Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian (OLD)

Pain vs Misery



1 Chronicles 4: 9, 10 and Matthew 6:9-13

Tim Hansel has lived in constant pain since his severe spinal injury.  Just to give an idea of the kind of pain he has learned to deal with, let me quote a section of his book, You Gotta Keep Dancin’.  He describes his attempt to return to an active life after a mountaineering accident left him with fractures of the vertebrae, crushed discs, and fragments of bone in his neck.  He writes, “I kept on climbing, jogging, and playing tennis—until the day I discovered that my spine wasn’t quite as stable as the doctors had thought.”  He describes playing tennis one day with a friend when they both heard a loud crack during Tim’s serve.  His friend thought that Tim had broken his racket serving.  “What had actually happened was that I had torn several ribs from my spine (but I aced the serve).  After a week spent in traction, I came home wearing a body cast from my belt up … and the pain made a quantitative and qualitative leap.” (p. 35)

I am wondering what Tim Hansel would say to Jabez if he had a chance.  Tim is a dedicated follower of Jesus with a ministry of speaking and writing.  Yet he lives every day in excruciating pain.  Jabez prayed that God would keep him from “hurt and harm.” I could hear Tim asking Jabez, do you mean I should pray and ask God to change the circumstances of my life and take away all my pain?  How would Jabez answer such a question?  What did Jabez mean in his last line of the prayer in 1 Chronicles 4 when he asked God to keep him from hurt and harm?

 “Pain is inevitable, but misery is optional.”[1]  I came across this quote from Tim Hansel years ago and it transformed my life.  Which was Jabez praying about avoiding, pain or misery?  This is one of the few places in scripture where I think the old King James translation is closer to the original intent.  The King James Bible translates the last line of the prayer of Jabez as “keep me from evil, that it may not grieve me.”  In other words, Jabez was praying something similar to what Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord’s prayer, “deliver us from evil.”

I appreciate Rabbi Kushner’s insight in his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People when he discusses the sad reality that our own attitudes toward hurtful events often multiply our pain.  We take the normal difficulties of life and make them much worse than they need to be by the way we react.  In other words, we make ourselves miserable by how we react to the circumstances of life.  I think this is what Tim Hansel meant when he separated the idea of misery from pain.  Life is painful, yes.  But the attitudes we choose regarding the painful events can also make us miserable.

Matthew 6:9-13

The ten year old boy decided to climb his neighbor’s fence and get some apples off the tree.  He studied the neighbor’s bull in the same field as the apple tree and figured the bull was distracted so this would be a good time to go. Turning to his sister he asked her to be his look out and call to him if the bull spotted him.

He climbed the fence, got two apples, one for him and one for his sister and turned to leave.  Just then his sister called out.  “The bull sees you.  Run, Bobby, run!”  He ran for all he was worth.  The sister saw that the bull was too close for him to climb the fence so she called, “Slide, Bobby, slide!”  The boy slid under the fence but his jeans caught on the barbed wire leaving his backside exposed to the charging bull.  His sister called, “Pray, Bobby, pray!”  So he closed his eyes and repeated, “For that which we are about to receive, make us truly grateful.”

How do we pray in dire circumstances?

Let me use an image of a clock to examine how to understand the most effective prayer in tough situations.  Let’s start with the event itself.  We place the dire circumstance at the top:  twelve o’clock.  From the event we go clockwise to three o’clock.  Three o’clock is where we develop an interpretation of the event.  This is the story we tell ourselves about why the event happened.  At six o’clock we develop feelings based on our interpretation/story of the event.  Completing the circle we see that our feelings lead to behaviors which are placed at nine o’clock.  So where on the clock are our prayers likely to be most effective?

I suspect most of us pray that God would intervene at twelve o’clock.  Change our circumstances.  Make the event different.  Eliminate the cancer.  Change my situation at work.  While I do believe that God performs miracles by changing circumstances, and I am very willing to ask for this, I recognize that this is always the exception rather than the rule.  That is why we call it a miracle when it happens.  What about praying for God to intervene at three o’clock?  What if God were to leave the circumstances the same, but help us to change our minds and attitudes?

At first it appears that Jabez is praying for God to intervene at twelve o’clock, in his circumstances.  When Jabez asked God to keep him from “hurt and harm,” wasn’t he asking God to protect him from ever experiencing anything painful?  Make everything happy and easy.  Keep me from having difficult circumstances.  Is this really what he is asking?

The first Hebrew word, translated as “hurt,” does not refer to pain so much as evil.  It is a word that is often associated with the eyes.  We read that things were “evil in his eyes.”  When the people complained to Moses about not having enough food he became so frustrated that the Bible says he reacted to their complaining with “evil in his eyes” (Numbers 11:10).  In Deuteronomy we are encouraged to help needy neighbors and not turn away so that our eyes will not become evil toward our neighbors (Deut. 15:9). In fact, one translation hits the idea when it translates the Hebrew word as “entertaining a mean thought.”  Jabez was praying that he might not have evil or mean thoughts.  I think this is very close to what Tim Hansel means by “misery.” 

The second Hebrew word, translated as “harm,” is talking about heartache and grief.  It is the word used when King Saul plotted to kill young David, but knew that his son Jonathan was David’s best friend.  So King Saul avoided telling his son his plans because he knew it would cause his son to grieve for David.  It was not a physical pain so much as pain of heart.  This word might best be translated as sorrow. 

So, Jabez was asking that God keep him from mean thoughts that lead to feelings of sorrow.  In other words, his prayer was not so much about what happens at twelve o’clock – asking God to alter the daily difficulties of life.  Pain is inevitable.  It was a prayer asking God to invade his thoughts at three o’clock.  How he interprets the events will determine whether he makes himself miserable and sorrowful.  He can’t control the events, but he can choose his attitude.  Misery is optional.

Why is it important for us to pray that God change our thoughts and attitudes in order to keep us from becoming miserable people?  Here is the sad truth:  miserable people spread pain to others.  When we make ourselves miserable we increase not only our own pain, but we also bring sorrow to others.  Often the spreading of the pain is unintentional.

She was never convicted of murder, yet she lived the last twenty years of her life in custody.  She wasn’t really a bad person.  At least not intentionally.  All she ever wanted to do was keep her job.  But the devastation she created forced the government to step in and arrest her.

In 1904 Mary quit her job and moved from Long Island when the authorities quarantined the area to keep an epidemic from spreading.  She moved before she was trapped in the quarantine.  A few months later she was found working in a place where another epidemic had erupted.  This time the authorities tested her and found that her body was immune to the dreaded disease but carried the infectious bacteria.  She was arrested for a while and instructed on release to take up work in a different field, something other than cooking.  She felt persecuted and disappeared.  She apparently tried some other jobs, but missed her work in the kitchen.  Eventually she learned to remain at a location just a few months and then disappear before the outbreak of the disease could be blamed on her.  Over the next few years she spread the terrible deadly disease until she was apprehended in 1915.  She remained in custody until her death.  To her dying day “Typhoid Mary” claimed that she meant no harm, she just enjoyed cooking and needed a job.[2]

Jabez refused to be a Typhoid Mary.  He refused to let the difficulties of life turn him into a miserable person who spreads sorrow.  Rather than give in to his pain, he prayed that God would help him win the battle of the mind and heart.

Jim Stovall was seven years old when he was diagnosed with an eye condition that would eventually lead to total blindness.  He, like Tim Hansel, made up his mind to live as normal a life as possible.  When he started college he decided to also volunteer at a local school for the blind.  He was assigned to a boy named Christopher.  Blind and severely brain-damaged, Christopher was successful if he avoided tripping on his shoelaces or falling down the stairs.  The teachers had no hope of teaching Christopher anything.  They simply asked Jim to keep him from hurt and harm.

Jim determined that wasn’t good enough.  He was going to teach Chris how to tie his own shoes and safely climb stairs.  When Jim told Chris he could do those two things, Chris argued that he couldn’t.  Every day Jim helped Chris tie his shoes and climb the stairs, telling the boy that one day he would be able to do these things on his own.  Chris argued back, “I can’t.”  Jim firmly responded, “Yes, you can.”

Meanwhile Jim was growing miserable as a disabled college student.  With no help, it felt like he had to work ten times harder than the rest of the students.  Finally, Jim decided to quit college and give up his volunteer position working with Chris.  With Chris present, Jim explained to Chris’ parents and principal that he just couldn’t do it any longer.  Chris immediately responded, “Yes, you can.”  Jim answered, “No, I can’t.”  Chris argued back, “Yes, you can.”

Three years later Jim graduated from college with honors.  Chris learned to tie his shoes and climb the stairs all by himself.  Shortly after Jim’s graduation Chris died of a cerebral hemorrhage.  At the funeral Jim announced that his own life had been so impacted by Chris that he felt whatever he accomplished from then on was due to Chris’ influence and encouragement.[3]

Jim has since founded a television network that is carried over thousands of cable stations.  He also is a successful motivational speaker. 

Have we learned what Jim Stovall, Tim Hansel, and Jabez discovered?  If pain is inevitable, but misery is optional, then we can pray with fervor the prayer of Jabez.  We can pray, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border; that your hand would be with me as you keep me from misery and spreading sorrow.”

[1] Tim Hansel, You Gotta Keep Dancin’: In the Midst of Life’s Hurts, You Can Choose Joy! (Elgin: David C.  Cook Publishing Co., 1985) 55.

[2] King Duncan, The Amazing law of Influence (Gretna: Pelican Publishing Co., 2001) 81

[3] King Duncan, The Amazing Law of Influence Gretna: Pelican Publishing Co., 2001) 75,76.


Share this Sermon

Read More