Pain, is of course a part of life for any fragile, mortal creature. And of course there are many different kinds of pain— physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. Some people spend their entire lives seeking pleasure and trying to avoid pain. On the other end of the spectrum are people like those whom Sting talked about in his song ‘The King of Pain’. Some people really believe ‘no pain no gain’ in a literal sense and seek it out as a path to higher consciousness, or transcendence, or etc. And then there are those like Mary Baker Eddy who, despite dealing with all kinds of physical ailments, was in denial about the reality of physical pain and suggested that pain was mainly a mental problem, and the solution ‘mind over matter’. In other words, if you ignore it, or say it isn’t real, then you can get beyond it. In short, if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. Some even have sought out pain for very specific Christological reasons thinking: 1) it will make me more Christ like; or 2) it will mortify my sins if I beat my body (which is not what Paul was talking about when he discussing the mortification of the flesh, by which he meant dousing sinful inclinations, not physically abusing yourself); 3) there is the romanticizing of pain, and passion mysticism, even to the extent of longing to have the stigmata on one’s own flesh. Modern people may well be forgiven for finding some of this rather morbid and masochistic rather than pious. And then of course in Christian circles there are those all too ready to suggest that if you are suffering, or are sick, it’s because you don’t have enough faith, or don’t believe in healing or etc. So what sort of approach to pain should Christians have anyway? In this post I want to focus on several things, and in particular on what Paul says in 2 Cor. 12.1-10.
In the first place, Christians cannot be people who are in denial about the reality of pain. We are not called to be followers of Mary Baker Eddy, or for that matter Stoicism. Physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual pain are all a part of our reality, and it does no good to deny their reality. It does not help when such things impinge on you unbidden and you ignore them. Indeed, C.S. Lewis once said that pain (see his The Problem of Pain) was sometimes God’s megaphone to get our attention. I would say that physical pain within the body (not caused by an accident or some other external force) is indeed God’s early warning system that something is wrong and should be attended to. Pain in itself can be a good thing for instance when it comes to nerve endings in our fingers. Imagine if children had no pain censors in their hands when their curiosity is peaked by a nearby flame and they seek to stick their hand on it or in it. We’d have more children with burned up or burned off hands. Fortunately, God did not make us that way. Pain in itself is not an inherent good, any more than the avoidance of all pain is an inherent good thing, but God can certainly use pain for good, exhibit A of course being Jesus’ death on the cross.
In the second place, there is nothing particularly pious or noble about seeking out pain for no good reason, and there is something positively wicked about inflicting pain on others, especially the innocent and the vulnerable. Isis, are you listening? You are not on a mission from God, you are on a mission from the Devil.
In the third place, there is something inscrutable about a lot of pain and suffering. Read Job. Easy pat answers as to why this person suffered and that one didn’t simply do not come to grips with the complexity of this issue. And especially unhelpful are theologies that suggest God is a sadist who has destined some people from before the foundations of the universe to suffer eternally.
It is interesting to me that when Jesus addressed the issues of the supposed connection between sin and suffering, he denied that one could simply decide who were the worst sinners by how much they have suffered. Re-read John 9’s beginnings where Jesus denies that it was because either the blind man or his parents sinned that he was blind, but that God would use the blindness as an occasion to display his glory. Or look at Lk. 13 where Jesus, when asked whether the tower of Siloam fell on those nearby because they were worse sinners than others, denied it.
There is sometimes some correlation between sin and sickness and suffering of course. Sexual immorality often leads to sexually transmitted diseases. God did program into reality a certain degree of moral causality to try and help us make wise decisions in life. But there is not always a one to one correlation that can be made between sin and sickness or sin and suffering. Some of the most devout Christians in all of history have suffered mightily and died prematurely, and some of the most wicked persons ever have lived a largely pain-free life into old age. In short, there have been a lot of bad sermons preaching on suffering and pain because pat answers or trite answers have been given to the problem, and frankly we have no right to belittle someone else’s suffering, even when it comes to suffering caused by the passing of a Christian loved one.
So let’s consider now 2 Cor. 12 for a few moments. Paul says he has a ‘stake in the flesh’ which he calls a messenger sent from Satan. Notice he doesn’t say it’s a messenger or message sent from God. God allowed Satan to do this to Paul, but he did not directly order it or cause it. But this is where it gets really interesting. Paul says he prayed earnestly, three times to have this physical pain in his flesh removed, but God’s answer to that prayers was not ‘sure, in a minute’ or ‘I’ll get right on that’. Instead, quite unexpectedly God said ‘No, I’m going to let you keep that pain, because my power is made perfect in your weakness and my grace is sufficient for you’.
Paul attributes a motive for this— he says the stake had probably come to him as a sort of humbling device, to keep him from getting too egocentric or elated about his dramatic visionary experiences. Among other things, this means that it is not always God’s will that we be healed of what ails us. It also means that you can have a faith that moves mountains, but if God says ‘no dice’, then there isn’t going to be healing. It is not our faith that really heals us, it is God who does this, and God sometimes says no. And by the way, No, is a frequent divine answer to prayer, not least because we often don’t know how to pray aright. Even Paul got the ‘no’ response at times.
Certain kinds of Christian theologies of healing, and name it and claim it or ‘word of faith’ simply do not pass the test of the exegetical evidence in Scripture. What Scripture suggests is that sometimes healing in this life is God’s plan, and sometimes it is not. And the reasons it is not always God’s plan for this life are severalfold: 1) this life is just the antechamber to eternity and God has no desire to endlessly prop up a fallen mortal body. He’s all about the coming resurrection body; 2) God knows far better than we do when he can better use us with our infirmities or without them, and 3) he knows far better than we do when those infirmities are more likely to draw us closer to God, or drive us away from him. In Paul’s case, his ‘stake in the flesh’ (which I think has to do with his eye troubles, see Gal. 4.13-15), helped drive Paul into the arms of Jesus regularly, perhaps every day, and also served as a deflation devise, lest Paul become too puffed up about his spiritual experiences.
There is after all a mystery to pain when you believe in a loving God who even sent his Son to die for us. It’s a mystery that should not be trivialized by trite answers to ‘why we suffer’, nor is it one which we should just ignore or try to get beyond. This is so because suffering in some cases has to do with love. Indeed, it was the prince of love who said ‘greater love has no one than he lay down his life for his friends’. Suffering, willingly taken on for the sake of others (not as some sort of self-improvement schema or masochistic attempt to deal with besetting sins), is seen to be the highest expression of love of neighbor, love of God, love of fellow believers, love of friends.
Think on these things.