In his book Meditations of the Heart, the American minister and theologian Howard Thurman writes that “pain has a ministry”. He speaks of pain as a gift, and says, “It is perhaps a daring notion to say that pain has a ministry which adds to the sum of life’s meaning and, more importantly, to its fulfilment”. On the face of things, this is an extraordinary thing to say. Surely, we should do everything in our power to stop pain? How in the world can pain have a ministry and add to life’s meaning?
It is of course true that pain can cause a great deal of suffering and even be debilitating, and we owe a great deal to modern medicine’s ability to help us live relatively pain-free lives – in comparison to previous ages, that is. However, I think it is worthwhile exploring Howard Thurman’s idea that pain can actually be of some good in the world. Many will be familiar with the book by Philip Yancey and Paul Brand, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, in which they tell of the discovery that people who suffer from leprosy lose the ability to feel pain, with the result that they can be unaware that they are at risk. For example, they may not be able to feel that a surface is dangerously hot – and be seriously burned as a result. In this sense, pain is a gift because it alerts us to something that is going wrong, something that we need to attend to in order to avert further damage or illness.
Here, I would like to suggest that pain can be a gift which enables us to help others. Let me explain. Every week, members of staff from Glasgow City Mission go on outreach in the city centre, where they make contact with people who are begging on the streets. From time to time, it is my privilege to take part in this. I love to go along and get to know people, to sit down beside them on the pavement and chat with them. We may be able to help practically, but often the most useful thing is simply to listen as they tell us of the difficulties and struggles they are experiencing. The trouble is, however, I am no longer as young as I used to be. So, when I sit down on the pavement, I have trouble getting back up again! My knees simply won’t work in the way they used to! Invariably, I have to ask the person I have been talking with to help me up.
You might think that this is a hindrance. Surely it is my job to help them, not theirs to help me. That is certainly what I thought when I started out. However, I have noticed that no matter how upset the person is, no matter how low they are feeling, my request for help brings a smile to their face, and they are delighted to be able to help me. You see, the people on the streets are used to being the ones being helped. But my weak knees mean that they can help me. And so we are equals – human beings who rely on each other.
So it is that I have come to be grateful for my weak knees. For, rather than being a hindrance to ministry, they are actually a gift – my weakness helps to build others up. In the New Testament, in 2 Corinthians 12:9, Paul says something very similar to Howard Thurman. He writes that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. Paul also found that God could work through his weakness to bless and encourage others in the most unexpected ways. I never thought I would be thankful for ageing knees! But now I see that Howard Thurman is right – pain does have a ministry, and sometimes in very unexpected ways.