Pastor Tim Smith: Thank God for the gift of pain 

Captain Sam Brown is a US Senate candidate.

Captain Sam Brown is a US Senate candidate. - Credit: www.captainsambrown.com

“The spirit is willing, but the body is weak” is a phrase, first used by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, that readily comes to my mind as an ache, or a twinge reminds me that I’m not as young as I used to be!

Forty years ago I had a torn cartilage removed from my knee, an injury caused by an ill-fated decision to try the long jump at my school sports day.

“As you get older, that’ll give you more trouble,” the surgeon told me at the time, pointing at my pulverised patella.

And his prophetic words have certainly borne fruit in the past few years as simple acts such as bending my knee and reaching to put on my socks every morning invariably comes with an 'ouch' nowadays.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, the human body is described as a 'tent, in which we groan', underlining the flimsy nature of what a friend of mine calls our 'mobile homes'.

Discomfort and pain, in relation to our physical bodies, is an unavoidable part of living and ageing.

“The pain will leave you, once it has finished teaching you,” is an anonymous quote I came across recently, to which the response of many of us is, I’m sure: “I think I’ve learnt enough now, thank you.”

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The fast-changing events in Afghanistan, that have been at the forefront of our news headlines over the past couple of weeks, caused me to recall the quite remarkable story of survival and courage in the face of pain, of Captain Sam Brown, an American soldier who was serving in Afghanistan back in 2008 when the Humvee he was driving was blown up by an improvised explosive device (IED).

The explosion not only propelled Captain Brown out of the vehicle, but also set his body on fire.

As he knelt beside the blast crater in the Kandahar desert, unable to put out the flames and wondering how long it would take him to die, Sam lifted his burning arms to the skies and screamed: “Jesus, save me!”

Another soldier who survived the blast, Gunner Kevin Jensen, came to his aid.

“I’ve got you, sir,” were the words Sam recalled hearing, as Jensen extinguished the flames with sand and helped the two of them run for cover.

As you might imagine, Sam’s recovery was long and unspeakably painful.

The many skin grafts he endured - more than 30 surgeries were performed - were at times more excruciating than the burn itself.

An in-depth article by journalist Jay Kirk in GQ magazine in January 2012, entitled 'Burning Man', which you can still read online, also documents the part played by the pioneering use of virtual reality technology, in helping Captain Brown, and others, cope with the incessant pain that was his constant companion.

The article also details how Sam met, and eventually married, his wife Amy.

Sam Brown’s perspective on what, in his own words was his 'life-defining day', is remarkably positive.

“Growing up, I lived my life for me,” he says. “In my own power I overcame a lot. But the first time I encountered something bigger than myself was that ambush in Afghanistan. September 4, 2008.

"The day I should have died, is the day I was reborn spiritually.

"On that day I realised my mission on Earth was not done yet. I was never angry with God. I believed there was a purpose in it all.

"Physically, I was suffering but I leaned into the suffering, and spiritually, I was fed.

"There was still time to live for God’s glory. I decided that these eight words would be my battle cry: The life I live is not my own.”

In relation to the universal human experience of pain, Dr Paul Brand, who performed pioneering research and treatment among leprosy sufferers in the 20th century, once said: “Thank God for pain. If I could give one gift to my leprosy patients, who have lost any sense of feeling in parts of their bodies, it would be the gift of pain.

"The health of the body depends largely on its attentiveness to the pain network.”

Seen from this perspective, pain is a blessing, rather than a curse, warning us that something is wrong and needs to be treated.

And Sam Brown’s testimony would also be that healing is not normally possible without the presence of pain.

However, as we look to the future, it’s also good to remember the promise God’s word makes in Revelation 21:4, about the life to come, of a new heaven and a new earth, “where death shall be no more, and never again shall there be sorrow or crying or pain. For all those former things are past and gone.”