"Running is a mental sport...and we're all insane!"
“Learn to run when feeling the pain: then push harder.”
To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
One of the things that every runner has to contend with is the aches and pains that come with the sport. Sometimes it comes in the form of a side ache. Most of us can remember what those are like from running the mile in gym class. Somewhere during your second time around the track you would get a cramp in your side. All you wanted to do was stop because it hurt so badly. But the gym teacher always had a stock answer for those who tried to give up. Do you remember it? Walk it off. It was the same answer I got from my track coach at the beginning of the season. Coach I’ve got a side cramp. Walk it off Banfield. Just walk it off.
I cannot remember the last time I had a genuine side ache when running. That doesn’t mean that I am pain free though. Instead I feel the pain in a number of other places. Before I start my run I feel it in my legs as I stretch out. Every muscle is tight and wants to stay that way. They protest loudly as I stretch each one. Once I am on the trail the pain moves to my knees. As my foot pounds down on the blacktop path the shock is registered in my knees. But the real pain comes later, after the run is done and I have cooled down. I sit in the chair to read or watch a little TV. I am lulled into as false sense of well-being, which quickly dissipates when I try to stand up. At that point my back, my hips and my legs all complain at the same time. Some people ask me if you experience that much pain, why do you keep running? Because it makes me feel so good, I reply.
Pain is a part of life. We would all like to live pain free, but that is unlikely to happen. We can expect to encounter pain all along the journey of life. It will come in the form of physical pain. Most of the time it will be mild like a headache or a stubbed toe. It may come as a major crisis like a heart attack or cancer. No one gets through life without facing some kind of physical pain. It will also come in the form of emotional pain. Often emotional pain is far more difficult to deal with. Physical pain is mostly external but emotional pain sinks deeply into our soul. The real question is not if we will face pain in our life. It is how we will handle the pain that we will encounter along the way.
Paul was no stranger to pain. During his race he had to face pain time and again. In 2 Corinthians 11:24-29 Paul expounds on his many difficulties along the way. “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” Paul faced both physical and emotional pain, yet he kept running.
In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 Paul used his pain to teach us about how to approach our struggles. On this occasion he was referring to a physical ailment that he does not identify. He spoke of how he pleaded with God to take this pain away from him. I have always found this passage strangely intriguing. We know from the book of Acts that God had given Paul the ability to heal people. Yet on this occasion God chose not to heal Paul. More about that in a moment. First let’s deal with the reality that Paul was not immune from pain and suffering.
There is a popular view today that if a person is really in tune with God he or she will never be sick of face any major difficulties. This is just not true. Paul, one of God’s most influential servants, faced a variety of painful experiences during his race. If Paul was not exempt from suffering then we should not expect to be.
What did Paul do when confronted with pain? Did he whine and complain? Did he stop running the race? No, he took his pain to God. The passage tells us that he prayed three times for God to remove his “thorn in the flesh”. In fact he pleaded his case before God. Paul took his situation seriously and went to the one place where he could receive help. Paul was living out what he had often taught others to do. Paul instructed the Philippians to do exactly what he was doing. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7 NIV)
When we feel the pain of the race the first thing we need to do is take it to God. Unfortunately this is often the last thing we do. We tend to exhaust all our other options first. Our tendency is to try to handle it ourselves. Sometimes this only makes the situation worse.
Dirk had little time for doctors. When his wife suggested that he have a physical he brushed the idea aside. I’m in great shape. I don’t need to see a doctor. The problem was that Dirk was not in great shape. He had been experiencing some discomfort in his chest whenever he exerted himself. He ignored it, rationalizing that everyone has small aches and pains as they get older. One night, as he sat down to watch TV, a massive pain slammed him in the chest. He slumped in his chair, unconscious. He awoke the next day to find himself in the intensive care unit of the local hospital.
In the race of life, when we choose to ignore the pains that come our way we set ourselves up for a fall. God has given us pain as an early warning system of danger. We ignore it at our peril. This is true of both physical and emotional pain. Pain of any kind should lead us to the Great Physician.
Paul took his pain to God. What he discovered was that God doesn’t always take our pain away. At first this must have been a surprise to Paul. He had witnessed the healing power of God firsthand. He knew that God could heal him. He desired for God to heal him, but God said no. Paul was willing to trust God even if the pain was not removed.
God does not spare us from all pain in life. I think we would all be amazed if we knew just how much pain God does protect us from. There have been many times when I know God stepped in to protect me from some pain, but he doesn’t always do that. God does not remove all pain in life. Sometimes God has a higher purpose for our pain. He may or may not reveal that purpose to us. We need to learn to trust him.
Terry was a member of my youth group. He was a typical, energetic 13 year old boy. On one occasion I took the youth on a weekend camping trip. For dinner we had some fresh cherries. I warned the kids not to eat too many of them because of the potential consequences. Terry ate more than his share that night. About midnight I heard a rustle and looked out to see Terry sprinting for the bathroom.
Terry was fun and full of life. He was also full of something else, cancer. Terry spent a little over a year waging a valiant battle with his deadly enemy. We prayed earnestly for Terry that God would heal him. I visited him several times while he spent time in the hospital. There were signs of progress and we all hoped for the best. Then I received the call that Terry had lost his battle.
I performed Terry’s funeral. Through bitter tears I tried to give some comfort to his grieving family. I was angry and disappointed with God. Why would he let a 13 year old die? I still have no answers, but I know that that experience of pain had a profound effect on my life. I have walked that same path with many families since that time. I have learned to walk with genuine empathy.