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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

How Should Christians Respond to Pain?

"The Problem of Pain" is more than the title of C. S. Lewis' popular book. It's a complication, both theological and practical, that goes back to the infancy of Christianity. The theological problem of pain is How can an all-loving God allow his creations to suffer? A lot of thought has been expended trying to provide an answer.

But most of us aren't theologians. I'm certainly not (though neither was Lewis). Perhaps the more compelling question for us is How should we, as Christians, respond to pain?

I don't have the definitive answer but I think I'm onto something.

For centuries the Catholic Church emphasized pain as something we, as fallen humans, deserved. This was used as God's defense for very un-Godlike behavior in the Old Testament. A more modern manifestation of this can be found in people like John Piper. "Humans are terrible creatures and we therefore deserve whatever parts of God's wrath reign down on us," so the thinking goes. (Piper basically espoused this view after the recent tornado devastation in Oklahoma.) It's the "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" sermon all over again. Tired. Unsophisticated. And a very low view of God.

Still, other Christians want to ignore the darkness altogether. They pretend it doesn't exist. This is why you get things like "The Prosperity Gospel" and Joel Osteen. The Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement is another great example. With this mentality, the world always has a rosy glow and everything is upbeat, joyful, and beautiful. They refuse to admit the greater, ugly complexities of reality. If you told them they would eventually have to face their demons they'd answer, "What demons?" Avoiding pain can become more than a habit. It can become your creed.

Luckily a lot of Christian traditions haven't shut out pain. Because of its high emphasis in the past, most Catholics couldn't even if they tried! Unlike Protestants who have the clean, peaceful, and victorious image of the empty cross, Catholics have the bloody, ragged, and defeated image of the crucifix. It's not that either image is better or worse. But the different uses are telling.

I think Catholicism has incorporated pain fairly well (though with probably too high an emphasis at times). It's hard to not acknowledge pain with a bloodied and broken-bodied Christ at the center of your liturgy. Catholics even gave pain a redemptive quality, which is a sort of dark beauty in itself.

But how do we Christians - all of us - respond to pain? We certainly can't run from it or pretend it's not there. The cross has at least taught us at that much. I think, as with the crucifixion in the gospel, we have to face it. We have to look upon pain, both ours and others', and acknowledge its reality. It does no good hiding from it or refusing to name it.

After naming it, the next step is to observe it. This is where deep reflection, solitude, contemplation, and processing it with safe people comes in.

Once we've observed and witnessed fairly to it we can learn from it. I hate to say it, but I know that experientially I've learned much more from my mistakes and the hardships I've faced than from my successes. Facing success and the "perfect" are fairly easy in my opinion. Facing failure and the imperfect is much more difficult, especially when it's found in ourselves.

We all have difficulties and pain events in our life. I faced a good number of them at home growing up. And as a young adult I felt the pain of anxiety and depression and later the death of a friend. One particularly painful event as an adult was breaking off a 3 year relationship after college.

There is obviously a natural desire for justice with pain. When something or someone is taken from us we want whoever is responsible to feel our pain. We want the wrongs to be righted and then some. This is the real meaning behind "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." It wasn't a license to extract severe punishment; it was a limit on the desire to extract even more punishment than was due, which is what we all would really like.

But eventually we do have to say, "It won't change what's happened." What's done is done, and no amount of justice or retribution is going to change the fact that we will have to permanently live with that pain experience. Which leads me to my final step.

The final step for dealing with pain, for me, isn't to overcome or ignore or fight it away; it's to make a space for it. Make a space for the way people hurt you and the wrongs you've suffered.

I've started praying, "God, help me make a space for this," when those moments come. "Help me be able to own it and carry it and include it." Because all the things that have happened to me are me. It's a holistic view precisely because you are a whole person with both good and bad inside you and as part of your story.

The abuse you've suffered, the neglect, the misuse, the rejection may have all been the fault of others but it's now yours to carry because now, you're not really you without it. And we have to find how to do that in a healthy way. I think a real test of faith is to integrate our pain and accept it into our being as part of who we are and not merely as what has happened to us.

We have a perfect and very realistic model for this already in Christ who didn't seek out pain, wished for it to pass him by, but in the end made a space for it. Isn't it interesting that Christ rose from the grave with restored health and body in every sense except one - he still carried the wounds of his pain experience? And isn't it amazing that those wounds were not only what defined him (even Thomas couldn't know him without them!) but were the pain experience through which salvation entered the world and all of creation?

Our individual sufferings can't hope to accomplish as much. But if we make a space for them, as with Christ, they may actually be the part of us that reveal God's saving work the most.


  1. I think your estimation of the Catholic Church's older writings on pain is a little bit monochromatic. It's true that the Church has taught, and continues to teach, that pain is a consequence of sin, but more especially original sin rather than ACTUAL sin. In this context, all pain, from whatever source, is part of mankind's return to God; it is the difficult pilgrimage back home. In this context, our embrace of pain, our "finding space for it" (to use your words) is a way that we can help to reconcile not only ourselves but also our neighbors to Him. That is why the medieval spiritual writers put such an emphasis on describing their own sufferings, even as they grew closer to God. I would point out especially the writings of many female mystics such as Hildegard von Bingen, Anne Catherine Emerich, and Julian of Norwich.
    I do think, however, that one thing needs to be further emphasized, and that is something which is often left out. Pain can cause us to become more interior; it can cause us to want to drive others away or to put ourselves beyond their sympathy. The challenge is, I think, allowing our new-found interiority not to become a closet to hide skeletons of self-conceit or individualism, but to make it a place of prayer and solidarity with others. That's hard, and I never know how to express it to other people who are in real pain, but I have found it a useful thing to remember during the darker moments of my life.

    1. That's a really thoughtful response. I don't disagree but I'll have to reflect more on the nature of "pain" and suffering concerning interiority and the lessons it teaches us. I especially like - and I think it is in the spirit of the post - that pain can become "a place of prayer and solidarity with others." Perhaps this is the redemptive quality of pain that we talk about as Catholics.

  2. I almost fell out of my chair when I read your last two paragraphs. I JUST said that very thing to Richelle a couple of weeks ago. I think it's a profoundly important lesson that Christ's wounds DIDN'T heal even after he was resurrected. As if he couldn't heal them? He spent his life healing. He chose not to, and it's worth asking why.

    The protestant tradition so often emphasizes this model of "giving your burdens to Jesus," and while that's a nice thought, it doesn't really work quite like that. Christ forgives our sins and teaches us how to not let our sins define us. But sin and pain are not the same thing; at least that's not how I see it. So much of our earthly existence is defined by sorrowful experiences, but not all is caused by our own sins—if we refuse to acknowledge that, we're denying a part of our humanity, and we're selling the miracle of redemption short.

    This is a great reminder even though it's pretty uncomfortable.

    1. Great minds think alike, haha. No, but great points. I definitely agree it's important to differentiate between "sin" and "pain". And I'm very interested in *why* Christ's wounds remained after his resurrection. There's a lesson there for us related to redemption. I don't think redemption is the sort of "clean slate" with respect to pain that a lot of Christians imagine it to be. We've heard to expect trials and burdens but no one has taught us to sit with the pain (and not expect it to roll off us), at least in my experience. I think that embrace is what Paul was talking about for his rejoicing in hardship.

  3. Loved it Sam. It made me cry. Did my Mom mention this is the topic of her dissertation? Have you heard the term theodicy? Its a great term.

    1. Wow! I hope it's okay to take that as a huge compliment. I can't say anyone has ever said that to me.
      I think your mother did talk briefly about her dissertation. I owe her an email. And I remember studying theodicy in the context of Leibnitz during one of my philosophy courses but can't recall much more than that. We should talk sometime about the problem of pain/evil.