"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.
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.