The Paradox of Pain

Pain is paradoxical…it can sink us into the depths, yet simultaneously raise us to new spiritual heights; it can cause us to become self-absorbed, yet also develop in us a great compassion for others who suffer; it can cause us to cry out for any and every kind of temporal relief, yet simultaneously loosen our grip on all things temporal in this life; it can produce in us great anger toward God, yet cause us to draw closer to Him than we ever have been before; pain can make you stupid, yet is one of the most effective means of gaining wisdom.

Let me say at the outset of this article what I am not going to do.  I will not attempt to develop a philosophical treatise on the problem of pain and evil given the reality of an all good, all loving and all powerful God.  Others more erudite and articulate have sought to wrestle with that dilemma (See C.S. Lewis, Ravi Zacharias, Phillip Brand and Phil Yancey, et. al.).  I will also do my best not to minimize the very brutal reality of pain.  I am no masochist and our Lord is no sadist.  Pain is the result of the fall of man – it was not present in God’s unfallen creation and it will not be present in eternity.  It is the harsh consequence of our sin that will one day be eliminated but, like other broken aspects of our world, the Lord is using it temporarily for his purposes and for the ultimate benefit of his children even though it is not part of his “good” creation.

In this article, I will reflect on some of the lessons that I have learned through my limited experience with pain.  I do not claim to be, nor would I ever want to claim to be, an expert in pain. I realize that there are many in our body who have suffered greatly and have been deeply wounded by our fallen world.  My reflections here come from an adverse reaction to a chemo drug designed to rid my chest, shoulders and neck of cancer and pre-cancerous growths (too much fun in the sun in my youth).  My pain was similar to a burn that lasted for about 3 weeks.  How intense was the pain?  I honestly can’t answer that question.  It was the most severe pain I have experienced so far in my life, yet all attempts to gauge or measure pain  seem a bit hokey to me.  I hate those “1 to 10” scales of pain…1 or 10 compared to what –   being submerged repeatedly in a vat of boiling oil?  Not having enough chips to go with your guacamole dip?  Losing cable service in the midst of the Superbowl?  I am also not sure how to compare physical pain and emotional pain.  Is it more painful to lose a spouse or lose an arm?  Does it hurt more to be lonely or to suffer from chronic back pain?  Is it more painful to deal with infertility or a wayward child?  Is it more painful to have cancer or watch someone you love battle with cancer?  Pain is subjective and individual.  I do not know how you experience pain and you cannot understand how I respond to pain.  Yet, we all know what it means to experience pain or hurt.  So, regardless of how “intense” my pain was compared to the suffering you have experienced, here are some lessons that the Lord taught me through my experience.

First, to quote REM, “Everybody hurts!”  No one is immune.  There is a universality of our experience of pain because there is a universality of our experience of sin.  Our sinful nature leave us deserving the wrath of God and it is only due to God’s mercy and grace that any of us experience “good” days free of pain and suffering.  We may experience pain due to our own rebellious choices, the sinful behavior of others, or the general brokenness of our world (Rom. 8:20-23). Are you groaning?  Welcome to the human family!  When we suffer we are not being singled out.  As our Lord said, “In this world you will have trouble!”  Pain can remind us that we are not as innocent as we sometimes think we are…our sin has truly made a painful mess of things.

Pain also has a way of humbling us.  To think a couple of grams of a chemical applied twice a day would be able to render me incapable of functioning normally is indeed humbling.  Pain shouts out to us that we are not captains of our fate and masters of our own souls.  It reminds us that we are indeed fragile and control so little about our lives.  Every breath I take is a gift of God and it is only because of his abundant grace that I live and move and have my being.  When I am feeling well, the illusion of self-sufficiency can subtly creep into my mind.  Pain shatters that illusion like a champagne glass dropped on a concrete floor.  Pain helps me to humble myself so that the Lord can indeed lift me up.

Pain makes you realize the importance of the rest of the body.  In our individualistic culture it is easy to live life disconnected from others.  Pain forces you to lean on others…and this is a good thing.  We are to “weep with those who weep” and “comfort others with the comfort we have received”.  We need one another…especially those who have already waded through some deep weeds themselves…when we are going through pain. (II Cor. 1:3-7)   I was greatly encouraged by those who shouldered some of my normal work load (preaching).  I was comforted by those who shared the reality of their experiences with pain and how the Lord brought them through it when I was in pain’s grip.  I was also sustained as I realized that there were many who were remembering me and praying for me (Heb. 13:3).  Once you have experienced pain, you tend to have a greater compassion for others in the body who are experiencing suffering.

Pain has a way of getting our attention.  As C.S. Lewis said, “Pain is God’s megaphone”.  Unfortunately, all of us tend to suffer from “fortunitis”…that condition of the soul that dulls our sensitivity to God’s voice and our compassion for others when we are experiencing a period of good “fortune”.  Good health, success, prosperity, and fulfilling relationships can actually push God to the margins in our lives.  Though we deeply and desperately need him always, we don’t sense that need as acutely during times of smooth sailing.  Pain can be God’s means of redirecting our focus back to him.  Times of deep suffering cause us to depend on God like we may never have done before (I Pet. 4:19).  It is amazing how pain can cause us to “set our minds on things above” and deeply long for our true home.  As Sheldon Vanauken stated, pain can truly be a “severe mercy” that guides our hearts back to the Lord and tunes our ear to hear his voice.

The Lord can use pain to bring back perspective and cause us to reset priorities.  During the pain-free times of our lives it is very easy to magnify the insignificant and get sucked into lusting after what the world values.  Yet, when you are in pain, you don’t care what your house looks like, what kind of clothes you have in the closet, how your IRA and 401K is doing, who won the baseball or football game, how successful you are at your vocation, or what kind of car you have in the garage.  As I said before, pain makes you stupid.  During a period of intense pain, I went out into the garage, got into my Civic and proceeded to back out without opening the garage door! Fortunately, I was going very slowly and the garage door didn’t need to be replaced!  My Civic had a slight gash in the bumper but I didn’t really care – which is pretty amazing considering the fact that I am a recovering car-a-holic!  All the stuff we have is either going to decay or burn (I Pet. 3:11)… why do I so often live as if it won’t?  Pain helped me remember that I am just passing through and this world is not deserving of my deepest love (I Jn 2:15-17).  Soon this old body will be pushing up daisies and I want to spend my life on what is truly significant and enduring.

Additionally, pain heightened my sense of gratitude for all those good gifts of God for which I so often fail to thank him – a decent night of sleep, the ability to exercise, the ability to give my daughter a shoulder ride, being able to turn my head when backing up the car, making love to my wife, enjoying a good meal, not fearing taking a shower, etc., etc.  When we finally make it home and the pain is gone, I believe our “light and momentary” afflictions (II Cor. 4:16-16) will not only pale in comparison to the “weight of glory” we experience but they will produce in us a “weight of gratitude” as we live eternally free of pain and suffering thanks to the grace of God.

I also realized that pain makes obedience harder and easier.  When you are in pain, there is a tendency to become very self-absorbed.  We can think that everyone around us should be focused on us and alleviating our suffering.  However, if we are obedient and seek to think of others even in the midst of our pain then, when we are out of pain, obedience seems a bit easier.  When you are experiencing pain, obedience may be as simple as just giving someone a kind word or a smile when you feel like screaming or being grateful for the care and prayers you are receiving.  If Jesus needed to learn obedience through what he suffered I certainly will need to as well (Heb. 5:8).

If you are in pain and if you are suffering, fix your focus on our Savior, whose birth we will celebrate this season. Unlike us, he willingly chose to experience this life of temporary pain and suffering. He didn’t stay at a distance theorizing about how his creation experienced pain and suffering but he became intimately familiar with it through the incarnation (Isa. 53; Heb. 2:14-18). Why would a perfect and pain-free being leave glory to live on this painfully broken orb?  Jesus dwelt among us so that he could demonstrate his love to us by permanently and eternally freeing us from sin, pain and suffering through his death and resurrection.  I don’t have all the philosophical answers for why there is pain and suffering in the world, but this I know: We have a Savior who knows first hand what it is to suffer and experience excruciating pain and we have a Savior who one day will return to completely eradicate all suffering, all pain and all evil from the lives of his children!  I, for one, am longing for that Day more than ever before!