything we do, we show that we are true ministers of God. We patiently endure troubles and hardships and calamities of every kind” (2 Cor. 6:4). Just as your greatest ministry is likely to arise out of your deepest pain, your greatest witness to unbelievers is likely to arise out of how you handle it.

Many Christians think they only have one testimony: the story of how they came to faith in Christ. But your experience of pain is a potential testimony you can share. If you’ve ever lost a job, a home, a loved one, or a reputation and God helped you through, that’s a testimony.

The greatest witness of God’s love in all of history was not Jesus’ perfect life. It was not his teaching. It was not his miracles. The greatest witness of God’s love was Christ’s suffering on the cross.

None of us can control what happens to us in life. But we do get to choose our response. We can choose whether we will waste our pain or learn from it and use it to help others. Instead of asking yourself, “Why is this happening to me?” start asking God two other questions: “What do you want me to learn?” and “Whom do you want me to help?”