The Purpose of Pain

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a reporter who writes for NPR. She and I were talking about missions and why a lot of young people are attracted to go and serve overseas.

I told her that I knew a few twentysomethings who had quit their jobs and decided to travel the world for a year of missions.

She seemed a little skeptical of words like “missionary” and “evangelize.” I tried to pick my vocabulary carefully. I told her about how these missionaries lived among the poor and partnered with local churches to improve the community. I sensed that she was having trouble processing this, and I wasn’t doing a very good job of explaining.

I boiled it down to one basic point: people need to be exposed to pain. Young adults are catching on to this, as they’ve seen the disappointing effects of materialism and consumerism in their own lives. They’re searching for something more. The altruist within is calling to be let out.

Look at the lives of a few icons in American culture who illustrate this need to serve:

Bill Gates started giving away his loads of money to charities, becoming the second largest philanthropist in America. In 2006, he announced that he was stepping down from his daily duties at Microsoft to focus on helping people. "With success, I have been given great wealth. And with great wealth comes great responsibility to give back to society, to see that those resources are put to work in the best possible way to help those in need," Gates said (Goo, Washington Post, Friday, June 16, 2006; Page A01)

Bono emerged from rock stardom and began advocating for injustices around the world, particularly in Africa, founding such causes as EDUN, DATA, and more recently, the ONE Campaign and Product Red. In effect, he inspired millions of people – theists, deists, and humanists – to raise their voices on behalf of the voiceless.

Angelina Jolie started visiting refugee camps and adopting children from impoverished countries. In 2001 was appointed as a UN Goodwill Ambassador. "These problems do not disappear just because we do not hear about them," she noted in her book Notes from My Travels: Visits with Refugees in Africa, Cambodia, Pakistan and Ecuador. "We all need to look deeper and discover for ourselves…. What is the problem? Where is it? How can we help to solve it?" (Quoted in: UNHCR)

Pop stars’ setting aside their pursuits of fame and fortune to hang out in some of the dankest places on earth tells me something about humanity: We need to help people. There is a necessity in all of us to live not just for ourselves but for the betterment of others. We cannot escape it; it’s hard-wired in us.

Yet, there’s another internal force vying for our attention – narcissism. Gen Yers often dress this up in terms of “being authentic” or, dare I say, “relevant”? The truth is that sometimes we’re just a little too into ourselves, and we know it’s wrong.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been exploring what it means to be missional. I’ve been serving at homeless shelters, delivering groceries to the working poor, going on mission trips, reading books, and having hundreds of conversations over coffee. Most people that I’ve met have recognized that they are not yet what they could be. There are unmet needs and social injustices in their own neighborhoods, and they recognize that they may be the answer to those problems. Some are Christians, and some are not; yet, they all comprehend that there is significance in serving. For those who follow Jesus, the good news is that we not only have an example in the character of the servant Christ, but we have the power of his spirit to accomplish the impossible – that we can actually spend ourselves on behalf of others.

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For many of us – whether we live in the suburbs, attend an affluent university, or cross the street when passing a questionable character – the need to serve often goes unmet. The reason is simple: people aren’t being exposed to pain. Our hearts aren’t breaking. We want to help, but we don’t.

The more time passes, the less inclined we are to step out of comfort into zones of suffering. A Barna Group study from late 2008 revealed that young adults (under age 25) were more than three times likely to serve on a mission trip (The Barna Update, Oct. 6, 2008). Despite the fact that service projects have a life-altering effect on at least 75 percent of all who experience them, only 11 percent of churchgoers have ever been on one.

Why, if this type of service changes lives (including our own), do so few of us actually do it? The answers vary: We’re scared; we don’t know where to start; the couch is awfully comfortable.

Books, blogs, and podcasts are great, but they are often not enough to stir us into action. We need the opportunity to grow, and that means exposing ourselves to the situations that our mothers taught us to avoid. We start by intentionally exposing ourselves to the needs of the world. This is how compassion grows. Maybe do so overseas or just down the street. Either way, it probably won’t be very comfortable.

Something transformational happens when we go to places of deep pain and let our hearts be stirred. Compassion, a word of which I am quite fond, literally means “to suffer with.” It would make sense that compassion needs pain to grow. Until our hearts ache for the world’s pain, we have yet to experience true compassion. Maybe there’s an easier way, but I’ve yet to find it.

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