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Humans are big on symbolism. This means that much of what you do and say in life is an attempt to communicate messages that are quite unrelated to the things you’re actually doing and saying. For example, when Holly hears her boyfriend Todd say he loves blondes, Holly goes out and bleaches her brown hair blonde. She does this not because she wants to change her hair, but because she wants to keep a secure hold on Todd’s affection. When she then asks him “Do you like my hair?” what’s she’s really asking is, “Have I gained more of your approval by adjusting myself to be a better match to your preferences?” For Holly, dyeing her hair was a symbolic act that was meant to communicate to Todd how much his approval means to her and how much she wants him in her life.
Now because we can’t read each other’s minds, many of our symbolic gestures go misunderstood and unappreciated. When Dan proposes to his fiancée with his great-grandmother’s ring, he sees the highly cherished family heirloom as a symbol of his great love for Suzanne. But Suzanne is not a saver, and her family doesn’t cherish heirlooms. So what Suzanne sees is Dan being a cheapskate by trying to foist some other woman’s ring on her. She feels deeply hurt that Dan doesn’t think she’s worth spending money on. Dan feels deeply hurt that Suzanne is rejecting his great love for her. If these two don’t communicate and realize how differently they’re interpreting the same symbol, the evening will end in disaster.
When it comes to our relationships with God, we continue the symbol games and experience the same pitfalls of misunderstanding. When Stacy goes into her prayer closet to pray, it’s a symbolic act that is meant to communicate her deep desire for God. When God doesn’t say anything to Stacy during her prayer time, she interprets His silence as a symbol of rejection, and she comes out of her closet feeling very sad. Has God really rejected Stacy’s love for Him? No, He cherishes it. Stacy is attaching meanings to God’s silence that aren’t correct, and she will need to be open to Him explaining this to her.
For humans, symbols are both a blessing and a burden. Because our words often feel too limited to convey the intensity of our feelings, symbolic actions give us ways to communicate things which we can’t express verbally. Mike shows Sarah how he carries her picture around in his wallet to help her understand how deeply he cares about her and Sarah feels cherished. Ed surprises his wife with a romantic dinner to demonstrate his appreciation of her and Maria is quite pleased. When our symbols are well received, it’s thrilling. When they’re rejected, it hurts. But we keep on using them because it’s wired in.
In this post, we want to address a specific symbol that is famous for being misapplied by Christians in their personal walks with God. That symbol is pain. We humans were designed to experience many forms of pain: emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual. In our relationships with God, we Christians often misinterpret the reasons God is bringing pain into our lives. At the same time, many of us are intentionally inflicting pain on ourselves as a way of communicating certain sentiments to Him. So in our relationships with God, we give and receive symbolic pain, and along the way, we stumble into many theological pitfalls. To help you recognize harmful patterns that you might be currently engaging in, let’s now discuss four common ways that Christians interpret pain, and how those interpretations lead us into trouble.
PAIN AS A SYMBOL OF REPENTANCE: PROVING HOW SORRY YOU ARE
When we try to use pain as a symbol of repentance, we inflict misery on ourselves in order to try and prove to God how sorry we are for something we’ve done that we believe He dislikes. Pitfalls abound with this logic, and right from the start, we often go astray with misunderstandings about what God’s moral code even is. For example, Tom believes that God expects him to never lust, thus feels horrible when his earthsuit becomes aroused at the sight of a beautiful woman. Because Tom does not understand that earthsuit arousal is not something he can control, he is putting impossible demands on himself, and calling an involuntary action an act of willful rebellion. Well, sexy Shannon works with Tom, which means she is always in his face. Whenever she comes over to talk to him with her tight skirts and low cut shirts, Tom feels his body reacting with arousal. At first, Tom expresses his repentance to God through prayers. But when the experience keeps happening to him, he fears that God is viewing his prayers as insincere. Feeling desperate to prove to God that he really is sincere about wanting to have a pure mind, Tom starts inflicting himself with symbolic pain. He decides that the next time he thinks a lustful thought, he’ll go without food for the rest of the day as a form of punishment. Soon he’s miserably hungry and he’s still unable to keep his eyes off of Shannon’s chest when she leans down in front of him. Once again fearing that God is viewing his repentant motions as hypocritical guff, Tom now increases the pain in his life by adding a vigorous workout regime when he gets home. He starts cutting out all forms of pleasure and keeps increasing his misery all in an attempt to prove to God how much he cares about God’s standards.
Meanwhile, there is Rex, the man who got drunk and ran over some little girl in the street two years ago. Rex had felt strongly convicted by God not to drink that night, but he blew off the conviction, and went to a bar. Two years later, Rex is still racked with guilt and convinced that God is holding an angry grudge towards him. Desperate to prove to God how sorry he is, Rex has taken to injuring himself. He cuts and burns himself in places that will be hidden by his clothes. But no matter how much misery Rex inflicts on himself, he can’t get God’s scowling face out of his mind. Rex feels like God is constantly rejecting the pleas for forgiveness that Rex is trying to communicate with his symbolic acts of self-injuring.
Using pain as a symbol of repentance is a one way street: it’s always us trying to give the symbol to God. The problem is that this kind of system rarely makes us feel better. Far more often, it makes us feel much worse, and we cascade down into ever more severe forms of self-injury. The reason for this is that our basic theology about repentance and Divine judgment is all messed up, and no amount of self-injury will correct our thinking. To escape the trap of using pain as a symbol of repentance, we need to focus on spiritual education and stop trying to fix spiritual issues with earthsuit activities.
Making your body hurt will never do anything to help your relationship with God. Instead, the more we rehearse lies, the more those lies feel like truth, and the more confused we become. A core truth to understand here is that God always makes getting back into alignment with Him a very simple thing to do. Spiritual rebellion is a matter of wrong soul attitudes, and soul attitudes can be changed in one nanosecond of time. True repentance has nothing to do with earthsuit activities or earthsuit misery. True repentance is when your soul decides to change its attitude from “I don’t care what You want, God,” to “Pleasing You is more important than pleasing myself. I want You to have Your way in my life.”
The tragic irony is that most souls who are caught up in using symbolic pain as a form of repentance already have the correct soul attitudes. They sincerely care about pleasing God, which is why they are going to such torturous lengths to try and earn His approval. In such cases, freedom comes from realizing that God is already pleased with your desire to please Him, and that you do not need to keep killing yourself to attain something that you already have.
For help to stop using symbolic pain as a form of repentance, see:
Confession, Penance & the Old Covenant Sacrificial System: Unlearn the Lies
Understanding Divine Judgment: Illumination, Empowerment & A God Who Delights In Mercy
Identifying False Conviction: Three Easy Tests
PAIN AS A SYMBOL OF PUNISHMENT: YOU MUST KEEP PAYING FOR YOUR PAST MISTAKES
Now when it comes to viewing pain as a symbol of punishment, we can either be the givers or the receivers. The usual scenario here is that you’ve done something wrong, you feel bad about it, and you think God is now holding an angry grudge which He will not get over until He feels you have been sufficiently punished. When you try to give God this kind of symbolic pain, you are essentially taking over the role of judge for Him, and trying to please Him by adequately punishing yourself for what you did.
When James’ wife found out that he was cheating on her, she divorced him. Five years later, James says that he believes that God has forgiven him, but he is unable to forgive himself. His own self-loathing is driving him to feel an intense need for punishment. So James has decided that it will never be God’s will for him to be happy again. This is why when James falls head over heels in love with Tanya, he won’t allow the relationship to progress. Tanya loves James as well, and believes that they are meant to be together. James desperately wants to have a second chance at marriage, but he can’t accept that God would be that gracious towards him. So he cuts Tanya out of his life at great cost to himself and hopes that his heartbroken state will satisfy God’s sense of justice.
James’ situation demonstrates how we try to give this kind of symbolic pain to God. But the other way this works is when God brings trials into our lives, and we interpret those trials as symbols of punishment.
When she was a young wild thing, Amber slept around quite a bit and had several abortions. As an adult, she finally settled down, got serious about God, and today she is a seriously committed Christian. But when Amber tries to get pregnant with her husband, she keeps miscarrying. She’s finally told that her previous abortions have damaged her body and that it’s likely she’ll never carry a baby to term. Amber interprets this as a symbolic message from God. She projects a sentiment of cold anger onto this news, and interprets it as evidence that God is holding a grudge over her past sins and is determined to make her pay. Amber is heartbroken and at first she tries to accept her punishment. But the desire to parent is so strong, that she and her husband adopt a year later. They get an adorable baby, and Amber starts to get over her fears that God is holding an angry grudge towards her until she gets into a car accident. Amber comes out of the accident unscathed, but her young daughter gets a head injury that results in her being paralyzed for life. Now Amber is convinced that this is a symbolic act on God’s part: a clear message that He’s not done making her pay for all the sins she committed in the past. Amber is devastated and spirals down into suicidal despair, firmly believing that she will never be able to get into a good place with God because He will never be done punishing her for her past.
Once again, the problems here are theological. James and Amber both need further education about how merciful God is. James needs to stop trying to take over the task of judging himself and instead he needs to accept the mercy that God wants to give him. Amber needs to realize that she is misinterpreting the trials that God is bringing into her life. The fact that God is using Amber’s past actions as a context for creating new trials in her life does not mean that He is still fuming over the sins she committed. Because Amber and James are not accepting God’s merciful judgments of them, they are continuing to hold grudges towards themselves, and this is causing them to try and see connections between the present and the past, even when no such connections exist. God did not paralyze Amber’s kid because He is holding some grudge over her past rebellion. God paralyzed Amber’s kid to lay the groundwork for new spiritual lessons that will help strengthen her bond with Him. God is interested in drawing Amber and James closer to Himself. He is not throwing the past in their faces, nor is He demanding perpetual payment for the things they’ve done. Such conclusions are based on wrong beliefs about how God responds to our sins, and with some education, James and Amber can break out of their miserable situations.
For help to stop using or viewing pain as a form of punishment, see:
Repentant Sinners: Is it wrong to stop feeling bad about the past?
PAIN AS A SYMBOL OF REJECTION: GOD HATES YOU
A third way we veer off course with pain is viewing it as a symbol of God’s personal rejection of us. Often we are the receivers in this scenario, and our misinterpretations of God’s behavior are usually based on the wrong belief that He intrinsically despises some quality about us that we cannot change.
After being taught that God hates gays, Colin reaches puberty and discovers that he is gay. Colin is now convinced that God hates him personally, and Colin begins to interpret every trial in his life as an expression of how much God hates him. When his dreams of becoming a professional athlete are ruined by an injury, Colin sees this as a symbol of God’s hatred of him. When his father learns of his teenage son’s sexual orientation and severely beats Colin, Colin interprets his father’s aggression as coming from God Himself. The longer Colin lives, the more he starts reading messages of Divine rejection into every painful thing that happens to him.
Meanwhile, Daisy is a poor black girl who has been taught that dark skinned people are the seed of Satan. As Daisy struggles with her impoverished situation, she concludes that God’s refusal to bless her finances is a statement on how much He personally loathes her. When she starts packing on the pounds, she is told that God hates fat people, and her view of God grows even darker. When she gets raped as a young woman, she interprets it as yet more evidence of how much God loathes her and begins to believe that she was created as an object of His wrath. Daisy is afraid to pray or do anything that will draw God’s attention to her, because she is afraid of what He’ll do to her next. Like Colin, she has no hope of being accepted by God because she believes that she was born with qualities that He utterly despises.
Then there is Ethan. Ethan used to hate Christians, and during a period of social anarchy in his country, he helped carry out a mass extermination of believers. Now, years later, Ethan has quit the militia he was in, moved to another country, and he has come to realize that the Christian Gods really are the true Gods. Ethan desperately wants to be accepted by the true Gods, but he believes that his past acts of murdering Christians are unforgivable. Ethan believes that Jesus hates him and will never accept him, so Ethan lives in fear of suddenly dying and waking up in Hell. Meanwhile, every time something bad happens to him, Ethan interprets it as God reminding him of how much God hates him.
So how can we help Colin, Daisy and Ethan get out from under the devastating belief that God hates them? Well, Colin and Daisy both believe that God is rejecting them based on qualities that their earthsuits have. Daisy thinks she’s being rejected because she is black and fat. Colin thinks he’s being rejected because his earthsuit is sexually attracted to other men. Both of these souls need to get a correct understanding of how God distinguishes between their souls and their earthsuits. Daisy needs to unlearn the lie that God creates some souls just to destroy them. Ethan needs to learn that there are no unpardonable sins. It’s wrong theology that is causing these souls to so badly misinterpret God’s actions, and with some willingness to listen to God and unlearn the lies they’ve been taught by humans, they can get in a much better place.
For help with these issues, see:
Understanding Unpardonable Sins: Lies vs. Truth
Understanding Divine Election: Jacob I Loved, Esau I Hated (Malachi 1 & Romans 9)
More Lies from Paul: God Loves Jews More Than Gentiles (Romans 11)
PAIN AS A SYMBOL OF DEVOTION: CONVINCING GOD OF HOW MUCH YOU CARE
The last form of symbolic pain we need to address is one which is a widespread problem among sincere Christians. This is a symbol that we tend to give more than we receive, and the goal here is to try and prove the depth of our devotion to God by amplifying our misery in life. The very misguided belief that we are supposed to try to “suffer like Christ” results in attempts to please God through symbolic pain. Here is where we get into vows of poverty and vows of celibacy—vows which are guaranteed to amplify our general misery in life, yet we make them in an effort to prove to God how serious we are about Him.
At his Catholic seminary, Monty is taught that God expects His priests to give up the joys of marriage and family in order to demonstrate the sincerity of their devotion to Him. So Monty takes a vow of celibacy, because he is most eager to please God, and he hates the idea of God not understanding this about him. The problem is that God has not given Monty the gift of singleness and soon Monty is tormented with desires for marriage. When he finds himself intensely attracted to Wendy, a very godly single woman in his parish who is praying for a husband, Monty decides that God must be testing him, so he tries to endure the brutal heartache as a symbol of his devotion to God. But as times goes on, he gets more bitter, and he starts to feel like his great efforts to please God are getting cancelled out by his intense jealousy when Wendy starts dating another man. Now worried that God is questioning Monty’s devotion, Monty is finding it harder to pray as his fears about his own standing with God keep growing.
Then there is Jessica, a soul who is truly on fire for God yet she is terribly worried that God doesn’t understand just how deep her love for Him is. In an effort to really impress God with her great dedication, Jessica signs up to be a missionary in the worst hellhole she can find. Now she’s stuck in some horrible jungle, hating every minute and feeling totally unempowered to do the work she signed up for. Her attitude is foul, her patience with the daily chores of life is nonexistent, and she feels like a huge spiritual failure.
And finally there is Hannah, who has been taught that “faith without works is dead.” Most anxious to stay in a good place with God, Hannah works herself into exhaustion at various community outreach programs. She never says no, she doesn’t allow herself to ever have a life outside of her ministry efforts, and she is eating the cheapest food she can buy so that she can give nearly all of her money away to the poor. After a couple of years of driving herself like this, Hannah’s health is deteriorating, she’s chronically depressed, and she feels farther away from God than ever.
So how can we help Monty, Jessica, and Hannah get out from under their brick loads of misery? We have to start by educating all three of these souls about some of God’s most basic qualities. You see, even though God is omniscient and always able to see our true intentions, Monty, Jessica, and Hannah are treating God as if He is a very limited Being who is using their external behavior to assess their soul attitudes. Well, no, this is what humans do, but God is not a human. God never needs us to prove anything to Him, because He already knows the way things really are.
Limiting God is the first place these souls are going wrong. The second major error is that they are all trying to lead Him. God hasn’t equipped Monty to be single, He hasn’t empowered Jessica to handle jungle life, and He isn’t calling Hannah to spend every waking minute in ministry. God wants all three of these souls to stop trying to tell Him what kinds of offerings He ought to want from them, and instead give Him a chance to decide for Himself what He wants. Maybe God wants to bless Monty with a wife and family, and use that situation to teach Monty many valuable spiritual insights. Maybe God wants Jessica to move to a bustling city, get a normal job, and enjoy the conveniences of modern life while she pursues a closer walk with Him on a soul level. He wants Hannah to start drawing boundaries, stop putting herself last in life, take better care of herself, and draw comfort from knowing that He doesn’t need her help to take care of the rest of the world. You see, there’s nothing about being poor, miserable, and beyond the reach of GPS that makes us more pleasing in God’s sight. All three of these souls are trying to earn God’s favor through bodily actions, when what God cares about is soul attitude. Instead of following His lead, they are trying to lead Him, and this never works out. With some correcting of wrong beliefs, these three souls can get into a much better place.
For help to stop using pain as a means of earning God’s favor, see:
Understanding Why God Calls Us to Serve Him
Rethinking Your Christian Rituals
The Inner Room: Understanding How God Judges You
Assessing God’s Pleasure with You: Three Useless Tests
Hellfire Legalism & Prosperity Theology: Two Different Applications of the Same Lie
Jesus vs. the NT Jews: What it Means to Please God
Giving to the Poor: Cautions for Christians
So what about you? Are you trying to amplify your misery in some area of your life? Are you identifying with any of the scenarios we’ve described? Trying to use pain to improve your personal dynamic with God is always a bad idea. It only creates bigger problems and ends up causing you to put your faith in harmful lies. If you know that you’re trying to fix things between you and God or if you’re trying to earn His favor by making yourself miserable in some way, it’s time to ask Him to help you get better educated about how He wants you to relate to Him. If you find yourself reading messages of hate and anger into every trial that God brings into your life, it’s also time to pray and ask Him to help you unlearn any wrong beliefs that you’re currently clinging to.
As a totally different kind of Being whose ways are often mysterious to us, God can be very challenging to relate to. But He is very easy to succeed with, and He makes staying in a good place with Him very easy to do. So whenever you find yourself feeling beyond hope in your relationship with God, or worrying that you want Him more than He wants you, that’s a solid indicator that you’re clinging to some wrong beliefs about who He is and how He views you. The fabulous thing about God is that when we ask Him for help, He will help us. We just need to adopt a teachable attitude, and accept the fact that no matter how earnest we are, there’s a lot we don’t yet understand.
Every Christian has wrong beliefs about God, and if we’re going to keep progressing in the faith, we must be willing to let God continuously revise our beliefs and reveal errors in our thinking. It’s when we dig our heels in and decide that we know everything and that we are above error that we run into trouble, for then we become closed to God telling us the good news that we so desperately need to hear before we can get unstuck from our miserable positions. With God, there is always hope, and there is always a way out of the pit holes of shame, guilt, and the fear that we could never be good enough in His eyes. God is very easy to succeed with, and He thoroughly enjoys helping grow closer to Him when we are willing to listen and learn. So if you’re stuck, ask God to get you unstuck. Trying to use symbolic pain in your walk with God can seem right at first, but it will end up leading you astray. Your walk with God is not supposed to be one long course of endless misery. Your circumstances might be lousy, but your soul can be joyful when your trust is firmly anchored in truth.
It’s Personal: Understanding the Divine Perspective of Trials
What it Means to be Aligned with God