Not All Pain is Gain
When I was a round-faced freshman swimmer, my dad picked me up one night and asked, “How was practice?”
I just grimaced, “So, so sore!”
A former wrestler and fitness-lover himself, he responded, “Believe it or not, one day you’re gonna love that feeling.”
I’m going to love pain? I thought. That seems pretty weird.
No Pain, No Gain…Sometimes
Now after 20 years as an on-again, off-again athlete, I totally get it. The burn of a hard workout, the reward of sore muscles afterwards—I know they’re signs of solid progress and future strength, and I relish them. Facing my weakness like this somehow makes me feel stronger. And now that I’m a volunteer coach for a running program geared to women recovering from addiction, I love helping others make that connection, too. Together we’re learning to be comfortable with discomfort. It’s often a necessary part of growth.
But not all pain is gain. The pain of injury occurs too. Runner’s knee, tendonitis, and IT band syndrome—these kinds of pain signal harm that can hinder the progress you’ve made so far. We can’t “push through” this kind of pain. We must recognize it as harmful and actively address the problem.
It’s not easy at first to recognize the difference between good and bad pain, but with time and experience we learn to recognize the symptoms of both.
The Heart of the Matter
At a conference this year, one statement hit me right in the heart: “Conviction is a sign of the Holy Spirit at work in your life.” Conviction is one of the Holy Spirit’s main purposes here on earth, meaning he reveals the truth about humanity’s sinfulness and need for a Savior (John 16:7-8). In Christians, conviction causes us to loathe our sin and experience pain from it. When I heard that statement, the timing was perfect. That weekend I was sore from a long run with my ladies and was feeling strong pangs of conviction over sin in my life. The connection was instant and vivid. These were both good pains.
Conviction doesn’t feel good, but it is. It’s a sign of solid progress and future growth. It means I’ll reap the benefits of the Holy Spirit’s corrective influence, which stems from God’s love for me as his daughter (Hebrews 12:5-6, Hebrews 12:11, Revelation 3:19). This is something I can welcome and be grateful for.
But as with physical fitness, in our spiritual growth as Christians, not all pain is gain. Conviction is the work of the Spirit to enable us to respond rightly to our exposed sin. Condemnation, on the other hand, is not; it is bad pain. Condemnation means being under God’s wrath for your sin, without the hope of the reconciliation Christ made possible. In truth, if it were not for Christ, we would all stand condemned (Romans 5:18). Conviction and condemnation both feel terrible and seem similar, but they have very different causes and results. Let’s look closer at these differences.
Tools for Training
Scripture helps us compare these two, saying, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). Like the discomforts of physical fitness, sometimes it’s not easy to tell the difference between godly sorrow (conviction) and worldly sorrow (condemnation), but the text here (2 Corinthians 7:8-11) gives us clues to distinguish between the “symptoms” of each:
- Conviction guides us into the light through confession and repentance, which leads to salvation. Condemnation draws us into darkness, with a desire not to see our sin made right, but instead to keep it hidden from others and from God.
- Conviction is productive, yielding signs of well-being and growth personally and in our relationships. Condemnation harms and injures, stunting our personal and relational growth and stealing the progress we’ve made in these areas.
- Conviction is life-giving and leaves no regret; condemnation leads to death.
Condemnation doesn’t come from God, but from the enemy of our souls who lives to accuse us of our sins (Revelation 12:10b). He would love nothing more than for us to forget the remedy for our sin. When we forget that, it’s only natural to hide sin. But like an ignored stress fracture, condemnation compounds the problem by allowing hidden sin to grow to our destruction.
The Holy Spirit shows us otherwise. When he brings sin to our attention, he also reminds us of the redemption offered to us through Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Then, confronting our sin gives us cause for worship. Seeing our weakness makes us stronger as we also see the power and sufficiency of Christ’s one sacrifice. By this sacrifice, Jesus “has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14). Because of Christ, we are no longer condemned (Romans 8:1).
This is not just a matter of head knowledge. For a runner to train well, she actually needs to pay attention to the signs of good and bad discomfort and act accordingly. Likewise, when you’re hit with a pang of sorrow at realizing your sin, pay attention to the symptoms. Being drawn to God, repentance, and reconciliation with other believers is a sign that this is the work of the Holy Spirit. But the urge to hide, defend, and justify your sin means that the enemy is behind your pain. Recognize this as the bad kind of pain and bring the issue before God in prayer.
Each of us has a race to run that’s set before us by God. Applying our knowledge of the difference between conviction and condemnation won’t make the race easy or painless, but by fixing our focus on Jesus it can reveal to us the joy and purpose found within the pain (Hebrews 12:1-2).