The Slow Fires of Misery
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2–4, ESV)
photo credit: Public Domain
Immortalized in the portraits of Abraham Lincoln are the hard lines and rough features of a man intimately acquainted with sorrow and anguish.
Although much of his suffering occurred as a result of four years in office during the most trying time in our nation’s history, other factors contributed greatly to his weathered and stoic countenance.
Born in Kentucky and later moving to Indiana, he was subject to the hardships of frontier life.
He lost his mother when he was nine, his sister before he turned 20, and his first serious love to typhoid fever before they could be engaged.
He lost three of his four sons; and his wife, Mary Todd, gave him endless fits during the course of their marriage.
Mark Noll explains:
She pushed Lincoln relentlessly to seek high public office; she complained endlessly about poverty; she overran her budget shamelessly, both in Springfield and in the White House; she abused servants as if they were slaves (and ragged on Lincoln when he tried to pay them extra on the side); she assaulted him on more than one occasion (with firewood, with potatoes); she probably once chased him with a knife through their backyard in Springfield; and she treated his casual contacts with attractive females as a direct threat, while herself flirting constantly and dressing to kill. A regular visitor to the White House wrote of Mrs. Lincoln that “she was vain, passionately fond of dress and wore her dresses shorter at the top and longer at the train than even fashions demanded. She had great pride in her elegant neck and bust, and grieved the president greatly by her constant display of her person and her fine clothes.”1
Not only was his political life riddled with myriad defeats before securing the 16th presidency, he frequently met opposition from military leaders, like McClellen, Buell, and Burnside, during the Civil War.
Additionally, Lincoln was known to be melancholy, and evidence suggests he probably suffered from depression.
While Lincoln’s situation is certainly unique in many ways, his suffering is not at all uncommon. Really it could be seen as a cumulative snapshot of the trials so many suffer, daily.
These kinds of trials can be catalysts for deep and abiding emotional pain that debilitate us–or even destroy us–if we are not careful.
Conversely, these kinds of trials can also be catalysts for profound and meaningful accomplishments, like those demonstrated by Lincoln.
Feelings About our Trials Can Trigger Emotional Pain
According to the Encyclopedia of Psychology & Counseling, there are “twelve fundamental emotions.”2
These are divided into nine unpleasant and three pleasant emotions:
- The unpleasant emotions are sorrow, fear, anger, jealousy, shame, disgust, pain, confusion, and emptiness.
- The pleasant emotions are love, joy, and awe.”
Additionally, an article in “Psychology Today,”3 written by Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., explains how the experiences associated with unpleasant emotions “relate to feeling, or somehow being made to feel”
- Unworthy or worthless
- Disapproved of, invalidated, or rejected
- Not listened to or understood
- Like a non-entity–or invisible
- Unloved, not cared about or wanted
- Insulted, disparaged, disrespected, distrusted, devalued, or discounted
- Aggressed against, taken advantage of; betrayed
- Inadequate, defective, incompetent, behind the curve, inferior or looked down upon, unacceptable
- Slow, stupid, foolish or silly; contemptible
- Dishonorable or cowardly
- Embarrassed or humiliated
- Weak, helpless, or defenseless
- Undeserving of time, attention, or recognition
- Like a failure; “loser”
- Guilty, shameful–or a bad person generally
Based on the taxonomies alone, it’s not difficult to see the potential our lives have to be dominated by negative emotions.
Yet, James tells us to “count it joy” when we face the various trials that can potentially debilitate us or even throw us into the pit of despair.
Joy, remember, is one of the three positive emotions.
7 Steps to experiencing joy in trials (or turning emotional pain into a positive experience)
Following are 7 steps that will help us “count it joy” when experiencing the emotional pain that comes from life’s trials.
1 – Embrace the reality of pain.
Freedom from pain is a deadly fallacy modernity has sold us. Modern society turns to pills, divorce, lawyers, and even suicide to alleviate the pain of trials. Too many people have bought the bag of tricks and found it wanting.
Pain, physical and emotional both, are realities of our fallen world. One day, believers will be free from all pain (Revelation 21:4), but not today. Embrace it. We will all suffer. Anyone who has lived long enough to get out of diapers knows this is true.
2 – Identify the specific feelings associated with the pain.
It’s helpful to identify where the pain is coming from and process which specific unpleasant emotions relate to the painful feelings.
Are you feeling angry? Or, are you just hurt? Clarity allows us to prepare a judicious and beneficial response, instead of an irrational explosion of emotions that only make our trials more difficult.
3 – Affirm the reality of your pain.
This is different than embracing the reality of pain in general. This is affirming that your emotions are valid.
With the clarity that comes from analyzing where the pain is coming from and what it is specifically, we are better able to self-soothe. For example, acknowledging that it’s normal and healthy to feel hurt when someone betrays us prepares us to deal with the pain in a meaningful and productive manner. (By virtue of its definition, forgiveness can only begin once we validate that an injustice has, in fact, been committed.)
4 – Talk with someone who can help.
We need to talk with someone, but not to just anyone. We should talk to someone who can help. Some less mature friends may fuel our pain in an unhealthy way.
Some tend to find fuel for their gossip in the pain of another’s suffering. We need to be careful who we choose to talk to, but we must talk to someone who can help.
It might be the person who is the source of our pain (reconciliation). It might be a pastor, spiritual adviser, or professional therapist (relevant counsel). It might be a trusted confidante who knows how to listen well (release).
5 – Avoid taking responsibility for someone else’s feelings.
That’s called codependency. We are each responsible for our own feelings. But we are not responsible for the feelings of someone else.
Of course, we are to speak the truth in love. Make sure what you have to say is truthful. Make sure it is said in love. But don’t feel afraid to address your pain for fear of someone else’s reaction.
And finally, be careful to not allow someone else’s feelings to become your feelings, vicariously.
6 – Don’t let the pain define your person or establish your value.
Whether your pain is caused by another or by your own actions, you are not defined by your sufferings, your failures, or your emotional pain.
You are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). And if you’ll receive it, you have been bought with a price and made acceptable before God himself in the person of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:3-14).
7 – Channel the pain toward something positive.
Paul reminds us that enduring pain is part of God’s plan for growing us and shaping us for his glory and the advancement of his kingdom. In his letter to the Romans, he writes:
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us”(Romans 5:3–5, ESV).
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8:28–29, ESV)
And to the Corinthians, he writes:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3–4, ESV)
God uses our trials and the pain associated with those trials, to do a greater good, if we’ll channel it in a positive direction.
Abraham Lincoln is arguably one of the most influential and prominent figures in American history. And he became so through a troubled and arduous journey that ended when his life was taken from him prematurely.
Of Lincoln’s influence that was forged in the fiery trials allotted him, John Piper aptly writes,
“Over the slow fires of misery that he learned to keep banked and under heavy pressure deep within him, his innate qualities of patience, tolerance, forbearance, and forgiveness were tempered and refined.”3
America was better because Lincoln embraced “the slow fires of misery” that plagued his life.
I wonder who will be the better if we choose to properly embrace our pain.
“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12, ESV)
1 All the quotes in this reading are taken from Mark Noll, “The Struggle for Lincoln’s Soul,” in Books and Culture, vol. 1, no. 1, September/October 1995, 3–6. John Piper, A Godward Life: Savoring the Supremacy of God in All Life (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 1997), 34.
2 W. P. Wilson, “Emotion,” ed. David G. Benner and Peter C. Hill, Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology & Counseling, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 393.
3 Seltzer, Leon F., Ph.D. “Why We Hide Emotional Pain,” Psychology Today. Sept. 28, 2011. (accessed June 15, 2014). https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/201109/why-we-hide-emotional-pain.
4 John Piper, A Godward Life: Savoring the Supremacy of God in All Life (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 1997), 34–35.
About Scott Postma
Scott lives in North Idaho collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. He helps people cultivate their capacity to perceive and appreciate the good, the true, and the beautiful by sharing rich insights into the arts and humanities, meaningful perspective on faith and culture, and valuable tips on writing and teaching. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.