Originally published Monday, 03 October 2016.
"I'm sorry, I know this hurts but it's what we have to do to heal your arm."
That's what the physical therapist said as he dug his fingers deep into my forearm. I have tendinitis or tennis elbow. And no, it's not from playing tennis, but from writing. The pain has kept me from my usual writing schedule.
As the therapist massaged the tendon in my arm, he explained that he was separating the scar tissue that had formed. Then he told me that I would have to do the same at home.
To be honest, what he did to my arm hurt more than the tendinitis. It felt like he was stabbing at an open wound. And didn't he realize I chose physical therapy because I preferred not to receive injections in my arm?
The idea that we have to endure pain in order to heal is not isolated to the physical realm. This is true in our spiritual lives as well. When we encounter God's grace and become his child through faith in Christ, he doesn't leave us as we are. Upon salvation, though we are changed in the eyes of God as he looks at us and sees Christ's righteousness, we are not instantly made sinless. Rather, he changes and transforms us through a process theologians call sanctification. This process is compared to a refiner's fire where the gold or silver's impurities are melted away, leaving the pure and valuable substance behind (Malachi 3).
What that means is, when I ask God to transform me, to make me more like Christ, he doesn't instantly change me. He strips away my sin through a multitude of circumstances and situations. For example, when I pray and ask God to make me patient, I don't wake up the next morning a patient person. Instead, God gives me opportunities to learn and practice patience. He might even allow frustrating situations into my life that stretch my patience. He might also open my eyes, through the work of his Spirit, to see my impatience so that I might repent and seek his forgiveness. All of this is hard work and sometimes painful.
I tend to avoid pain, thus the reason for my visit to the physical therapist. Only I was surprised to learn that I couldn't avoid it if I wanted to heal and have my arm back to normal. Likewise, we can't avoid the pain of sanctification if we want to grow in holiness. That's our goal, to image Christ and be like him. Our Savior showed us that the way to healing was through the cross, through death, and he calls us to follow him in it. "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed" (1 Peter 2:24). We are new creations, and as such, we have to put to death those things from our former life, those things that are not in keeping with our new identity as redeemed children of God. "Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness" (Romans 6:13).
Therefore, we endure hardship, suffering, and trials because they are the means by which God shapes us and refines us. "It is for discipline that you have to endure...For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it" (Hebrews 12:7,11). "In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:6-7).
This process of transformation is a hard one. It is often painful. This pain is felt in varying ways and degrees. Sometimes it comes through a trial as our faith is tried and tested and we learn to rely and depend upon Christ. Other times this pain is felt as God disciplines us for our sin. We also feel it as we stretch and grow in our faith, not unlike the growing pains of childhood. And other times it is felt as God cuts us off from our idols, forcing us to turn back to him. Whatever the degree or source of pain, it is all used for our good and His glory.
Whenever I struggle with the pain involved in my growth as a believer, I often think of Eustice in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. While their ship was anchored at an island, Eustice wandered off from everyone else to do his own thing. He found a cave filled with gold and treasures and in his greed, wanted it for himself. As a result, he turned into a dragon, covered in scales. "He had turned into a dragon while he was asleep. Sleeping on a dragon's hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself." (p. 75)
Aslan later found him and removed his dragon skin from him. It was painful but it made him a boy again: "The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off." (p. 90)
Being refined is painful but it's a good pain. It's a pain that heals. But a day is coming when we will finally shed the last remnants of this sinful and broken life for good. Don't you long for that day?