The Problem of Pain & Suffering

When pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all. ~ C. S. Lewis

photo by Liza Summer

As we finally begin to welcome a few clear, crisp days of autumn in our area, my personal pain level rises as the temperatures lower. It’s nothing new; fibromyalgia and arthritis don’t like cooler temperatures, despite my love for this season. The majority of us take pain as a personal insult, especially when it becomes chronic. Pain, whether physical or mental, is a problem.

An interruption…and definitely not on the schedule.

There would be various answers if you were to interview a group of people who live with chronic pain or ongoing mental anguish. However, the majority would likely tell you that this type of pain is a game-changer,

a dream-thief,

and a life-stealer.

Unfortunately, for 20.5% of Americans – or 50.2 million people, pain is a daily reality.

photo by Ron Lach

Effects of Chronic Pain

Many studies have shown the far-reaching effects of chronic pain on the body, brain and emotions.

Sadly, chronic pain is often associated with other health conditions such as anxiety and depression, resulting in a low health-related quality of life.

Living with daily pain is physically and emotionally stressful. Chronic stress is known to change the levels of stress hormones and neurochemicals found within your brain and nervous system; these can affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Disrupting your body’s balance of these chemicals can bring on depression in some people.

photo by Cottonbro

Chronic pain can also have long-lasting effects on the brain.

When you have acute pain, your symptoms stop when your injury heals. This happens naturally because your peripheral nervous system stops sending pain signals to your spinal cord and brain.

If you have chronic pain, however, your pain receptors continue firing. With all of the constant messaging, your brain becomes overwhelmed, causing changes in both emotional and cognitive areas of your brain:

  • thalamus remains open to keep routing the pain signals, which can lead to more intense and heightened feelings of discomfort.
  • The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain responsible for managing social behaviors, personality, and emotions. When it experiences excessive activity in response to chronic pain signals, neurons in this region can die, causing this part of your brain to shrink. As a result, you can experience higher states of anxiety, fear, and worry as your prefrontal cortex becomes unable to manage these emotions properly.
  • Your hippocampus is a small structure in your brain responsible for forming new memories, learning, and emotion. Living with long-term pain can shrink this important area, causing increased anxiety and problems with your memory and learning.

Consequently, pain like this can be equated with a deep, dark hole of physical and emotional darkness.

photo by Liza Summer

Emotional Fall-Out

As mentioned earlier, people who live with daily pain, especially severe pain, are highly susceptible to anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. In fact, nearly half of the people who see doctors for chronic pain report emotional health problems, as well. Therefore, it is extremely important to address these issues as soon as they arise.

Remember that you are not atypical, oversensitive, or weak for experiencing emotional distress because of pain. These are normal, reasonable responses to physical suffering and its associated limitations.

It’s a vicious cycle. Hurting people see their doctors for pain relief, but fail to tell them of their depression. The undiagnosed depression can lead to lack of appetite, sleeplessness, lack of energy, which all make the pain worse. And so the cycle goes.

Be completely honest with your doctors, my friends. Get ALL the help and relief you need.

Another Perspective of Pain & Suffering

But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

C. S. Lewis, The Problem Of Pain, p. 83

Truly, when our lives are running seamlessly, we have little need of God. Oh, if we’re practicing Christians, we likely go through the rituals and routines of Christianity, but when we are satisfied with our lives, it’s secretly difficult to think that there is something to surrender to God, isn’t it?

If the first and lowest operation of pain shatters the illusion that all is well, the second shatters the illusion that what we have, whether good or bad in itself, is our own and enough for us. Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well with us. We “have all we want” is a terrible saying when “all” does not include God. We find God an interruption. As St. Augustine says somewhere, “God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full…”

C. S. Lewis, The Problem Of Pain, p. 85

At times, the upside-down kingdom of heaven is difficult for us to grasp. In order to shatter our illusion of self-sufficiency, our Father is willing to allow pain into our lives, for it is indeed a bugle call. Notice that I said allow, not cause because there is a vast difference.

photo by Steven Arenas

Why Pain & Suffering?

When I worked as a hospital chaplain, I was often asked the “Why” question: Why did God let this happen to my loved one?

I don’t possess existential answers for individual situations, but I do know this with all my being. When sin entered the world in Genesis, Adam opened the door to suffering and death for all of mankind.

Our Father doesn’t cause the pain – that is a consequence of the Fall – but He will use it at times. Furthermore, Jesus suffered and died that He might know personally what we endure. He, therefore, is able to walk with us and comfort us as no other can. When we find ourselves neediest, we are more willing to seek Him.

photo by Karolina Grabowski

Pain, Suffering, and Our View of God

For centuries, non-Christians have used suffering and evil as their argument against a loving God, and Christianity in general. In fact, pastor and author Tim Keller said:

At the heart of why people disbelieve and believe in God, of why people decline and grow in character, of how God becomes less real and more real to us—is suffering.

One common misconception is that our suffering is related to personal sin. This is called retribution theology. However, this theology was for those living under the Mosaic Law, not for those living under the new covenant. Moreover, Jesus corrected this mistaken theology several times, (see John 9 as an example.)

Writer and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright asserts that there are no simple answers to why there is evil and suffering in the world. In his book, Evil and the Justice of God, Wright tells us:

…the Old Testament tells us first that the problem of evil begins in our hearts, second that God is sovereign and there is no tidy philosophical answer for it, and third, that God will resolve the problem of evil through his own intervention.

In addition, Wright says the New Testament teaches us:

The New Testament shares the story of a God who does not just stand back from evil, but who intervenes. And yet his intervention isn’t as we might expect. Jesus heals those broken by evil, he seeks out sinners, he confronts those who believe they are righteous…The cross defeats evil, not because it defeats something out there, but because it defeats the grip of evil and death in our own hearts.

I can recall so many instances in the New Testament when Jesus entered into the suffering of the people and comforted or healed someone. He isn’t a God who stands back from us in our suffering and pain.

God defeated evil and suffering through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He will remove evil and suffering totally from our future world, (see Revelation 21-22,) when every tear will be wiped from our eyes forever. That is our future and our hope.

For now, He is Immanuel, God with us – through every trial, in every painful day, even on days when we wonder if life is worth living…

God. is. with. us.