That was my response to a friend who recently brought me some bad news. I had been expecting this particular piece of bad news for a few weeks at this point, but the shock of actually hearing that my fears had entered reality was something I needed to deal with.
The trouble is, I received this news on a Sunday, and Sunday is not a day that I am capable of dealing with much of anything. We all have those days, don’t we? The big days in our schedules, the moments where we have to be ready to bring our best and the pace of our schedule will not allow us to confront reality. And so, it was when I received bad news on my big day that one of the most honest things that I have ever admitted about myself to myself leaked to the surface.
I’m really good at compartmentalizing.
A younger version of me would have looked at this particular skill as a leadership strength. I don’t let bad news weigh me down, I’m strong I can handle whatever life throws at me, feelings are for people with other personality types or Enneagram numbers.
The trouble is that I have been following Jesus too long. I’ve now seen too much. I’ve experienced pain, loss, disappointment, disillusionment, grief. I’ve seen what ignored pain can do to my soul and as a pastor, I’ve seen what it can do to marriages, families, and children.
I’ve come to realize compartmentalizing is not a skill. Compartmentalizing is a trap.
What makes God good is not that God shields us from pain, it is that God redeems pain for an ultimate purpose.
There is no quicker way to get stuck in grief and pain than to ignore it. This was the conclusion of a psychologist named James Pennebaker, who ran a study in the late 1980s of the health of 60 Holocaust survivors. Pennebaker and his team interviewed the survivors about their experiences in the Nazi death camps and group the respondents into a few categories. One category he classified as “high disclosers”, meaning they were willing to talk in great detail about their experience of trauma. Another category he classified as “low disclosers”, meaning they were unwilling to discuss their experience of trauma in any detail. One year later, the study revealed that the “high disclosers” had to visit their doctor half as often as the “low disclosers”.
What this means is that our willingness to open up about our pain is directly correlated not just to our emotional and spiritual health, but to our physical health as well. Maybe James, the brother of Jesus knew what he was talking about when he wrote, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.” (James 5:16)
I could ask the question of why we don’t do this, but the answer is obvious. It is scary to confront our pain, our grief, and our sorrow. It highlights the brokenness of our world, the brevity of life, and the misguided illusion of control so many of us cling to for our security. We fear pain, loss, grief, and death. So, it is simply easier not to look; to pretend that we can out-smart, out-work, or out-pray what is an inevitable part of the human experience. Pain, loss, and death are the consequence of our fallen sinful world, and while not every moment of pain in our lives is directly tied to a sin that we have committed, the words of our savior in John 16:33 lend us a sobering reality of life, “in this world you will have many troubles and sorrows.”
And yet it is the second half of this verse where Jesus offers us a hope that is so different from the hope we try to grab onto with our compartmentalizing. Jesus says, “But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” The hope of Jesus is not that this world will get better. It is certainly possible, but it is not guaranteed. The hope of Jesus is that he has overcome the world, he is resurrected, sitting on an un-assaulted throne in heaven, and we have the Holy Spirit alive on the inside of us right now as a deposit of the hope of glory that is our inheritance as followers of Christ.
Pain is unavoidable. God is good. Those two facts seem to be contradictory, and yet they are both true. What makes God good is not that God shields us from pain, it is that God redeems pain for an ultimate purpose. And it is why God wants more for us than compartmentalization. Because the solution to pain is purpose, and purpose makes the process worth the pain.