christianity philosophy theology

pain bears a message

This post over at ‘Just Thomism‘ is short, sweet and very thought-provoking.

I’m thankful for pain. Not generally at the moment I experience it, but when I think about it, yes I’m glad (for example) that my body tells me when I’m burning my hand on the stove-top. It’s a painful message that my body sends, but it’s one I desperately need to hear.

The idea of a pain-less universe seems appealing to many. No human, animal, plant or particle suffering. But we live in a world where tragedies happen – and often. We can see them as mere, meaningless phenomenon, or we can allow them to be seen as reminders that things are not supposed to be like that, and motivators to do what we can about it.

The genocide in Darfur is senseless. It is a tragedy with a capital T. Things are not supposed to be like that. What can we do about it?

Some friends of mine are in a band called ‘The Glory Sea‘, and their song ‘Phoenix’ has these lyrics that come to mind… (often)

“Pain bears a message. Let’s hear what it has to say.”

15 replies on “pain bears a message”

“…we can allow them to be seen as reminders that things are not supposed to be like that…”

What a great observation. Even as I watch my father-in-law and see the pain he is going through while mourning the loss of his wife; even though it is a natural part of mourning…”things are not supposed to be like that…”

I can’t imagine what he is going through. I can’t imagine how I would deal with the loss of my wife or one of my kids. I know that he believes that Shirley is safe in the arms of God and yet “the man” (the flesh) hurts.

However, sometimes trusting God hurts…and I think that sometimes it is supposed to be like that.

Have you read Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey? There’s a good chapter on the work of Dr Paul Brand and how important pain is in everyday life.

I can understand that physical pain as a warning system is a necessary and useful thing. But I wouldn’t extend that to all tragedies. Sure pain can bring a message – but that message isn’t always positive and motivating. In relation to Darfur: – “It is a tragedy with a capital T. Things are not supposed to be like that. What can we do about it?” That is fine as a message for an observer but what of those oppressed children and women experiencing the pain firsthand and who can’t do anything about it? What if trying to end pain only causes them more pain or death? How is it ‘purposeful for them?

And what of the pain of childbirth (hope wife doesn’t read this Dale ; )) – does it need to be so painful?(Isn’t there something in the Bible about that?) Or is it only so painful because of where the human form is evolution wise?

John, sorry to read of your father in law’s grief – part of loving others is the risk of loss and grief – however I do agree with the saying ‘ it is better to love and to hurt than not to love at all.’
“However, sometimes trusting God hurts…and I think that sometimes it is supposed to be like that.” Are you saying that God allows suffering because it teaches us stuff”?

Thanks. Pain is quite a strange thing. When you say it’s ‘supposed’ to hurt sometimes, different people will hear that in very different ways depending on their backgrounds… (more below in response to Jack) Thanks for sharing the example with your father-in-law… May he know the ‘peace which passes all understanding’.

I really appreciate Phillip Yancey, though I’ve not read that one. Di (my wife) has read ‘where is God when it hurts’, however, and mentioned some very similar sounding content. Everything I’ve seen from Yancey convinces me that he’s quite a seasoned dude – honest and real. I like that.

Excellent and probing questions as usual! :)
The finger/stove analogy was an analogy – and all analogies have their weak points. Many times (most?), we aren’t in a position to ‘get the message’ that pain can bring. Kinda like the finger/stove thing. How often do we stop and think “Hey, I’m actually glad that I felt pain there! If I hadn’t…” ??? If you’re like me, not very often. I generally think, “Ouch! Geez that hurt!”
I’m trying very hard not to be trite and ho-hum about real pain, suffering and loss. We Christians are all-too-quick to offer a thumbs up and a bible verse. The Psalms (not to mention Lamentations!) is full of plenty of wailing, and Jesus even wept when he was about to raise Lazarus. I’m most certainly not trying to lay out some kind of methodological tool by which we can systematically calculate the ‘purposefulness’ of each and every case of pain. There are many different kinds of pain. Some we bring on ourselves (12 beers in rapid succesion = stomach empties itself; not fun). Some is the fault of others (Darfur). Much of it ‘just is’ (childbirth, etc.).
The thing that resonated with me about the post I linked to was the simplicity of it. Life is pain (to quote Westley from ‘The Princess Bride’, who goes on to say ‘..anyone who tells you differently is selling something.’ – great line). Sometimes we have to just ‘sit with’ the pain and remind ourselves ‘this, too shall pass’, other times we can be deeply (even humorously) grateful that we felt ‘just enough’ pain to wake us up, other times (particularly when it’s others suffering – like the Darfur situation), seeing others in pain spurs us to action.

Thanks for elaborating on that Dale, wise words I think. I guess I was reacting to a view I’ve come across from a lot from Christians that suffering is a painful but God-given blessing in disguise. Assuming there is a God, I wonder whether:
a) painful events are part of God’s plan for us, because we learn from them, or
b) God grieves for his children and dislikes these events as much as we do but can use painful events to bring about good (kinda opportunistic), or
c) pain is just part of the natural system that is life and death on earth and God doesn’t interfere.

Thanks Jack,
The “painful disguised blessing” thing is interesting. Different Christians might be meaning different things when they use such language. I certainly don’t affirm a cheap view that says, “It’s not really painful, it’s a blessing – surprise! See how happy you are now?” The faith tradition seen in Scripture certainly doesn’t resort to that either.
As for your a, b and c:
For a), it can be understood differently, depending on how one understands ‘plan’…
For b), I’d want to know what you mean by ‘kinda opportunistic’…
For c), it sounds like standard deism (‘God doesn’t interfere’).

In some sense, I’d have to say that a) pain is ‘part of God’s plan’ in that God knows full well the History of the Universe will involve suffering, chaos and sadness (but also – interestingly [and often forgotten] – ecstasy, order and happiness), and allows it to go forward.
Also, I think b) is very strong in that God is grieved when we suffer. Jesus, then, is seen as the embodiment/enactment in history of God’s eternal disposition. Christ has been (beautifully, in my view) described as taking the world’s anquish, pain, misery and suffering – and even death itself – and bearing it, as it were, on his shoulders. In the person and work of Jesus Christ, then, God ‘takes death into himself’. Various systematic theologians have argued that ‘God cannot suffer’, for they feel that this would mean that God could be ‘changed’ or ‘affected’. But I agree with Jurgen Moltmann ( ‘The Crucified God’ ) that the picture of God in Christ is precisely a picture of a God who suffers with us. I’m rambling… :)
When it comes to c), I’d want to get behind the idea of ‘interfering’.

OK then, off to bed soon… :)


A supplementary comment/question…

We often ask “how could God allow all of the suffering/pain/failure/etc. that happens?”

But we fail to ask “how could God allow all of the bliss/happiness/success/etc. that happens?”

Why do we ask how God could allow the ‘negative’ things, and not ask how God could allow the ‘positive’ things?

What kind of reality are we wanting? One where nobody stubs their toe (or when they do it doesn’t hurt) and where everyone gets the job they apply for (or a better paying one)???

Why do we sometimes give credit to God for the positive things (“Thanks for that carpark, God!”), but assume he had no hand in the bad stuff? Is God culpable for natural disaster?

Huge implications for how we answer this question.

A good and powerful message. Pain is all too often seen as pointless and this leads to despair. But to know that there is a hope of a painless existence with Christ is the ultimate in comfort.

I realise I’m pushing my own barrow here but pain and suffering seem to exactly match a combination of the consequences of our actions or just pure random dumb luck.

When we take human actions out of the equation the same random bad luck seems to have been happening to other species for over 3,000,000,000 years and to think that there is some kind of intend behind it seems narrow-minded. The same kind of narrow-mindedness that insisted that the earth was at the centre of the universe puts us at the centre of intent and can’t accept that bad things can happen for absolutely no reason at all.

Perhaps that’s not as comforting a thought as others have to offer but from what I can see it maps out more accurately with what we can observe in the world and as I value truth over self-delusion I think it’s a far better explanation for suffering. And, for me, there is some comfort in that.

So how do you answer it? :)

Yes, Damian, we’ve all got our barrows. This discussion of pain certainly isn’t intended to be a proof for God’s existence. Among other things, I think it point to the idea that suffering and pain don’t contradict God any more than joy and ecstasy do.
I see what you mean about the apparent ‘narrow-minded’ forcus on ‘us’ being the centre of the universe. But for Christians, we believe that the God of the entire universe incarnated himself as one of ‘us’ (affirming not only ‘us’, of course, but all creation itself). And it’s not crazy to believe that the only things in the universe (that we know of anyway) that ponder/wonder/philosophise about their own existence might have some kind of significance. Again, not trying to ‘prove’ anything to you, just trying to address -in part- what you might see as an over-human focus.
One thing we both agree on, I trust, is that because we humans have the most ability/capacity, we also have the most responsibility of any things in the cosmos (that we know of)… :)

Thanks for taking the time to address some of my questions Dale

“Why do we ask how God could allow the ‘negative’ things, and not ask how God could allow the ‘positive’ things?”

For me, I think this comes back to God being a ‘father’ and mankind His children and God being a loving God. We would say – how could that parent stand by and allow their child to be abused rather then – how could that parent stand by and allow that child to play in the park. A parent loves their children and even though their children are far from perfect, if they have the power to stop their children suffering- they do. Obviously I wouldnt want to remove all pain from my kids lives as some pain helps them to learn – eg don’t pick up bees. But if my children were diseased and starving to death despite all their best efforts and I had the power to make rain fall and the crops grow – well I’d do so. And that leads to the ‘interfering’ thing – can/does God act supernaturally to answer a prayer for something like food and make it rain for example. Or cure someone of a disease. Or make a carpark appear! If not, why do folk pray for these things?
Btw – by opportunistic – I was meaning that when something bad happened to someone that God could use this as a time to show them things, to ‘speak’to them, comfort them etc BUT that God did not plan the bad event or supernaturally make it happen for this reason, rather He just used it.

Good questions. The Father analogy is a good one – well used by Jesus. I’ve been blessed enough to have a good father, and I also look forward to being a father soon! (well, in a way I already am – the little person just isn’t born yet)… :)
I’ve gotta be honest, I can’t (and wouldn’t bother trying to!) explain if/how or why/why-not God should/shouldn’t ‘intervene’ (whether by using natural events or by super-ceding nature, etc.) in this/that circumstance…
I do believe God is ‘with’ us in our pain/suffering (in different ways, depending on what kind of pain/suffering it is). For me, while I do think it is right and good (and as natural as breathing) to pray to God for help, etc. from this or that situation; I think part of faith maturing is when you can say, “Lord, use whatever circumstances that come my way to shape, mold, teach and mature me, to make me loving, patient, understanding, humble and wise – even if it hurts sometimes.” I don’t demand that God ‘interferes’, partly because I believe He is continually active – not in a flat, even-Steven, pantheistic sense, but in a personal sense.
Which brings me back to the ‘Father’ thing. It seems to me that good Fathers have to let their children make their own way eventually. For example, when I started making my own money, my Dad allowed me to make various kinds of mistakes in mis-spending it on stuff I didn’t need. To make the analogy even more relevant, imagine a father whose son is moved out on his own, and then later has lost his job and doesn’t have $$ for food/rent. He still owns a good car, an ipod and heaps of expensive clothing, however; so the Dad, being a wise father, doesn’t bail him out with a room, bed and money, because he loves his son and wants him to learn the hard lesson about life… So the son has to stay a few humble and embarrassing nights at the local shelter, sell his ipod, trade his car for a cheaper one, and work at a less-than-appealing position, etc. for a while. The son learns humility and responsibility, etc.
Yes, that doesn’t cover ‘natural disasters’, I know. But there is a point where we are responsible as humans for doing the best we can in the world we live in. For example, when tens of thousands of people die when an earthquake knocks down some poorly designed/constructed mass-dwellings in south america, that’s not only a ‘natural disaster’, but also a moral one. We have technology/ability to avoid such housing situations; it’s just not being shared with those who need it. Same with hunger and the needless violence in (for example) Darfur. Yes, droughts make things tight, but there’s enough food to share for everyone. We can do it right – we’re just not doing it.
The earth works the way it works. As N.T. Wright has said, “…tectonic plates have to do what tectonic plates have to do…”, tides flow and make waves, and the wind blows as it needs to. All of these (plates, waves, wind), I understand, enable us to have a rich biosphere, etc. But plate-shifting also causes destruction… Waves (or just standing water sometimes!) drown people… Wind gusts blow people off of edges of roofs… (My ramble-detector is screaming, but I’m gonna keep going…)
For me, the real ‘problem’ is not so much with earthquakes and the like, but with humans failing to be all they can be… And that’s not just evil corporations and genocidal governments – that’s each and every one of us.
Unlike what the toxic sludge called ‘advertising’ would have us think, life isn’t about ‘me’ being ‘happy’; and sometimes the thing we need most is a message from God reminding us of that. I think God can use all kinds of events and circumstances – yes, even painful ones at times – to send the message we need to hear. And yes, part of getting the message is whether or not we are willing to hear it. Much of the western lifestyle is so fast-paced, multi-tasking and stressful – we don’t get to just slow down and reflect. Our busy-ness (not to mention selfishness) can/does, perhaps, prevent or delay the message…
But, I can’t end this comment there… Life isn’t so simple as that. While I do think that we generally do just need to grow up and stop thinking life is about us, this does not mean that I presume to fully understand all suffering/pain – let alone fully understand God’s ways… It just doesn’t settle into nice little boxes… and I don’t presume it should. My perspective is SO limited compared to the Father’s… Compared to Him, I’m quite sure my grasp of things is like a swaddling baby! And that’s not a cop-out, either; that’s just how it works with an infinite God and finite humans.
(sorry so long!)

Thanks for that well thought out response Dale and don’t worry about the ramble detector – I don’t mind ramble. Your view makes more sense to me than many others I’ve heard, it doesnt answer everything but I prefer that to a blanket “because that’s the way God wants it”answer. I liked the bit about prayer – I used to dread prayers in a carecell group I was once in- as you would speak aloud one by one and sometimes you’d be asked to pray for the next person and I always felt a pressure to pray for God to intervene in ways I didnt even think He could/would.
I think for me too its hard to just accept that God knows way more than us and so that’s that, there’s things you just cant understand. Its not so much an arrogance but just that I like to ‘get’ things – don’t you find it hard to devote your life to a God you can’t hope to really understand? With regard to the suffering issue, for example, I don’t understand a God in the OT who could command the death of first born sons. I suppose its like when you marry someone thou – you don’t fully know them and probably never do/can – but you commit to the relationship anyway cos you love them and trust that they love you. I think its the latter trust bit that I lack in relation to God, but hey now I’m rambling and answering my own questions! : )

P.S “well, in a way I already am – the little person just isn’t born yet” – more than in a way mate – most definitely! Yeh!

Cheers Jack,
I, too, like to ‘get’ things, so I can totally relate. For me, it seems perfectly logical, reasonable and to be expected, however, that God would be incomprehensible.
That being said, a very important and key thing needs to be said: I believe in the God revealed in the birth, life/teaching, death, resurrection and spirit of Jesus. The person, teaching, and work of Jesus bring the entire Scripture to its climactic fulfillment. Whatever we make of the pictures of God painted by OT writers (and they develop as it progresses), Jesus reveals who God truly is. As John’s gospel beautifully puts it, ‘he explained Him’ – that is, Jesus is (Colossians 1) the ‘image of the invisible God’. The lifestyle, the character, the forgiveness, the teaching, the wisdom, the humanity and the love of Jesus reflect – completely – what God is like.
I try not to think of ‘understanding God’ in terms of mental assent to a long list of ‘knowable facts’ which are ‘correct’ concerning God… to ‘understand’ God is to ‘know’ God (in a relational sense, not a ‘fact knowing’ sense), and to ‘know’ God is to ‘know’ Jesus.
And yes, you’re spot on, this business of ‘knowing’ Jesus (and thereby knowing God) is very much like marrying someone. You know enough about them (though of course not everything!) to trust them.
Hope this helps!

Comments are closed.