As most of the readers of this blog would know already, I found myself three weeks ago in need of the services of a surgeon. I had to call my brother at four in the morning on a Sunday (Feb. 3) to get a ride to the emergency room. By that time, I’d been in excruciating pain for about 5 hours. What I thought was some kind of bad gas turned out to be a bad gall bladder. It took a while for the doctors to figure out the exact nature of my problem, so I didn’t actually get the surgery until mid-day Monday.

gall bladder surger

This picture shows the two ways they do gall bladder surgery these days. The method on the left is the method you want. The method on the right is the method they use when Plan A won’t work. That is what happened to me. The right-hand picture here shows the place and the size of my incision pretty much exactly. Afterwards, the surgeon told me that my gall bladder was one of the worst he’d ever seen. They let me out of the hospital that Friday, and I’ve been recovering at Sheldon & Stephanie’s house since then.

Though I haven’t had a lot of personal experience with pain, I have taken it on faith for some time that suffering has two beneficial effects in the life of a believer in and follower of Christ. The first of these is: pain is purifying. Suffering of just about any kind is an opportunity to build up our holiness of character. James wrote, “Consider it all joy, brethren, when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Of course, it’s too early to tell whether this painful experience has enhanced my character much, but I can observe one such effect. I believe that in the future, I will be far more sympathetic toward others who are dealing with various physical ailments and pains. This is not only because I now know something of what they’re going through, but also because of the multitude of expressions of care and sympathy I have received in the last few days and the amazing way in which these cards, letters, e-mails, visits, conversations, and prayers—not to mention Sheldon and Stephanie’s unblinking hospitality—have been a true encouragement. Having experienced the comfort of this ministry firsthand, I can’t see myself passing up the opportunity to provide it anymore.

The second beneficial effect of suffering is this: Suffering is, in and of itself, a point of fellowship with Christ, and fellowship with Christ is the prize of life. Paul writes of this in Philippians 3 when he mentions his desire to know “the fellowship of His sufferings.” In this pain, I found myself thinking about this concept and, after lots of simple-minded begging for miraculous relief, asking the Lord for something of this “fellowship of suffering”—some new nearness of God.

This led to some interesting comparisons. From my perspective, my pain was pretty severe. When they asked me the scale of 1 to 10 question, I was answering, “Eight.” It was bad, but it could have been a little worse. But as I imagine the pains of Christ, I don’t think mine even get on the same scale. My pain, of course, was just the accidental consequence of living in a dying body; I did not and would not choose to have it. Jesus’ pain was something he took on intentionally and for the sake of others. While I was in pain, I never once feared for my life. Jesus, of course, knew that all his pain was to end in death. My pain involved no estrangement from God (or anyone else for that matter). Jesus endured the pain of the Cross utterly alone. Finally, of course, Jesus in his holiness, had to bear the imputed guilt of the sins of the world as he was unjustly executed on the cross.

Given the stark contrast here, one might well wonder, where’s the fellowship? None of us will ever suffer in a way that compares to Christ. Compared to his, my pain is hardly worthy of the label. In spite of that, though, I see two points of fellowship. The first is the simple human experience of pain, something which Jesus Christ also experienced, something he shares with us. The second is an extension of that. I mentioned earlier that this experience has created in me an ability I didn’t have before to sympathize with others. Because I know that Jesus’ suffering was human like mine but also vastly more extensive than mine, I also know that he can understand (by experience) any suffering I may be called to endure.

So my looking for the fellowship of his sufferings was kind of aimed in the wrong direction. I was looking for this pain to lead me to a deeper understanding of Christ. Instead, it was an opportunity for me to realize a bit more of his deep understanding of me. I’m reminded of the words of Corrie Ten Boom, someone who suffered much for Christ. She said, “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.” This experience has helped me to see a tiny bit more of the depth of God’s love in Christ, and for that I am thankful.