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The Payoff of Pain

Jul 25, 2022

The girl crouched in the dim basement, hammer in hand, downing an emotional cocktail of shame and determination.

One blow. Two. Three. That should be enough. She examined the strike site. Greenish blue. Fading yellow. Slight swelling.

The shove from another student had sent her flying into the corner of a brick wall and left her knee discolored and inflamed. Classmates, teachers, and family members consoled and fussed over her. If she could just keep the bruises on her knee intact a while longer …

Pain has a payoff. Always. Never “if.” Only “what kind” and “how long.” In the best of times, the benefit is growth. Maturing. Increased empathy for others suffering a similar or worse situation. In the worst of times, the bottom line is quite different.

Do you know someone who struggles with pain? Not the kind caused by a physical disorder or disease. Not emotional strain resulting from grief, tragedy, loss. Not residual agony inflicted by trauma, whether from a single incident or cumulative events. Just ongoing misery, often without a clearly defined cause.
Perhaps it’s because of the payoff.

Everyone carries pain – their own and others. To live without any pain indicates a serious soul disorder: we’re not attuned to ourselves or others. Desiring pain also signals an inner health malady.

Wholeness simultaneously accepts the existence of inevitable pain present in this world and fights to remove it.

But everyone doesn’t live “whole.”


“Holes” which aren’t healed always seek to be filled.

One way or another. And one of those is by living in pain.

This is a tricky post to compose because the margin for misinterpretation or misapplication is huge. So let me be clear what I am not saying.

~ I am not saying pain is a sign of immaturity, sin, or unbelief in a Christian.

~ I am not saying pain ever justifies a response of contempt, disgust, or incivility.

~ I am not saying pain must be explained to be justified. Sometimes it takes the heart time to see inside itself before it can explain itself to others.

~ I am not saying the only pain which warrants our tenderness, compassion, and grace is when it’s forced on us, not self-inflicted.

Pain’s central, consistent message is always: something’s off. Something’s missing. Something’s not right. Under every hurt is a hole begging to be filled. Sometimes the way a person tries to fill that emptiness is by remaining in a state of woe.

Because here’s the hard truth:

Pain issues permits for attention and lowered expectations.

And who among us doesn’t long to be seen? Not because we’re vain but because we need to feel our presence matters. And who among us doesn’t sometimes want to have less asked of us? Not because we’re lazy but because we feel vulnerable, scared, and incompetent. Disempowered.

If I am walking into a building and see a person approaching ahead of me, limping on crutches, it’s appropriate I come alongside and offer assistance over the curb. I should pull the door open and stand aside, allowing them to enter first. I may even inquire, “What happened to your leg,” as I point to the thick boot entombing their calf and foot.

But doing this with a person jaunting towards the door ten paces in front of me would not be interpreted as care and consideration. Weird, if not suspicious or demeaning. To expect the person hobbling on crutches to fling open and hold the door for me would be considered selfish and rude. Certainly, having someone inquiry about the condition of my leg in normal circumstances would require quite a different reply than if it sported a cast! Why?

Because our expectations of what is appropriate/inappropriate behavior change in response to people’s condition.

We rightly offer more and ask less of a person in pain – unless pain has become a path for engagement and to be seen. A permit to remain self-focused.

Oh, these are hard words to write. In a time when mental, emotional, and relational suffering is intense and widespread, it is easy to be misheard as someone dismissing the cumulative effects of a global pandemic, economic anxieties, unjust war, cultural upheaval, and generational crises of faith. Not to mention personal tragedies, frightening diagnoses, disappointments, and the ongoing concerns present in “ordinary” life.


But truth, not good wishes, commiseration, sympathy, or inspirational memes, is the only thing that sets anyone free.

And one truth is we are designed to live empowered. When Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would come, one characteristic of this hope was our ability to live empowered. Not merely informed, resilient, or improved. Empowered.

When a person remains in thought and behavioral patterns which keeps them on a “I’m in pain” loop, ask yourself five questions.

1. Does this person have good self-awareness and self-acceptance? The issue isn’t what I believe about this person’s capacity or ability, but what they believe about themself.

2. Does their pain consistently involve other people (the same person or several) mistreating or misunderstanding them? If so, are they willing to set real boundaries (as in tangible consequences, not promises or threats of action) to protect themselves from hurt or do they continue to find justifications (even “spiritual” ones) to remain in the same relational patterns.

3. Does their pain create confusion, chaos, resentment, shame, or feelings of manipulation in you? This is different than feeling concern, fatigue, sadness, grief, or helplessness. Caring for anyone in pain should evoke some of the second list of feelings within us. If we dance off merrily after hearing someone’s tales of suffering, we’re likely the one creating a lot of pain for others. But the first list can be a clue that what we’re dealing with is a person seeking to fill a hole in their heart rather than healing the hole.


Heart-holes are bottomless, and there’s no amount of filling which ever changes that, only healing.

4. Does this person have knowledge, abilities, and opportunities to effect change in some way – even baby steps – but lacks consistent follow through? One mistake often made is thinking because a behavioral loop’s frequency has decreased or the duration between cycles has increased, the core problem is being solved. Sometimes, but seldom.

5. Is there an overall approach to life of personal responsibility, regardless of circumstances? Positivity is easy to come by when life’s aligning with our aims. Empowerment living fosters a solution-mindset and internal forces; disempowerment focuses on situations and blaming external factors.

As you answer these questions about someone else – or even yourself – remember the goal isn’t labeling someone as “toxic” as if they were a dangerous, unchangeable substance.

It’s not permission to abandon people who are difficult in the name of setting boundaries.

It’s not identifying someone else’s struggles to avoid, minimize, or feel better about your own.

It’s to love. To ennoble, not enable. To help lead toward His light, not complain about their darkness. Truth always seeks to set people free. And it’s possible. I know.

I’m proficient now with hammering nails, not knees. Because since my sixth grade year when I so desperately wanted attention and comfort, God’s grace has preserved me, and his love has healed me, much of that coming through His Body -- brothers and sisters in Christ. No more crouching in dimness but standing in Light. I know how pain seduces the lonely and vulnerable, whispering that remaining hurt is the only way to be seen and cared for. I know the truth that sets a person free.

When we love God “with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength,” that doesn’t mean we get ourselves all fixed, so our heart, soul, mind, and strength is whole. It means we come, entrusting him with our holes.

Pain will come and burrow deep holes in us. That we have no choice over. But we can choose whether we’ll ask, beg, or manipulate others to keep filling our holes – or entrust the Great Restorer to make us whole.


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©Stephanie D. Smith

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