Ten years ago, in preparation for the natural birth of our first child, my husband and I took a childbirth class with a doula. She taught us many helpful things, but one of the most impactful was this: do not fear the pain. Fear is the enemy of pain. Fear makes pain worse.
She explained that instead of allowing my body to tense up in fearful response to the pain, I would need to embrace the pain…to breathe into the pain, which would relax my body and help me get through it. Leaning into the pain instead of fighting against it would allow my delivery to progress more quickly and smoothing. Healing and joy would be in closer reach if I could embrace the pain, not fight it, not run from it, not try to ignore it (which, as anyone who’s been in labor can tell you, is impossible!), not fear it.
Four natural births later, I can attest that her counsel was spot on. Tensing up when a contraction began or intensified never helped. Leaning into my amazing birth partner (my husband), putting all my weight into him, and breathing deeply into the pain so that my body could relax, did help. It didn’t remove the pain, but it got me through it, one contraction at a time. With each labor, I learned to do this better. Though my labors got shorter and more intense, each one became “easier”—I became calmer, more confident, and more relaxed through the contractions.
I learned the lesson about pain in childbirth, and I now teach it to my kids when they stub their toe or run into a wall (that happens frequently in our household). I fix my eyes on their wide eyes or take their tense little body in my arms, wrap my arms around them, and say, “breathe through the pain. Relax.” We take a deep breath together, and they get through it.
The last couple years have taught me how true this is in life as well. Fearing the pain of whatever we are going through makes for a more painful and extended process. Often it even inhibits healing and squashes the joy that is on the other side – and even in the midst of – pain and grief.
If we want to heal well, if we want to birth joy and spiritual fruit through our suffering, then we can’t run from grief. We can’t ignore our heartache. We can’t cover our sorrow in Christian cliches and spiritual platitudes. We can’t tense up in fear of what the pain will do to us.
Instead of fighting against the pain, we fight for joy in the midst of the pain, just as I fought alongside the pain for the birth of my children. We lean into the pain, leaning against our ultimate birth partner, our Heavenly Father, breathing deeply against His chest, feeling every moment of the pain with our eyes fixed on the goal at the end of the pain.
This morning, a song and communion followed the sermon. As soon as the first chords of the song struck on the guitar, overwhelming emotion flooded me. I knew that song. It’s one of the three songs we sang at the funeral of a dear friend’s child, who passed into the arms of Jesus exactly two years ago today. I could barely sing a word through my tears as I was transported back in time to a day that is poignantly seared in my mind as the most profound worship experience of my life – singing songs of praise with our hands lifted high, tears streaming down our faces, and hearts breaking at a funeral with a casket far too small.
I know it wasn’t a coincidence that we sang that song today. The Lord was inviting me to grieve, to remember, to pray for my friends. He was inviting me into that place of lamenting worship, a place where He always draws me near and meets me with profound comfort.
After lunch, I came upstairs to have some quiet Jesus time and writing time while my kids nap/rest. I turn on Pandora, and what’s the first song to come on? The same song. Again. Cue another round of tears. I sent my husband a text with a screenshot of my Pandora: “Apparently the Lord is drawing me to worship in the grief today. Both the grief for our friends and everything that season of life became for us in the short few weeks after Sadie’s passing.”
That song ended. Another song came on. It was the song we sang at the end of Easter service at my brother’s church nearly two years ago after my dad had his stroke, my parents’ marriage blew up, and our family turned inside out. Worshipping that Easter Sunday, while processing grief and pain on a variety of levels, is the second most poignant worship experience of my life. I can remember exactly what I felt and thought as I sang that song, arms lifted high, tears streaming down my face. I can remember locking eyes with my big brother as he played drums on the stage, knowing that the song was speaking the same thing to us.
Today, God gave me three invitations to embrace the pain. I could have left the room or skipped the songs. The thought crossed my mind – I hate crying, after all. But then I would have missed the profound beauty of His presence in those moments as I allowed myself to remember and grieve for my friends, myself, and my family. I would have missed the way He fills me with hope and joy as the song ends and relief rushes through my heart like relief flooding my body as one contraction flows into a moment of reprieve. I would have missed reflecting on all the marks of His grace and mercy over the last two years. I would have missed the opportunity to reach out to my friends with a word of support.
I don’t live in a constant state of dwelling on the grief and pain of my own experiences or those close to me. But when these invitations come, when it’s time to reflect and grieve, I take a deep breath, lean into Jesus, and embrace the pain for the moment. Because I’ve learned that there’s nothing to fear in the pain; in fact, there is beauty to be found there.
Friends, whatever pain you are experiencing today, whatever griefs and sorrows you are tempted to fear, to tense up against, to run from, to hide, to escape, to ignore, to smother with unhelpful platitudes, to fight against, I encourage you: Embrace the pain. Take a deep breath. Lean into your Heavenly Father. Feel Him drawing you close, championing you as He whispers in your ear, “We’ll get through this. Trust me. The pain is not the end of this story.” Sing His praise as you cry out and lament, as you remember and grieve, as you question and wrestle.
Don’t fear the pain, because the greater the pain, the greater the joy on the other side.
Great hearts can only be made by great troubles. The spade of trouble digs the reservoir of comfort deeper and makes more room for consolation. God comes into our heart – He finds it full – He begins to break our comforts and to make it empty; then there is more room for grace….Another reason why we are often happiest in our troubles is this – then we have the closest dealings with God…There is no cry so good as that which comes from the bottom of the mountains, no prayer half so hearty as that which comes up from the depths of the soul, through deep trials and afflictions. They bring us to God, and we are happier; for nearness to God is happiness. Come, trouble believer, do not fret over your heavy troubles, for they are the heralds of weighty mercies.
(Charles Spurgeon, Morning by Morning, February 12th)
(1) I will exalt you, Adonai, because you drew me up;
you didn’t let my enemies rejoice over me.
(2) Adonai my God, I cried out to you,
and you provided healing for me.
(3) Adonai, you lifted me up from Sh’ol;
you kept me alive when I was sinking into a pit.
(4) Sing praise to Adonai, you faithful of his;
and give thanks on recalling his holiness.
(5) For his anger is momentary,
but his favor lasts a lifetime.
Tears may linger for the night,
but with dawn come cries of joy.
(6) Once I was prosperous and used to say,
that nothing could ever shake me —
(7) when you showed me favor, Adonai,
I was firm as a mighty mountain.
But when you hid your face,
I was struck with terror.
(8) I called to you, Adonai;
to Adonai I pleaded for mercy:
(9) “What advantage is there in my death,
in my going down to the pit?
Can the dust praise you?
Can it proclaim your truth?
(10) Hear me, Adonai, and show me your favor!
Adonai, be my helper!”
(11) You turned my mourning into dancing!
You removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
(12) so that my well-being can praise you and not be silent;
Adonai my God, I will thank you forever!
Psalm 30 (Complete Jewish Bible translation)