Pressure and Pain

You may be familiar with comic Brian Regan’s very funny sketch about pressure and pain. He observes that doctors don’t like to use the word “pain.”

“Doctors will tell you about ‘pressure’. If a doctor tells you you’re about to feel some pressure, buckle up…He could be swinging a two-by-four by your head and say, ‘In a moment you’re going to feel a bit of pressure.’” His sarcastic reply: “Hey, bring it on—I’m good under pressure!”

But seriously, there is a difference. It’s a difference that was illustrated to me in the most interesting way last week.

Part of our healing program for young women who have been trafficked or exploited is equine-assisted learning, with our two white horses, Ranger and Minnie, as our assistants. At one point the facilitator spoke about how the two concepts of pressure and pain register to the psyche of horses.

She shared that for a horse, pressure comes from being pestered, distracted, or provoked by a person or animal smaller than he. The mostly likely response to this non-lethal threat is for the horse to turn away from the pressure and walk away. If he can’t get away, he may wait nervously for the annoyance to go away. Pull back his ears, make some noise, swish his tail.

Pain is different. Pain for a horse comes from being threatened by a predator who can kill him—a grizzly, a mountain lion or a pack of wolves. Apparently, after millennia of surviving and adapting to many environmental threats, horses have learned the distinction between pressure and pain, using it to determine when to run away and when to move toward the source of potential pain and overpower it.

This was only one of several beautiful metaphors generated in our interactions with the horses. But it was the one that most brought Scripture to life for me.

The Apostle James discusses this theme in his letter. Here it is in the Message:

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way” (James 1:2-4).

Later in the same chapter, he continues:

Don’t let anyone under pressure to give in to evil say, “God is trying to trip me up.” God is impervious to evil and puts evil in no one’s way. The temptation to give in to evil comes from us and only us. We have no one to blame but the leering, seducing flare-up of our own lust. Lust gets pregnant, and has a baby: sin! Sin grows up to adulthood, and becomes a real killer (James 1:13-15).

According to James, writing by inspiration of the Spirit, pressure in the form of trials and temptations is guaranteed to come, but we have been given the grace and power to withstand it.

Paul commends the believers in the churches of Macedonia whose response to one kind of pressure—financial—was to become more generous (2 Cor. 8:1-4). They were like grapes that when crushed, gave forth the best, most fragrant juice. The psalmist observes, “As pressure and stress bear down on me, I find joy in your commands” (Ps. 119:142-144, NLT).

For us, taunts and temptations create pressure that requires us to take care, take cover, or take flight in a direction other than whence they came.

But pain is different, our horse lady continued to explain. Pain makes us rise up and confront it. We have to approach it, acknowledge its reality, and find a way through it. If we ignore or run away from this symptom, it may pursue us, find us, and eat us alive.

When we face pain head on, we may find a huge blessing on the other side. Jesus taught (again paraphrased in The Message),

“When a woman gives birth, she has a hard time, there’s no getting around it. But when the baby is born, there is joy in the birth. This new life in the world wipes out memory of the pain. The sadness you have right now is similar to that pain, but the coming joy is also similar. When I see you again, you’ll be full of joy, and it will be a joy no one can rob from you. You’ll no longer be so full of questions (Jn. 16:21-23, MSG).

This is the pain of labor, the perseverance of hope, the discipline of faith. All of these things must be endured in the waiting.

Sometimes the pain is of our own making, and so is its cure. Paul praised the Corinthians for the fact that after he had called out a corporate sin that brought shame, they went headlong into a pain called “godly sorrow” that produced the fruits of repentance. He concluded, “Those who let distress drive them away from God are full of regrets, end up on a deathbed of regrets…I am glad…because the pain caused you to repent and change your ways (1 Cor. 7:8-10, MSG).

How beautiful that in God, the things that are most painful are the things that are most fruitful afterwards.

Finally, the Bible warns us of the dangers of NOT allowing ourselves to feel pain. Avoidance distorts our thinking and deadens us to the voice of God. I’ve often observed that people who put lots of energy into avoiding pain get to the point where they can’t feel anything. Paul speaks of people who feel no pain over their own wrong behavior, and “let themselves go in sexual obsession, addicted to every sort of perversion” (Eph. 4:19, MSG). Those are hard words, but true.

Jesus set the example in this as in all good things.

He cried out in pain in the garden, asking at first that God would make another way to bring about the salvation of the world. But because ultimately he went toward the pain and endured the cross, he will receive his full reward in the end. He has been made our high priest, who shows us that the sacrifices of pain are worth it. (Heb. 5:7-10, 12:2, 11).

Peter sums it up well. “Since Christ suffered physical pain, you must arm yourselves with the same attitude he had, and be ready to suffer, too…” (1 Peter 4:1).

Thank you horse lady, and horses, for this lesson of moving away from the pressures that distract and torment, and toward the pains that propels us to growth and glory. This is how we imitate our Lord.

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