John Kennedy. Renoir. Benjamin Franklin. Lucille Ball. Herod the Great. These are just a few of the individuals throughout history who have suffered great pain (some of them coped better than others). Even today, pain affects more people than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined, and chronic pain is the leading cause of long-term disability in the U.S., affecting one out of every four Americans. I am one of those people, having experienced some degree of pain from the time I was twenty-two. Physical suffering is also a spiritual and a psychological issue, famous for making people ‘stronger,’ and famous, too, for destroying lives. The next few blog posts will feature some reflections on pain and some practical suggestions for living with it. I would love to have your feedback and ideas along the way, especially if this is a problem you face.
Let’s start with some medical and theological basics.
The presence of all kinds of pain is a direct result of the fall. Both Adam and Eve are condemned to suffer pain (See Gen. 3:16, 17), which is probably a sign that all of us will struggle with some form of pain in our lives. It will be our curse until the day all tears cease (Rev. 21:4). We can find examples of pain throughout the Bible, particularly in the books of Job and Jeremiah. Psalms and the letters of Paul speak of pain, too, but they largely refer to emotional pain. Surprisingly, science has begun to show that emotional and physical pain are intimately related, sharing the same area of the brain. (As a result, acetaminophen can actually help relieve sadness!) Physical pain often causes emotional pain, and it can work in the reverse, too. So, it seems likely that many of our ideas about pain can apply to either variety.
Pain is not a punishment. At least, not for those in Christ. Pain is a result of the sin which caused the fall, and that sin belongs to all of us. But what has been decreed as punishment for all has been redeemed for some. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). Sin does have consequences, and we sometimes, though rarely, suffer pain because of our specific sins, but God promises to transform all our pain into something good for us (Rom. 8:28). Punishment comes from anger and says, “I will make you pay.” Discipline comes from love and says, “I will make you beautiful.”
Pain has good purposes. Fire burns, tigers bite and men bleed. Pain is the body’s early warning system, the physical alarm to wake us from carelessness, and woe to those few who cannot feel it. I am alive because a small, troubling pain in one knee alerted my doctors to the presence of cancer while it was still treatable. Pain has been the motivation for the development of many curative medications and procedures, and pain also helps us grow. Without wishing suffering on anyone, it is generally true that the wisest, strongest, most patient people we know are some of those who have suffered. For example, the bravest person I know is someone who faces down many kinds of suffering every day. Pain holds the potential to teach us much about dependence, humility and strength in weakness; it can be a useful tool in the hands of a master carver who is in the business of sculpting beauty from ashes (Is. 61:3, Jer. 18:4-6). We tend to think the breeding ground for discontent is hardship, and pain, but it may actually be a comfortable life.
The same degree of pain can seem to be worse depending on its cause. Pain can feel more severe and be harder to bear when it is maliciously inflicted. Which could you tolerate more easily – receiving a life-saving vaccine or being deliberately stabbed with a large pin by a spiteful sibling? Unexpected pain can be worse than expected or chronic pain. Doctors know that it is important to give patients a realistic description of pain following surgery in order to increase their pain tolerance. Pain is also more debilitating when we do not know its source; it becomes a focus of worry, and we find ourselves sensitively attuned to the slightest changes.
Pain can turn us TOWARD God or AWAY from Him. Contributing to our discomfort is the modern, Western entitlement to physical well-being. When we assume we shouldn’t have pain (physical or emotional), pain becomes a place of frustration and anger. The story of the Bible calls us each to follow Christ in our own way, to enter “the fellowship of His sufferings” according to that which is given us. Christ has shown us how to bear great pain and has promised to be with us in all circumstances so that our suffering can draw us closer to Him in intimate relationship. When the pain has chased away every other succor from our conscious existence, then it has driven us straight to the cross. In my very real experience, God is the only thing which can co-exist with overwhelming pain because He is indeed everywhere and in everything, having overcome every tribulation of the world by His own suffering (John 16:33).
If Christ is our example, then pain is to be born in humility rather than anger or entitlement. Certainly, we should seek out the remedies available to us, but when God has not made an effective therapy available, we must look differently at the life He has given us. Where are the opportunities for grace? Where can we find wisdom, strength and love in a different degree than we might know without our pain? Where is there room for service, worship and the gifts of the Spirit inside the circumstances we would shed in a heartbeat?
We do not have a choice about struggling in this life. The thing we do here which cannot be done in Heaven is struggle, so it must be that we need it. We will all suffer in various ways, and we cannot choose to avoid all of it. We can only choose whether we do it with God as Great Physician, Friend and Comforter – or without Him.
The box quotes throughout this post have been contributed by real sufferers. Please contribute your own thoughts and ideas, especially if you live with chronic pain, by clicking the “Reply” link at the top of the page or the “Comment” box at the bottom.