No pain, no gain
On this national football holiday, it’s hard to know which will get passed more often, the turkey or the pigskin. But somewhere along the course of the day, and the games, it’s almost certain that someone will invoke the time-honored maxim: no pain – no gain.
Ben Franklin is credited with coining it, and Jane Fonda with popularizing it through her exercise videos in the 1980s. It originated with regard to fitness and has been exported into sports and business, education and self-help. It underscores the apparently obvious: one must sacrifice, experience some form of pain, in order to improve, to succeed, to win. Pain and sacrifice cannot assure success, but success does not come without them.
For Christians, the connection between sacrifice and the realization of our highest blessing is somewhat different. There is, indeed, a sacrifice that took place, but it was not our own. Rather, Jesus sacrificed his life by remaining faithful to God in the face of the worst sin that worldly powers could concoct. When God raised him from the dead, the power of that sin was broken. A path opened by which we can trust in a life with God beyond our own sinfulness. His pain became our gain.
Sadly, in a world that is still not fully right with God, it is often through others’ pain that we are able to gain. It is no less unjust – it is no less tragic – than it was when Jesus suffered. Nor does the fact that his death became our gain justify our gaining at others’ expense. But we do. We almost cannot help but do it, the way that the powers of the world have things rigged. Whether it’s college or a job, affordable clothes or out-of-season fruit, a spouse or a higher stock dividend or lower gas prices, virtually every blessing we can name is linked to someone else’s loss, setback, failure, injustice, or sacrifice. We do well, as we count our blessings, to recall this simple truth about “the circle of life,” and the ways in which the wheels of that circle carry some while crushing others.
We call the prayer before Holy Communion “the Great Thanksgiving.” It begins, “on the night when he was handed over to death, our Lord Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘This is my body, given for you.’” In our Thanksgivings this year, the power of his gift is our greatest gain, as always. With the freedom that it gives us, can we dare to know and to seek out who has suffered and sacrificed so that we can enjoy so many common blessings? For them, can we re-dedicate ourselves – at our own expense – to being the Body of Christ, given for them, to bring justice, healing, well-being, and blessing to their lives? Perhaps we can, because in them, as in Christ, we see the real truth of it: no pain – no gain.