Choosing Our Pain

Mark 8:34-38 NRSV

This past week, I invited someone to visit our church. They responded that they had been wounded so badly by people in the church in the past, that they were much better off staying at home on Sunday mornings. Their words and the snow that had just fallen reminded me of an old song by Simon and Garfunkle:

A winter’s day in deep and dark December

I am alone, gazing from my window to the street below

On a freshly fallen, silent shroud of snow,

I am a rock, I am an island.

I’ve built walls, a fortress deep and mighty that none may penetrate.

I have no need of friendship.

Friendship causes pain.

It’s laughing, it’s loving I disdain.

I am a rock, I am an island

Don’t talk to me about love;

Well, I’ve heard that word before.

It is sleeping in my memory.

I won’t disturb this slumber of feelings that have died.

If I had never loved, I never would have cried.

I am a rock, I am an island.

I have my books and poetry to protect me.

I am shielded in my armor, hiding in my room, safe within my womb.

I touch no one, and no one touches me.

I am a rock, I am an island,

And a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.

How many of us have been tempted by the brokenness of human relationships, hurt so badly by love, that were tempted to withdraw unto ourselves becoming rocks or islands?

We give our love to another—a spouse, a relative, maybe a friend, perhaps even the church. We empty ourselves. We pour out ourselves.  We make ourselves vulnerable as we give ourselves completely to that person, to that family or to that community.  And what do we get in return? We get disappointed. We get betrayed. We get stabbed in the back. We get manipulated. We get used and abused.

Sometimes the pain is so profound and so intense that we are tempted to withdraw. We say: “If loving others is only going to bring heartache and heartbreak, I will never love again! I will never open myself up, empty myself, pour myself out to another!

“If being her friend is going to hurt this much, I’ll go it alone. “If loving him is going to bring this pain, I’ll be a rock.” “If joining a church and getting involved in the life of the church is going to bring this much misery, then on Sunday mornings, I’ll be an island! And I will never feel pain and grief again!  For ‘a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.’”

Perhaps we’ve all said it, or at least felt it. For who can deny the reality that when we do open ourselves up and love another as God has created us to love, we indeed open ourselves up to the enormous likelihood of grief and pain.

However, the question I would like to pose this morning is this: “Is the likelihood of grief and pain any less enormous when we choose to stay home, go it alone? Is it really true that “rocks do not hurt and islands do not cry?” The truth is that if we love, we cannot avoid grief. But can we truly avoid grief by avoiding love? As human beings, is it possible for us to avoid pain by going it alone, by living life outside of community?”

A Buddhist Monk would argue that the one element in life that is unavoidable in this world is pain. One of the four noble truths of Buddhism is that suffering is a basis for reality. Pain is in inescapable. I believe there is an element of truth here. If we love we will suffer. But if we go it alone we will also suffer. Whatever path we choose, pain is always inevitable.

Jesus himself said, “In the world, we will have tribulation.”

But here’s the good news: We have been given the grace to choose our pain.

We can choose to love as Christ taught us to love, choose to be in community and experience the pain of grief. Or, we can choose to become rocks or islands and experience the pain of loneliness. But what every human being needs to do at some point or another is to choose their pain. We can choose the pain that comes from emptying and pouring out ourselves, denying ourselves, loving and forgiving others, living in community or we can choose the greater pain that comes from being alone.

Let’s consider for a moment the pain of loneliness, the pain of living a total self-centered life.

In the beginning, God called everything in creation good. But when God looked around and saw that Adam was alone, God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helper as his partner.”  John Milton once wrote: “Loneliness was the first thing the eyes of God called ‘not good.’”[1]

The truth is that we were created for relationships. We were created to be with one another and to love one another. Without other human beings, we cannot be truly human.

Commenting on this passage from Genesis, John Claypool once said, “A man by himself is not a man; that is, he could never have become one, nor having become one, remain one, without…other humans.”[2] And although the path of love will lead to the enormous likelihood of pain, any other path we choose will lead to even greater pain.

The pain of loneliness and isolation is so much greater that C.S. Lewis likened it to Hell itself. He once said that the thought of “being alone forever was more fearful than a thousand burning hells.” And such existence is the logical end of not loving, of leading a totally self-centered life. [3]

T. S. Elliot once wrote these words about self-centeredness and loneliness:

There was a door And I could not open it. I could not touch the handle. Why could I not walk out of my prison? What is Hell? Hell is oneself, Hell is alone, the other figures in it merely projections. There is nothing to escape from And nothing to escape to. One is always alone.[4]

I believe this is partly what Jesus meant when he said: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life, for my sake, for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Loving others as we are created to love others is painful. Being a part of a church can be painful; however, not loving, becoming a rock or an island is “as painful as a thousand burning Hells.”

When I was a pastor in Winston-Salem, our church advertised in our community that we were going to have “a mission blitz.” We were going to take an entire Saturday, split up in teams and to go out into the community to work in people’s yards and homes. We had several people respond to our advertising by contacting the church days before the blitz to request yard work and light housework.

There was an elderly man we will call Mr. Jones who contacted us stating that his gutters needed to be cleaned and his yard needed to be raked. That Saturday afternoon I arrived at his house with three other adults and four teenagers to do the requested work.

Before we could get started, Mr. Jones met us in the front yard. He immediately welcomed us with left over Halloween candy explaining that since the light on his front porch was burned out, not a single trick-or-treater had visited his house this year.

As we sat on his front porch eating fun-size candy bars, Mr. Jones began to share his sad and rather long story with us. He said that since his wife died twenty years ago he had been living all alone in his house. He then shared with us that although he and his wife had desired a family, they were never able to have any children. Having been injured in World War Two, he never had a job, but he somehow managed to make ends meet with his disability checks. When we finally were able to get away from his stories and hospitality, we got the ladders and the rakes out of the truck and went to work on his gutters and yard.

I had not been on my ladder for more than fifteen minutes when Mr. Jones came out of the back door carrying a tray of cups of hot chocolate for all of us. He said, “Y’all better come and get this before it gets cold.”

We stopped our work and visited again with Mr. Jones for another half hour or so. This time he asked us a lot of questions, especially the teenagers. He wanted to know what grade they were in, what their favorite subjects were, what they wanted to do when they grew up, and whether or not they had a girlfriend or boyfriend.

When we finally got away from him again, we began to see something that we had not seen earlier. There was really not that much work to do. He only had one tree in his yard. The gutters had very few leaves in them. They were not impeding the flow of water. And the leaves that were on the ground were being blown by the wind from his yard into a field behind his house.

It then occurred to me, that Mr. Jones did not need any work. Mr. Jones needed us. Mr. Jones needed someone in the world to acknowledge that he was alive. Mr. Jones needed what he was created to need. Mr. Jones needed others to love him. And Mr. Jones needed to love others.

Yes, loving others will inevitably bring us enormous pain. But the pain will not be any less enormous if we become rocks or islands. In fact, the pain of isolation and loneliness may be as enormous as “a thousand burning hells.”

We can choose to love or not to love.  But we cannot choose pain or no pain. Therefore, in this world we must choose our pain. My prayer is that each of us will recommit to choosing the pain that comes with giving, with emptying ourselves, and pouring out ourselves to others.

And may we go out into our community and find the Mr. Jones’ of the world, male and female, young and old, and love them, and allow them to love us.

[1]This quote of John Milton was borrowed from a sermon entitled “When You Are Lonely” by Dr. William Powell Tuck to Hampton Baptist Church in Hampton, Virginia on July 20, 2003

[2]John Claypool, “Choose Your Pain”


 [4]William P. Tuck, “When You Are Lonely”