Pain is both one of God’s great gifts and a theological problem.
Pain is what makes us stop walking and take stones from our shoes before they damage our feet. It’s what takes us to the doctor before a problem becomes too serious. And the fear of pain is often what stops us doing really stupid things. Pain is one of God’s precious gifts and without it we would very soon be ill, injured … or dead. But pain is also sometimes what disables us, what keeps us awake at night and what gets between us and our lives. And pain is a theological problem.
It is not always possible to point to the source of pain, but sometimes it is. It can be the result of our own personal sin, the sin of another person that has impacted on us or it can be more generally due to our fallen nature and the sin-sick world in which we live. I have always experienced discomfort in walking, and that became more serious and disabling nearly 30 years ago. Since then I’ve lived with varying degrees of pain and walked with the aid of crutches.
Having to prioritise makes us look for life’s blessings and plan how best to enjoy and use them.
Pain concentrates the mind, and those who live with pain (everyone does at some point, and others do for much of the time) have to learn to work out their priorities. We do that in big things. The woman who suffers severe back pain makes plans to have a rest at some point during the day of her daughter’s wedding in order to enjoy that great family occasion. The man who is plagued by migraine headaches is especially careful what he eats and does on the day before an important meeting at work.
Having to prioritise makes us look for life’s blessings and plan how best to enjoy and use them. Christians in pain have to learn to prioritise day by day, and that gives them the opportunity to look for and recognise their blessings (Heb. 12:1). I keep a blessings book in which I record little and big blessings; sometimes I read it just to encourage myself. Our grandmothers were right to teach us to “count our blessings, name them one by one”.
How we react to what happens to us makes us what we are. A story is told of a Jewish man in a concentration camp. Terrible things were done to him and to his loved ones. His response was, “You can choose what you do to me and mine, but I will choose how I react.”
There will be those among them who use pain to make them the centre of attention and those who use their pain to deflect attention from themselves.
While at first pain does seem to run our lives, we very soon come to a point when we need to choose how we react to it. And it is a choice. If that’s where you are at, just look around at some of those who you know live with pain. There will be those among them who use pain to make them the centre of attention and those who use their pain to deflect attention from themselves. The first have few friends and the second have many. The first focus inside themselves; the second focus outwards and upwards. We each have to make that choice for ourselves.
When we are under pressure (and pain certainly counts as pressure) the first thing to go is our creativity. We’re in pain so the roses don’t get pruned. It’s sore when we stand for a long time so we eat microwave meals. Sitting is awkward so I’ll buy a card rather than make one.
But we reflect the image of God when we are being creative. Our first parents were gardeners and what can be more creative than that? When we are in pain, if we find ways in which we can be creative, however small, we will feel better because we will more closely reflect God.
Many years ago a young woman visited me. She was going through a tough time. As she left she said, “I’ll go home and throw a meal together.” I talked for a few minutes about creativity and then she left. Later she phoned. “Thanks so much,” she said. “I made the same meal I was going to make but I put it on the plates nicely and put a flower on the table. The kids thought they were having a party and we had a great time.” The devil will use pain to steal our God-given creativity if we give him half a chance.
“Until Christ comes or calls it is our lot in life to experience pain. When it is, we need to remember that He has done so before us.”
It is my settled view that the pain and disability I have lived with for many years has been the means of opening doors to people’s minds and hearts in a way that nothing else could possibly have done. I walk with the use of crutches and people can see I have a problem. Somehow that gives them permission to talk about their problems, to be real about their lives. It is only after I became disabled that I started writing biographies because those whose stories I have written have graciously shared their lives, and their pain, with me.
Living with pain is not fun; nobody would choose to do it, and certainly nobody would choose to live with intransigent pain that comes and forgets to go away. But even those Christians for whom that is life have the sure and certain hope that their pain will come to an end. Scripture tells us that God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Of course, we look forward to heaven in order to see our Saviour face to face, but there is absolutely nothing wrong in also looking forward to being pain-free. We look forward to human promises being fulfilled; surely we can look forward to that great and wonderful day when God’s promises will all be fulfilled. Just think what it will be like: “He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven” (Psalm 107:29-30).
Until Christ comes or calls it is our lot in life to experience pain. When it is, we need to remember that He has done so before us. When the boy Jesus ran and fell, the skin came off His knees and He bled. When His friend Lazarus died, He felt the pain of bereavement along with His anger against death, and He wept.
On the cross our Lord and Saviour went through such pains as we cannot imagine. So, when we are called to go through pain of whatever kind, we know that He remembers and He understands.
When His mother and brothers thought He was out of his mind, Jesus knew the pain of being misunderstood by His nearest and dearest. In Gethsemane He underwent the pain of anticipating the horrors to come and the agony of being abandoned by His friends. On the cross our Lord and Saviour went through such pains as we cannot imagine. So, when we are called to go through pain of whatever kind, we know that He remembers and He understands.
The only pain of which He has no understanding is the pain of guilt, and that pain which He does not know personally, He offers to remove completely through His substitutionary death at Calvary.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8: 28).
Scottish author Irene Howat’s books include Pain, my Companion. Her latest venture is an on-line story club for seven to 13-years-olds, which can be found at http://www.story-a-month-club.org.uk
First Published in the Autumn 2014 Edition