What formaldehyde is to organs in a jar, pain can be to the human heart.
I spent entirely too many hours semi-willingly quarantined in labs in college. Even the faintest whiff of formaldehyde conjures memories of organs and invertebrate bodies floating in large jars.
Although it is not used as much now due to its carcinogenic properties, formaldehyde was once used commonly to preserve the tissues of the specimens, allowing them to be further studied. By being soaked and stored in formaldehyde, the organs or organisms remained soft and supple when they otherwise would have become hardened.
Suffering as Preservative
Pain, while terribly uncomfortable, can also have such a preservative effect on the human heart.
Recently, my grandmother passed away, and for the days surrounding her passing on either side, my heart was as soft as it has been in months. While out running errands and doing school pick up or cooking dinner and talking to a friend, I found my eyes leaking frequently at both the beauty and brokenness around me.
The world and the monotony of life can have a slowly hardening effect on our souls. And, in some ways, it is more comfortable to be comfortably numb than to have quivering, sentient souls that feel acutely.
Pain jolts us awake to the reality of life in the already/not yet of the kingdom of God. It protects our hearts from the hardening effects of life and keeps us supple and tender to the suffering of others.
Suffering as Silencer
As a mother of three boys, I know that life can get noisy. As such, I have grown shockingly accustomed to an unnatural level of volume in my home. Sadly, I have also grown overly accustomed to an unnatural level of static in my soul. Static and background noise, a running list of to-do’s and ought-to-have-dones, a looping reel of lies and fears, the demands of the urgent. These are the sounds of my soul’s static.
Pain and suffering silence the static and sharpen the substantial. When a family member is diagnosed with cancer or a child struggles at school, when a friend betrays or a job is lost, the secondary static noise is quickly quieted, allowing us to hear the things that matter most.
Suddenly, the to-do list is eclipsed by a to-enjoy list and eternal conversations begin to trump surface subjects. Suffering teaches us to number our days rather than be numbed by them.
Suffering as Study
As hard as it is to suffer ourselves or to watch those we love most suffer, suffering sets the gospel on display, inviting the watching world into a study of the gospel. When a friend who has lost her hair, but has not lost her hope in the Lord, the world wonders and takes a second glance at the gospel she adorns in her pain. When a mother loses her child, but continues to entrust her pain to a suffering Savior, those outside the fold are likely to do a double-take. When an adoptive or foster family goes to great lengths to love a child who has no ability to love them back or to repay them long term, they see a glimpse at our suffering savior who authored agape love.
It is not easy to live with a supple hard in a sharp world, but God calls His children to do just that. He bids us to be alive and alert to the pain all around us and to step towards it with the Good News of a lasting hope. There is a day coming when suffering will be no more, but, until that day, we are called to have supple hearts, preserved and softened by pain that we may point others to Him!