My Pain is Not Pointless
By John M. Tuohy
I was driving up the backside of MacDonald Pass with the sun streaming across the windshield and into my face, my dog laying across the center console with his head on my arm. The awe-inspiring beauty of the Rocky Mountains in springtime was stretched in every direction, while inside of me, it felt like the weight of the world was about to crush me through the seat and into the road beneath my wheels. For all its breathtaking grandeur, the day and the view could do nothing to dispel the pain that filled every fiber of my broken heart.
It was almost impossible to believe that it had already been six months. Six months since I left, six months since I walked away, six months of driving and looking and hoping and…still, this aching sadness in my heart. Through all the miles and all the days, weeks, and months, this pain, this depression, and this hopelessness were my constant companions. All I had worked toward for so long was gone. The years of study, the investments of time and resources, the sacrifices my family had made so that I could pursue a dream…I could name every one of them and curse myself for them, too.
So I drove my truck, hurting too badly to do more than just drive. I felt too lost to go home to my family, too broken to find the pieces, and too tired to do anything other than cry and try to breathe. Compelled by some unexplainable motivation, I whispered a prayer.
The loss of a dream is never easy, and the pain of failure or rejection or grief or pain proves incredibly hard to bear. Add to those things the yawning emptiness of overwhelming depression, and you have the makings of a dark night of the soul. I had all of them. In spades.
After years of overextending myself, taking on too much responsibility, and trying to hold things together through sheer willpower, I wound up burnt out, depressed, and barely able to function. I was emotional wreckage, chewed up and spit out by the vocation I had dreamed of and worked toward for so many years. To be perfectly honest, I was in such bad shape that the only things keeping me afloat were the grace of a merciful, loving Father God and the love, support, and encouragement of His greatest gift to me aside from salvation, my wife.
Oh, did I mention that I was depressed? Depression overwhelmed me like a hot, stifling, wet blanket. Darkness, hopelessness, with constant anxiety threatening to tear apart my stomach muscles. I couldn’t formulate coherent thoughts or plans, even while images of self-harm and an inability to see any hope for a future beyond this crushing, hopeless, terrible moment came unbidden.
Just a quick note on that kind of mental health crisis: it is emotionally, physically, and spiritually impossible to pastor two churches, lead a family, and be an effective, loving, caring human being while experiencing the sky-scraper sized waves of that type of storm. I failed at all of them…which added to the already overwhelming weight of despair, self-disgust, and disappointment inside of me.
Now, hold that picture for a minute.
Several years before that day in the truck, I found myself in the midst of another crisis of my own making, this time brought about as a consequence of my own sinful, pre-Jesus lifestyle. The details would take too long to describe, but in a moment of utter despair, with no hope of reconciliation, redemption, or peace, one of the greatest men I have ever met texted me, “James 1:12.” That was it. He didn’t include the text of the verse, just told me where to find it. So I looked.
Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. James 1:12, ESV
Well now, there was something for my troubled heart to chew on. A little further biblical digging turned up more in a similar vein that helped then and continues to help now.
In the Gospel of John, we get a picture of Jesus taking a moment to explain the reality of life to His disciples, to lay things out for a group of hard-headed, stubborn, sarcastic reprobates that have the uncanny ability to remind me of myself. Or maybe I just relate to Peter with his unfortunate habit of saying exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time… but I digress. Jesus says:
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
There’s some really important stuff going on here, and it bears digging into. First, the reason Jesus tells them (and us) these things is so that they (and we) can have peace. I don’t know about you, but speaking for myself, when pain is my constant companion and despair seems like a thousand-pound weight I’m forced to drag along with every step, a little peace would be awfully nice! He tells us that we have it…even when we don’t feel like it. We have His peace—as in, we own it—because we are “in Him” and adopted into His family.
Jesus goes on to remind them (and us) that in the world we live in, we can expect pain. Life is, almost inevitably, made up of seasons, some good, some not so good, and some that we wish we could rewind and maybe even get a refund for! Sometimes it seems like nothing could stop us, like we could whip the worst storm in the world with one hand tied behind our backs. Other times, we hurt so badly we can’t cry, can’t move, and can’t even breathe.
But Jesus has even more to say. He says that we will have “tribulations,” but He also reminds us that He has overcome. That particular truth statement is where our peace can be found even in the midst of great pain and great turmoil. You see, unlike everyone else on this rock, we’ve been given the script; we know the end of the story. We know who wins. And when He inevitably wins, He has already told us what it will look like.
In the last book of the Bible—the one that often confuses, maybe just to keep us wondering—a handful of absolutely unequivocal and clear statements are made. One of them:
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.
And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’” (Revelation 21:4-5)
That is—that must be—an incredibly life-changing statement of truth for us. He is making all things new. All things. My pain. My sadness. My mourning. My depression. My despair. My failures. My life. Let me say that again: He is making all things new. That means that, even in the midst of my storm, even in the midst of my pain, I have an anchor of hope to hold onto.
We often—usually, even—measure life by the difficulties and storms we face. Success at life could perhaps be described as moving through storm after storm without sinking, without losing hope, and with a growing and developing gratefulness for the work He continues to do in our hearts through the storms. “In this life you will have tribulation,” is not just a cute trope; it is reality. Even more real, though, we may be encouraged, because He has “overcome the world.” He will “wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.” He has promised that “He is making all things new.” That is truth. And that is hope in the midst of the storm.
As I made my way up that pass in the sunlight of that amazing spring day, I turned the radio up, and with tears streaming down my face, I sang along as best I could to the worship music playing through the stereo. I let Him be Him and made room for the fact of my “tribulation” … because He has overcome. Because He has already won. Because He counts all my tears (Psalm 56:8), and because one day, He will dry them away forever. That doesn’t mean that it hurts less, but it does mean that I have peace more abundantly.
It is one of the strangest contradictions of my life that the times I have felt closest to my Heavenly Father and the times I have most enjoyed His overwhelming peace and presence in my life have been in the seasons of my greatest pain. I don’t understand it, but it remains true. Hopefully, I am learning to change my mindset about the things that I inevitably experience. Because if I experience those times of His presence and I experience those times—as brief as they may be—of His peace in the midst of the pain, the door to joy opens, even in the times of grief and agony and mourning and loss…even in times of depression.
My pain is not pointless. Through it, maybe, just maybe, I can begin learning to trust God, to lean on Him, and perhaps even watch for those glimpses of unexpected joy. His promise remains, and He who promised is faithful.
And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.” Revelation 21:5
John (Angela O’Dell’s nephew) is an ordained pastor, husband, and father of three–plus one fur baby. He has traveled extensively, both in the military and out of it. By God’s grace, he currently resides in the Intermountain West where he has the privilege of working as an instructor for at-risk youth.