3 Ways to Respond to Pain: Lessons from Joseph (and My Heart Failure)

Pain is inevitable in life. Whether it’s physical, emotional, financial, or relational, pain is bound to show up on your doorstep. The question is, how will you respond to it?

In Genesis 17, we read the story of a teenage boy named Joseph who had two dreams. His eleven brothers scorned Joseph for his dreams because they implied that one day they would bow before Joseph (Genesis 37:6-11). As a result, a series of painful events followed Joseph for the next 13 years of his life. Four types of pain to be exact:  

1. The Pain of Family Rejection – One day Joseph’s brothers decided to kill Joseph. They ripped off his robe, threw him in a cistern, and then sold him to some Ishmaelites for 20 pieces of silver (Genesis 37:28). Twenty pieces of silver in that day is what people paid for a slave who had some kind of physical handicap, and yet Joseph was perfectly healthy. In fact, Scripture describes Joseph as being “well-built and handsome.”

2. The Pain of False Accusation – After the Ishmaelites took Joseph to Egypt, they sold him to Potiphar who was the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Potiphar’s wife constantly tried to entice Joseph to sleep with her, but he refused. One day she grabbed his robe and Joseph flees. When Potiphar comes home, she said:

…“That Hebrew slave you’ve brought into our house tried to come in and fool around with me,” she said. 18 “But when I screamed, he ran outside, leaving his cloak with me!” 19 Potiphar was furious when he heard his wife’s story about how Joseph had treated her. 20 So he took Joseph and threw him into the prison where the king’s prisoners were held, and there he remained. (Genesis 39:17b-20, NLT)

Potiphar’s wife falsely accused Joseph of attempted rape. As a result, he ends up in prison where he struggles with a third type of pain.

3. The Pain of a Forgotten Existence – While in prison, Joseph interpret the dreams of Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer. He tells the baker he will be killed, but tells the cupbearer he will be restored to his position in the kingdom. Then, after he interprets his dream, Joseph tells the cupbearer to plead his case before Pharaoh. What happened? Genesis 40:23 (NLT) says, “Pharaoh’s chief cup-bearer, however, forgot all about Joseph, never giving him another thought.” Joseph experienced the pain of a forgotten existence for two years. Not only was he forgotten by the cupbearer, he must have felt forgotten by God. Perhaps you’ve felt the same way.

4. The Pain of Failed Dreams – The pain of family rejection, false accusation, and a forgotten existence had to result in one final pain: failed dreams. The dreams he had at the age of 17 must have felt null and void. How could they ever come true now? And yet, at the peak of his pain, something powerful happened.

Pharaoh had two dreams that nobody could interpret. That’s when the cupbearer suddenly remembers Joseph and tells Pharaoh about his ability to interpret dreams. Joseph is summoned to the palace to meet with Pharaoh, correctly interprets the dreams, and then tells Pharaoh what he must do to prepare for a coming famine. Pharaoh is so impressed with Joseph that he immediately elevates him to the second in command of the land of Egypt.

What’s the point? God leveraged Joseph’s pain for God’s purpose. While God didn’t necessarily cause Joseph’s pain, God wasn’t absent in Joseph’s pain either. Instead, God leveraged Joseph’s pain to prepare him for something far greater.

Pain takes on different shapes and sizes in our lives. There’s the pain of relational collapse, failed opportunity, and emotional abuse. There’s the pain of personal addictions, job loss, and financial bankruptcy. And then there’s the pain of physical sickness. That’s the pain I recently encountered when I simultaneously experienced heart failure and pulmonary failure. While it was a traumatic experience, there are three lessons I learned about how to respond to pain. 

1. Don’t let the magnitude of your pain hide the miracle in your pain. 

When my heart failed, I believe a number of miracles took place. Had we gone to the ER too quickly, I may have simply been diagnosed with the flu and then sent home. Going to Harris Southwest (instead of Harris Downtown) gave me immediate access to my cardiologist, who diagnosed my true condition. All of the details surrounding my family getting to Fort Worth from out of town were amazing. The fact that Pneumonia, or any infection, didn’t set in is a miracle. The doctor’s were able to drain two liters of fluid from my lungs Monday night, allowing them to perform the heart surgery Tuesday afternoon. The surgery was completed ahead of schedule, and, of course, I survived.

Don't let the magnitude of your pain hide the miracle in your pain. Click To Tweet

I believe Joseph learned this lesson too. In Potiphar’s house, the prison, and with Pharaoh, God granted Joseph extraordinary favor. Despite his pain, doors opened for him that didn’t open for others. The magnitude of his pain didn’t hide the miracles God was doing on his behalf.

2. Your response to your pain is more important than the reality of your pain.  

The reality of your pain will do its best to hijack your response to your pain. Why? Because pain hurts. God reminded me of this important truth: Your pain is temporary, but your response is permanent. You won’t be remembered for your pain. You’ll be remembered for your response to it. That’s why it’s so important to put your problems in perspective and to learn how to handle problems. Joseph gained perspective and allowed his character to grow during his 13 years of pain (very real pain). As a result, he responded favorably, and in an upright manner.

Your pain is temporary, but your response is permanent. Click To Tweet

3. Don’t confuse the intent of your pain with the impact your pain can have. 

I’m no spiritual giant. In fact, many people would argue that if I had faith, my heart would have never failed. But it did. For whatever reason, I never asked God why my heart failed. It honestly seemed like a pointless question, and even a bit arrogant. God’s not afraid of my questions, but at that moment I was just thankful to be alive. I was however compelled to ask God what He wanted to teach me in this journey. I whispered that prayer while I laid in my hospital bed. Understanding the intent of my pain wasn’t important. Understanding how my pain could impact me (and others) was. The same was true for Joseph.

After a devastating famine hits Egypt and the surrounding area, people start coming to Egypt for food, including Joseph’s brothers. In that process, Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers. Initially, they’re terrified, but then Joseph says:

“Don’t be afraid of me. Am I God, that I can punish you? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. 21 No, don’t be afraid. I will continue to take care of you and your children.” So he reassured them by speaking kindly to them. (Genesis 50:19-21, NLT)

Joseph let’s God’s intent supersede his pain’s intent. From this passage we glean an important truth: The purpose of pain isn’t to punish you but to prepare you for God’s greater purposes. Your pain is the very thing God wants to use. Let Him leverage your pain for something good.

Each lesson puts pain in perspective and offers a hopeful response. I don’t know what painful situation you might be walking through right now, but I want to encourage you to look for the miracle, choose your response, and focus on the greater impact. These three responses frame your pain with a healthy perspective.

Question: How do you need to respond to the pain you’re going through right now?