Both beauty and pleasure have the power to distract even the most disciplined mind. They can hijack your attention and hold you hostage for hours, days or a lifetime. But there’s something else that once it gets its teeth in you, can hold you in such a fierce grip, you can’t think of anything else. Despite how much you want to. It’s called pain.
Like a swat team ambush, suffering comes into our lives whether we want it or not. When you least expect it, bad news can rush in like a flash flood and break your heart. Anxiety moves in and peace leaves. Hope fades as the waters rise to overwhelm you.
Whether physical or emotional, uninvited suffering can commandeer your thoughts, overwhelm all your emotions and throw life into turmoil. You can’t focus on anything but the pain. Even if you want to focus on something else, this tyrant won’t let you.
I’m the last person to talk about pain. Why? I have no tolerance for it. For physical or emotional pain. I moan and groan over a sore neck. And I want you to moan with me.
So why write about pain? Did I suffer a loss? Am I dying? Nope. My knees are hurting.
I should be grateful. Unlike many, I do have two legs. Though I don’t have a good one to stand on right now. My left knee is due for a knee replacement. And I’ve torn the meniscus in my right knee. So I can’t walk far or stand very long without both knees screaming for relief. So I scream for relief too. Ask my wife. On second thought, don't.
I’m a wimp when it comes to pain. I think a pill should make it go away instantly. If it doesn’t, my knees scream. And I scream at the pill. ‘Why can’t you do what I’m paying you an arm and a leg to do?! (Pun intended.) The pill is silent. So I ask the doctor. He says take the pill. I ask God. He must be hard of hearing. So I scream again but louder.
It seems like God speaks less when life is hard. Especially if I ask Him why. So I answer my own question. I tell myself why I think it happened. The truth is: I have no answers. Even if I did, very seldom does any ‘answer’ ease the pain or undo the damage done.
Even the very best answers rarely satisfy my urgent need to make sense of suffering. I think a more helpful question is ‘How?’. How do I live with the pain I cannot avoid?
There is one principle God’s been teaching me that does help minimize the pain a bit. Maybe not the physical pain. But the emotional and mental anguish that comes with physical pain or adversity. For me, pain often turns into self-pity. Which turns into low grade depression. But God's advice is helping. I still feel pain but my heart hurts less.
This isn’t new advice. You know it already. But wisdom is not measured by what we know. But by what we do with what we know. Unless I act on it, the wisest advice is no more helpful than the prescription I never fill or take. I’m not saying this is a cure-all for pain. But it does help minimize the pain of being in pain. So what is this advice?
Lift up your eyes.
Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God”? Isaiah 40: 26,27
For the last 6 months, I’ve been ‘stuck’ in Isaiah 40. I’ve read it daily. I’m memorizing it, studying it and reading books on it. I also listened to Handel’s Messiah, inspired by Isa. 40. I’ve listened to sermons on it. Journaled my thoughts. Why? I’m not sure. All I know is my heart is pulled here. And the more I see of God, the more I want to see.
This chapter and those that follow are preoccupied with one main focus: God Himself. Isaiah's message announces the coming of God to earth as a man: Behold your God!
O Zion, You who bring good tidings, Get up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, You who bring good tidings, Lift up your voice with strength, Lift it up, be not afraid; Say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” Isaiah 40:9
I won’t try to unpack the message of Isaiah 40. I just wanted you to notice it’s theme. It’s God Himself. We see the transcendent glory of a reigning king. Who gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart! Isaiah presents us a revelation of who God is. For God’s greatest gift to us is Himself. And He is man’s greatest need.
Isaiah’s message was written to the people of God during their long exile in Babylon. Enduring years of hard service in a strange land with foreign gods ruled by evil men. But to the hopeless comes a word of hope. ‘This is not the end! Don’t fear! Your God is coming!” Israel’s only hope is the Shepherd of Israel. The focus of Isaiah’s message.
Did you notice what God says after He lifts their eyes to the stars above them? v. 27 He says ‘Not one of them is missing’. So “Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God”? The God who knows every star by name knows every heart that breaks. Ps 147:3,4
When a wave of pain breaks on the shore of my soul, whatever its cause, a wave of loneliness almost always follows behind it. The feeling that no one knows what I’m feeling or cares that I hurt. It hurts enough to hurt. But to hurt alone pours salt on the wound. The pain is more painful. We need friends as much as we need relief.
The soul in pain must be told they’re not alone! This is why God says ‘lift your eyes’.
Now I already know I should look to God if I’m suffering. Yet God’s call in v.26 to ‘lift your eyes’ struck me like the good news it is. I normally would balk at such a phrase. I don’t to hear pat answers for a complex issue? ‘Lift up your eyes’ can sound a lot like ‘Just trust God’. The last thing you want to hear when life is hard and God is silent.
For me, it’s not a pat answer. God’s calling to lift my eyes filled me with hope. Why? Because I ‘stumbled’ on it. I didn’t hear the advice first and look up to God for relief. It was the other way around. While looking at God to know Him, I grew more aware of Him and less preoccupied with me or my needs. Ignatius calls it ‘holy indifference’.
I’m not saying I’m no longer affected by pain or adversity. I am. Just not as much.
As long as I keep my focus on God, that is. Which I’ll admit is easier said than done. I am easily pulled into the quicksand of anxiety and self-focus. But I’ve tasted sweet moments when all that fills my vision is God. And ‘the things of earth growstrangely dim in the light of His glory and grace’. What captures my attention affects my heart!
Two men looked out a window, One sees mud, the other saw stars. Oscar Wilde
My friend Patrick asked me what’s helped most through this ordeal. What’s made it more bearable is not being consumed by it. I was already ‘lifting my eyes’ before I read vs. 26. I’ve been in Isa 40: 1-11 for 6 mo's. Pulled by a need to know God freshly. Yesterday I saw this call to 'lift your eyes' in v. 26. And realized why I have such peace.
It’s unlike me to feel pain and peace at the same time. I still moan and groan. And my wife endures it graciously. But what I haven’t done lately (which I usually do) is whine over my trouble, rant at God for allowing it or give in to fear. Why? I trust Him. My faith though weak, can be as strong as what I focus on. It's hard to focus on God and worry.
You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you! Isaiah 26:3