Pain stinks, but it can often serve useful and redemptive purposes:
OK, my title can go in all sorts of directions, and in a moment I will discuss some spiritual truths about pain. But my title may cause some to think of something similar. Back in 1973 Ann Peebles released the song, “I Can’t Stand the Rain” (popularised by others, including Tina Turner in 1984). So I am piggybacking on that to discuss something everyone can relate to: pain.
I do not like pain. No one likes it – except perhaps for a few weird masochists. So we do all we can to avoid pain. Generally speaking, this is quite a sensible course to take. If you are walking along an asphalt road barefoot in the middle of summer, it can cause real pain. The obvious thing to do is find a shady spot or put some footwear on.
Avoiding pain or what might cause pain is normally the proper way to proceed. But not always. Sometimes pain serves a useful purpose. Sometimes pain is trying to get our attention. The obvious example which many of you can relate to is a toothache.
If you are like me, you avoid dentists like the plague. I have had some bad experiences with them over the years, going back to my childhood. So I am often willing to put up with pain in my mouth rather than go to the dreaded dentist.
But sure enough, after a while the pain becomes too great, and I have to cave in and visit a dentist. Perhaps you might have guessed the occasion for this article. Yep, I am just back from the dentist. After dealing with pain for quite a while, I finally had to bite the bullet, knowing that my current pain would outweigh any pain the dentist might inflict on me!
OK, so call me a coward and a num num. I confess. But as I say, lots of bad experiences in the past have been part of the reason why I am so dentist averse. But it was getting so bad that when pain medicines did not work very well, I was actually swishing around as mouthwash some red wine to help relieve the pain. Yes I am a ninny – I admit that.
Mind you, when I mentioned this to the dentist today, she laughed and said whisky or cognac would have been better in this regard! But she of course did not prefer that course of action, but recommended that regular visits to the dentist take place instead, to avoid such painful situations arising in the first place.
So long story short, I am now on antibiotics, and in a week I will return to start some much-needed dental treatments. Pulling a molar may be the best option for the worst-case tooth. I write all this because I suspect far too many of you can relate to my experience (something my dentist agreed with), and because this piece really is just another vehicle to pen a Christian devotional.
The whole purpose of this article of course is not to dwell on my own dental care and the like, but to highlight some important spiritual realities. In the spiritual realm, just like the physical, pain is often an important element in getting us to stop doing certain harmful things, and start doing certain helpful things.
Let’s look at the issue of leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease. This is a bacterial infection of the skin and nerves, and it can cause a deadness to feelings – to pain. Some might think: ‘That’s great, I could become invincible – a superhero – in such a state’.
But not so fast. It was learned that the reason why lepers had so many deformities was exactly because of this pain insensitivity. A person could be asleep – say, in India – and wake up in the morning with part of his hands or feet missing. Why? Because if there is no feeling, then rats could gnaw away at the extremities and the person would not even know it was taking place.
One way to nicely tie in this medical condition with spiritual truths is by referring to someone who has done just that. Dr Paul Brand (1914-2003), was born in India to missionary parents, and among other things, worked with lepers. His ground-breaking work into this very matter helped to make him a world-renowned and respected surgeon.
His story was told in the 1965 biography Ten Fingers for God by Dorothy Clarke Wilson. As a Christian, he could see the obvious parallels here with spiritual realities. He penned a number of books over the years, including the important 1993 volume co-authored with Philip Yancey, Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants (Harper Collins – republished by Zondervan in 1997 as The Gift of Pain).
Let me feature just a few brief quotes from it. He states this obvious truth: “Few experiences in life are more universal than pain, which flows like lava beneath the crust of life.” And he says this:
“I readily admit that my years of working among pain-deprived people have given me a skewed perspective. I now regard pain as one of the most remarkable design features of the human body, and if I could choose one gift for leprosy patients, it would be the gift of pain.”
I came to appreciate the subtleties of pain by treating those who do not feel it. I certainly never said “Thank God for pain!” as a child in the Kolli hills, or in medical school during the Blitz; that outlook came after years of working among victims of painlessness. . . . We cannot live well without pain, but how do we best live with it? Pain is a priceless, essential gift – of that I have no doubt. And yet only by learning to master pain can we keep it from mastering us.
One more: “The hurt of pain forces the entire being to attend to the danger. Once aware of the cut on my finger, I forget all about my crowded schedule and the long line of patients outside – I run for a bandage. Pain ignores, even mocks all other priorities.”
The spiritual lessons should be plain. We all like to go along living as if God does not exist – even believers can far too often live this way. So God in his grace – knowing what is best for us – will often allow pain to come our way to get our attention, to get us to change course.
That might be physical pain, or emotional pain, or relational pain, or what have you. But it is meant to help us realign our priorities and start putting God back in his rightful place. Sure, it hurts at the time, but it leads to such very good outcomes.
As we read about God’s discipline in Hebrews 12:11: “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Or as the psalmist put it, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word.” (Psalm 119:67). There are plenty more such passages that I could present here.
God can and does allow pain in our lives to lead us in the right direction, and to get us off our destructive, dead-end paths. He will do all he can to ensure that we have our priorities right. Praise him for that. It is only when he stops trying to get our attention that we are in a really bad way.
And our pain may also serve some greater good – perhaps for the sake of others – which we may not even be aware of. Indeed, this very article would seem to be a case in point. The only reason I am writing it now is because of all the pain I have recently been through.
Sure, I prayed a lot about it, and I asked God to take the pain away, wondering why he was allowing it. Well, if the devotional material found in this article is of some help to others, then maybe it was all worth it. The Christian must see the bigger picture. Ultimately it is about glorifying God – in sickness or in health, in pleasure or in pain.
Obviously, the man born blind had his own suffering to go through. But when Jesus healed him, and his disciples asked if his blindness was due to his or his parents’ sin, Jesus said this: ‘Neither – it is so that God might be glorified that this was allowed to happen’ (see John 9:1-3).
So suffering – of which physical pain is just one part – can serve all sorts of good purposes. Pain and suffering will make us bitter or better – it all depends on how we respond. Let me finish with a few – of many – quotes by some great saints on the great value of suffering (which can include physical suffering):
“Extraordinary afflictions are not always the punishment of extraordinary sins, but sometimes the trial of extraordinary graces.” -Matthew Henry
“Suffering is no failure of God’s plan. True, it is part of the curse, along with death, disease, and destruction. But before God comes back to close the curtain on suffering, it is meant to be redeemed. Our miracle-working God can reach down into what otherwise looks like awful evil—terrible evil—and He and He only can pull out of it positive good for us and glory for Himself. . . . Suffering makes us want to go to heaven. Broken homes and broken hearts crush our illusions that earth can keep its promises, that it can really satisfy. Only the hope of heaven can truly move our passions off this world – which God knows could never fulfill us anyway – and place them where they will find their glorious fulfillment.” -Joni Eareckson Tada
“The deepest things that I have learned in my life have come from the deepest suffering. And out of the deepest waters and the hottest fires have come the deepest things that I know about God. . . . And I would add this, that the greatest gifts of my life have also entailed the greatest suffering. The greatest gifts of my life, for example, have been marriage and motherhood. And let’s never forget that if we don’t ever want to suffer, we must be very careful never to love anything or anybody. The gifts of love have been the gifts of suffering. Those two things are inseparable.” -Elisabeth Elliot
“Learning from experience means, in practice, learning from suffering; the only schoolmaster. Everyone knows that this is so, even though they try to persuade themselves and their fellows otherwise. Only so is it possible to understand how it came about that, through all the Christian centuries, people have been prepared to accept the Cross, ostensibly a symbol of suffering, as the true image and guarantee of their creator’s love and concern for them.” -Malcolm Muggeridge
“Affliction is the best book in my library.” -Martin Luther
“I bear witness that some of the best things I have ever learned from mortal lips, I have learned from bedridden saints!” -Charles Spurgeon
“Fiery trials make golden Christians.” -Charles Spurgeon
“I am not arguing that pain is not painful. Pain hurts. That is what the word means. I am only trying to show that the old Christian doctrine of being made ‘perfect through suffering’ is not incredible. To prove it palatable is beyond my design.” -C. S. Lewis
“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” -C. S. Lewis