By John A. Thomason
Most of us have been urged throughout our lives not to be wasteful. We’re taught that some commodities are so valuable or in such short supply that they shouldn’t be squandered. As children we were told not to waste food. As adolescents we were admonished not to waste the fuel in our parents’ cars. As adult employees we’re expected not to waste time on the job. Some of the maxims of our culture voice this concern: Haste makes waste. Waste not, want not.
Tangible commodities like food and fuel aren’t the only things we’re tempted to waste. It’s also possible to waste significant life experiences. Back in 1965, I went on a student tour of Europe in which the primary mode of transportation was a bus. Our sponsor knew enough about the sleeping patterns of high schoolers (stay up as late as possible and get up as late as possible) to establish a clear rule: no napping on the bus! They didn’t want us to waste the rare opportunity of seeing the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben because we were catching up on the previous night’s sleep.
Not only can we squander the positive experiences in our lives, we can waste the negative, hurtful experiences as well. I attended a church-sponsored divorce recovery seminar some years ago. When I walked into the meeting room for the first session, I was flabbergasted to see that at least three-fourths of the participants were women. I turned to a female friend and asked, “Where are all the men?” She replied, half-jokingly, “They’re running around with their new girlfriends!” No doubt the ex-husbands of the women attending the seminar had experienced their own share of hurt going through divorce. But I wondered if those men were wasting their pain by not properly grieving one relationship before hopping into another one.
My successor in one pastorate was a man who was forced to leave the church he previously served. He came to the new congregation feeling resentful over what he regarded as a demotion, and proceeded to alienate nearly everyone. He soon repeated the pattern that had cost him his previous job, driving off valuable church members with his abrasive behavior. He never stopped to examine how he had contributed to the debacle in the church he had just left, and made no changes in his approach to leadership when he came to the new parish. In turn, he wasted the pain of one forced termination and set himself up for another.
You and I waste our pain when we don’t learn from a hurtful occurrence; when we throw away the opportunity a crisis presents to increase our self awareness and skill in relating to others; when we try to deny our pain or distance ourselves from it rather than embrace it and integrate it into our life and ministry. Wasting our pain often has serious consequences. Unresolved hurts are prone to escalate into feelings of bitterness and despair. “Because I’ve lost this one job (or marriage, or loved one), then all is lost.” We’re also likely to repeat behaviors that may have contributed to our pain in the first place.
What can you and I do to keep from wasting our pain? First, we can allow ourselves to experience and express our pain. We may know better in our heads, but our hearts may still succumb to the myth that feeling hurt is a sign of personal weakness or that we should “be strong for others.” We may try to handle our pain by avoiding it altogether – by keeping a stiff upper lip at all times, by distracting ourselves with hyperactivity, or by medicating our pain with alcohol, drugs, or some other addiction.
On the basis of both personal and pastoral experience, I can testify that avoiding pain will only guarantee that our pain will be prolonged and more intense. I recall a saying used in recovery and support groups that speaks to this issue: “You cannot heal what you don’t feel.” By way of analogy, imagine that a tumor is growing inside your body, but it produces no discernible symptoms. You don’t feel any kind of pain that would serve as a red flag telling you to consult a doctor. Well, “You cannot heal what you do not feel,” and your inability to feel the problem inside your body could have disastrous consequences.
The same principle applies to the healing of our emotions. Feelings of hurt that are denied and suppressed don’t just go away. They are buried in our subconscious and then raise their heads at unexpected times and places. For example, unresolved anger toward an abusive church may surface in your relationship with your spouse. Or, you may slide into deep depression and have no clue that it’s rooted in your unacknowledged grief. You cannot heal what you do not feel. However, if you and I allow ourselves to feel the pain of our loss and express that pain to persons who are willing to listen to us with patience and acceptance, we’ve taken one of the most importance steps toward healing.
Another way to avoid wasting our pain is to examine it carefully and learn from it. We can ask hard questions like, was any part of my pain self-inflicted? Was I responsible in any way for whatever caused me this hurt? By examining our own behavior we move out of the victim mode and take responsibility for our actions. Then we can go on to ask, what would I do differently if I were faced with this situation again? How can I keep from making the same mistake again? You and I have little control over the harmful actions of the institutions that employ us, but we do have control over our own actions. If we’ve learned something from our pain, we have the capacity to handle a future crisis more effectively. The next time we’re ambushed by unfair treatment, we can respond more assertively or reach out for help and support.
One other way we can keep from wasting our pain is to use our own pain to benefit others. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians begins with words of praise to God and words of encouragement to God’s people: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of all mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we are comforted by God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4) Paul is clearly speaking to Christians who are experiencing pain – presumably, the pain of conflict within the church and persecution from outside the church. But they’re also experiencing God’s consolation in the midst of their pain. What’s more, being comforted by God puts these Christians in a position to comfort others who are afflicted. The comfort they offer is authentic because the pain they’ve undergone is authentic.
One of the primary tasks of Ministering to Ministers is to encourage clergy who experience forced termination not to waste their pain. MTM is able to offer this encouragement because many of its leaders have themselves felt the unspeakable hurt of vocational rejection, lived to tell about it, and managed to rebuild their lives and careers. In short, they chose not to waste their pain. Through MTM they are now using their pain to benefit others who are experiencing a similar trauma.
When you and I are hurting from a major loss, we’re not easily able to see how our hurt might be useful to someone else. Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out this potential. During a period of time when my first marriage was dying, I found myself “home alone” one day. The doorbell rang, and in walked a retired minister who was a member of the congregation I served. He told me he had heard from a mutual friend that my marriage was in trouble. Then he said something that startled me: “I already knew something was going on with you, that you were in some kind of pain.” I asked, “How on earth did you know?” He replied, “Because your preaching has gotten better.”
I was astonished by this revelation, so my friend went on to elaborate: “When you came to our church I remember remarking to my wife, you know, John is a good preacher; but he hasn’t hurt enough.” The comfort you offered us back then wasn’t all that comforting because the pain you talked about was second-hand pain – you hadn’t experienced the pain yourself. Now, you’re obviously hurting, and it has improved your preaching. You’re connecting with the hurts of people in the congregation; you’re speaking to their hearts, not just their heads.”
I recognized immediately the truth of what my friend was saying. I realized in that moment that my pain didn’t have to be wasted, that I could allow my pain to be a source of healing for others.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of all mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in my affliction, with the comfort with which we are comforted by God.”
John A. Thomason served as a pastor Texas, Illinois, and Mississippi and as a hospital chaplain in Texas. John also served as a member of the MTM Board of Trustees.