Part 16: The Role of Pain in Formation

Letters on Spiritual Formation #16

The Role of Pain in Formation

This is article is part of a series of letters on spiritual growth and maturity. To read the previous letter in the series, click here.

My frame was not hid from you, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth
— Psalm 139:15

Confronting the Truth

As we are being formed by his word, areas that contradict the truth of that word will arise. Often, God uses pain as a way to break up the ground that has been hardened by the fruit of untruth in our lives. No writing on spiritual maturity can be complete without addressing two important topics; the role of pain in formation and what many have come to call the Dark Night of the Soul.

In simplicity, pain reveals when things are awry in a relationship. The healthy way to deal with the existence of pain between two people is not to respond to the emotional data the pain generates, but to ask the question, “What has caused this pain in the first place?” Pain within a relationship is not necessarily a bad thing. It can cause the people involved to ask the kind of questions that are needed. In this way, pain can be an incredibly formative part of a relationship. Distance and friction can promote deeper intimacy when the cause of the friction and the distance are brought to the light and resolved.

Sometimes our pain tells us the degree of separation between our God-breathed destiny and our actual day to day life. If God allows your moment by moment decisions in everyday circumstances to play themselves out (whether to your detriment or your benefit), then the pain or peace that results from those decisions can teach you an incredible amount about yourself. If it is true that the mind set on God is at perfect peace (Isaiah 26:3), then areas where we experience a distinct lack of peace, sometimes even pain, can reveal the places that we are not “set on God.” This lack of peace manifests itself in dissonance.

The power of dissonance

We have already touched on the area of truth we hold in our core, but let us revisit this for a moment. If there is a belief that we hold deep inside that is untrue of ourselves and of God, then one of the simplest and best ways for God to expose this truth is to allow it to work its way out. The longer these untruths are worked out the longer we will stay in a state of dissonance. Dissonance is the degree of distance core truths (what you believe) hold from actual truth (what God says about you). Remember, the two truths that tempted Adam and Eve and that tested Jesus were “Who do you believe you are” and “Who do you believe God is.” Dissonance always exists when these two truths differ from what God has said about you and what God has said about himself.

Merriam-Webster defines dissonance as: lack of agreement; especially inconsistency between the beliefs one holds or between one's actions and one's beliefs

But dissonance has a feeling to it. In music, dissonant notes leave you feeling a lack of rest, like there is something more to come just around the corner. If a song ended on a dissonant note you would feel like something else should come. It is the vague unsettled feeling of something not quite having ended right. Consonant notes, on the other hand, are notes that are pleasing to the ear. They leave the listener feeling as if the music has rested. A song ending on a consonant note (as almost all songs do) is pleasing to the ear. A dissonant note stands out because it is so different from all the harmony and consonance happening around it.

In the same way, dissonance in your life leaves you feeling uncertain, anxious, restless, and like something else needs to happen. If you feel that way great! You are sensitive enough to what is happening within you to have tuned in to the sound you are making.

If you have ever found yourself saying, “Why do these kind of things keep happening to me?” or “I never quite fit in,” or you experience a general feeling of discomfort or unease in life, these types of thoughts and feelings can often lead us to areas of dissonance.

What dissonance taught me

After my wife and I found out she was pregnant with our first child, I was ecstatic. We were in our early thirties and had been hoping to have started having children already.  The first few days I was obviously high as a kite. One evening, before going to bed, I sat down to pray and thank the Lord for the promise of our child. Almost right away I felt as if I was surrounded by the presence of God, and I began weeping. The goodness of God in gifting us with a child brought me to tears. I slowly began to realize how I had never really believed I could be a father. The Lord was showing me that deep down inside I had a belief that differed from what the kind of things he thought about when he thought about me. My core belief dictated actions that kept me from embracing fatherly figures in my life, and from in turn embracing the role of a spiritual father in the lives of others. I had experienced dissonance in my life due to a negatively held belief that exalted itself above the knowledge of God regarding me. In this moment, God shed his light on me, called me a father, gave me a child, and let me know how he viewed me. I experienced his truth regarding me. Truth became a tangible reality. I was a father, and he knew I could be a father. This experience fundamentally changed how I approached spiritual fathers in my life, and in turn how I would father. There was an ease in the way I interacted with the men I considered spiritual fathers that only increased with time.

God had allowed me to become more and more uncomfortable in my life when it came to fatherly roles. He knew all along that the evening would come where I would approach him and thank him for making me a father. He could have told me all along what my belief was, but he chose not to, why? I don’t really think I would have listened if he had said it. I probably would have nodded in mental assent, vowed to get better, and moved on. But when he visits us with the truth in the moment of turmoil, when dissonance has increased in our lives to the point that we would cry out for freedom, we actually pay attention. The truth sticks, if you will.

Continue Reading Part 17…