Valuable Pain

My ten year-old recently became a metal-mouth.

That’s right. He’s officially joined ranks with the thousands of other adolescents across the years to embark on a journey of the orthodontic variety.

I knew early on they were a distinct possibility. After all, I had braces as kid. My husband had braces. My sister, almost all of my nephews and nieces, a handful of our neighbor kids, and even some of my adult friends all have or have had braces. It’s not an uncommon thing. And yet, I wasn’t prepared for how young orthodontic treatments starts nowadays.

That’s why, when my son started complaining of pain in his jaw, my mind immediately went to “Oh no. He has a cavity.” We went to the dentist for an exam and assessment, only to be told his teeth were perfectly healthy–no sign of decay. Afterwards, the dentist called in the office orthodontist for a consult. He determined the mouth pain my son was feeling was due to a disorientation of his teeth. He would need braces, yes, but before we could even begin to think about braces, we needed to focus on correcting his cross-bite. A cross-bite, in case you’ve never heard of it, is basically when the top jaw doesn’t align properly with the bottom jaw when it’s closed. The braces wouldn’t be fully functional unless the jaw was correctly positioned first. So, to fix it, the orthodontist would install a small metal appliance across the roof my son’s mouth, in which was a small hole. Every day, we’d take a “key,” insert it into the hole, and rotate the mechanism downward one click.

Doesn’t sound too awful, right?

Well, according to my son, it was the worst thing that had ever happened to him. For one week beforehand, he had to wear spacers, which are small rubber bands in between his back teeth, to ensure enough space between each tooth to install the appliance. The pain was so intense, he could only eat soup and ice cream for the entire week.

Once the spacers had done their job, the orthodontist then installed the appliance. And if the spacers were the worst thing in the world, then the cross-bite appliance was officially the end of the world. Every morning before school, either my husband or I had to use the key to adjust the mechanism, causing him to wince and moan and complain about how we were the worst parents in the world for torturing him in this manner.

Then, after two months of the appliance, it was removed and the braces were put on.

I don’t think I have to tell you how he responded to these. 😉

Thankfully, we’re nearing the end of this painful orthodontic journey. The braces should be removed soon, and I can already see a huge difference in the aesthetic appeal of my son’s smile. Though he will never, ever admit it to me, I can tell he feels more comfortable too with properly aligned teeth.

All the pain will have been worth it in the end. There was purpose behind it.

I joke about the moaning and complaining my son did, but I’m just as guilty; I don’t like pain. I don’t like discomfort. I don’t like hardship. Whether it be physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual, I wouldn’t say I’m the best person to be around when my “comfort bubble” gets squished. And, oh, you better run for the hills if it ends up getting popped.

But Francois Fenelon, the famous 17th century French Roman Catholic bishop, once wrote: “Do not waste the suffering. Let suffering accomplish what God wants it to in your life.”

Waste suffering? How can we waste suffering? To waste something assumes it has value. And we don’t usually think of pain or suffering as valuable. In fact, most of us spend our lives trying to avoid it at all costs. But, as Christians, we should look at our circumstances–both the good and the bad–through the lens of our Creator. If we remind ourselves of the simple truth of who we are (God’s beloved children), as well as who He is (the good and perfect sustainer of the universe), we can be reassured that our suffering, no matter how unpleasant, is never without purpose.

In other words, God is good + God loves me + God is in control = there is a reason for any and all circumstance He has allowed into my life.

When I look back at my son’s orthodontic treatment, I can see the role of pain in several ways. First of all, the pain he experienced before we began was the first signifier of a problem. We would have never sought an orthodontic consult if he hadn’t first begun to feel the pangs of discomfort in his jaw.

Pain can often times tell us when something is wrong. Physical pain can be the driving force to send us a doctor. Emotional or spiritual pain can cue us into unrecognized sin, unhealthy thought patterns, or other heart issues. Pain is often the catalyst we need to give us that gentle nudge (or, as often in my case, a not-so-gentle shove) toward resolution or repentance.

Once he started his treatment, the pain my son felt in his mouth was a different kind. It was the pain of bones and muscles and tendons slowly shifting into proper alignment. For years, my son’s teeth and jaw had been developing in a way that wasn’t correctly positioned. Remedying those issues was a process, with each step carrying with it its own unique type of discomfort. And yet each phase of malaise served a purpose, whether it be the spacers creating room for the appliance or the appliance itself setting the stage for the braces. Each ache made the next course of action possible until the ultimate goal (a healthy, well-aligned mouth) had been achieved.

Our pain can often work in the same way. Perhaps you’re experiencing the pain of having to forgive someone who doesn’t deserve it. Or maybe you are that person, and you’re having to seek reconciliation with someone after hurting them. Perhaps your pain is from a sin making you separated from God. Maybe it’s the burden of years of unresolved bitterness or anger. Or it could be fresh–the pain of recent loss, the grief of a new wound.

These don’t sound like valuable experiences. They seem, on the surface, to be circumstances we’d like to avoid or, if we do find ourselves in them, to escape. But, as believers in Christ, we can know that, no matter how awful or gut-wrenching our situation may be, the pain we feel has a purpose for us. These “fiery furnace moments,” as I think of them, are often a scary, sometimes horrific step toward a greater good, much like the flames in the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3. The terror these men must have felt at being thrown into a literal furnace at the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar, facing almost certain death, ultimately led to the glorification of God by those who earlier had mocked Him.

Their pain had a purpose. And so does ours. Sometimes we are fortunate enough to see the end result of that suffering (as with my son and his now-healthy mouth or when the three Hebrews walked out of the fire unscathed and saw the people of Babylon fall to their feet in reverence to the Lord). Often times, however, we don’t see it. What good can come out of the loss of a child, spouse, or other loved one? Out of a divorce or other broken relationship? Some pain is too great or too unexplainable to truly see the purpose behind it.

In these moments, we can’t often change our circumstances, but we can change our perspective. If we cling to our faith and truly believe God is at work in our suffering even when we are too blinded by pain to see it, it gives us the strength to continue on.

“The intrusions that God sends you will no doubt upset your plans and oppose all that you want,” Fenelon wrote. “But they will chase you toward God.”

Because the God of the universe has a purpose for your pain. He has a purpose for you.

And He had a purpose for my son’s braces. Even if he didn’t like it. 🙂

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