Pain is Inevitable; Suffering is Optional

Pain is Inevitable; Suffering is Optional April 25, 2024

“Pain is inevitable,” said a friend in A.A., “but suffering is optional.”  Pain is sensation. Suffering is your attitude towards pain.

Woman in tank top crying, wiping red nose with back of wrist. Eyes looking upwards.
Image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay

I work with people who struggle with addiction. I have family and friends in recovery. So, I’ve learned that many of the slogans I took for granted come from twelve-step programs. “One day at a time.”  “Easy does it.”  “Live and let live.”  “First things first.”  But this new one haunted me… “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”

 

Pain is Inevitable

Nobody goes through life without pain.  Whether that’s physical, psychological, spiritual, or emotional, everyone experiences pain.  From the moment we’re slapped on the butt at our birth, everyone’s life has some pain.

Pain warns us of danger to our bodies.  Without it, we could die.  Robert Wadlow, the tallest person on earth (at one time) passed away from a simple injury to the sole of his foot.  Because of his immense height, he lived with circulation issues that prevented him from feeling the pain in his extremities.  The small injury became an infection that eventually killed him.  Pain could have informed him of the injury so that he could get medical treatment, thereby saving him from infection and death.  Physical pain has its purpose.

Mental, emotional, and spiritual pain has its purpose as well.  It alerts us to injustice, offense, and tragedy. It prompts us to work for justice, to heal offense, and to avert further tragedy. Without mental, emotional, and spiritual pain, we would be unaware of our need for healing.

 

Suffering is Optional

While pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. Pain stems from something done to me, but suffering is from something I do to myself.  The question is how I will handle my pain when it happens. Students in child birthing classes are taught breathing techniques so that they can let the pain go through their bodies without holding onto it.

This works with physical pain, but it works with mental, spiritual, and emotional pain as well.  When I breathe intentionally in meditation and prayer, I acknowledge the pain and let it pass.  If I clench up, if I resist, if I allow the pain to dominate me, then I turn my hurt into suffering.  In this way, I understand that suffering is no longer a synonym for pain, but an unhealthy focus on my hurt.

 

Detaching from Pain

You might say, “I can’t simply detach from my pain and pretend it isn’t there!”  Well, you’re right. But you can detach from ownership of your pain.  During the worst moments in my life, I could repeat a personal mantra like, “This pain isn’t about me.”  Or “I’m not going to dwell on this.”  Or “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”  Or “This too shall pass.”  By detaching from pain, I don’t deny its existence, I refuse to let it own, define, or control me. Romans 5:3-5 says:

“We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.” 

Because of God’s love, we have the Holy Spirit to help us deal with our pain. This prevents our hurt from becoming suffering.  That same Spirit helps to transform pain into endurance, character, and hope.

 

Believer

Imagine Dragons‘ song, “Believer” begins with the A.A. slogan, “First things first,” and continues to discuss the purpose of pain.  Addressing Pain as if Pain is a person, the song says, “Don’t you tell me what you think that I could be/I’m the one at the sail, I’m the master of my sea.”  In other words, pain doesn’t get to define me.  The singer continues to describe how he was broken from a young age, but he could sing his message to the masses. His pain made him a believer.

Pain may break him down but it also builds him up and calls him to prayer.  In this hateful process, his spirit turns to a dove.  His pain once caused him to choke, like breathing ashes. Yet, instead of drowning, his spirit broke open and pain made him a believer.  In the end, he says, “Oh, let the bullets fly, oh, let them rain/my life, my love, my drive, it came from/Pain.”  For Imagine Dragons, pain is inevitable. But suffering is optional.

One Day at a Time

Suffering is what you do when you allow your pain to define you, and when you allow it to rule you.  It forgets the hope that a new life will come through the birth pangs. Suffering but immerses itself in the current agony.  It focuses on tragedy, instead of moving through the pain to the triumph on the other side.  Don’t get me wrong—I’m not belittling your very legitimate pain.  But God’s Spirit is there to lift you through that pain and turn your spirit into a dove.  I hope you will give God your pain, detach yourself from it, and let that grace transform it—one day at a time.

 

For related reading, check out my other articles:

About Gregory T. Smith
I live in the beautiful Fraser Valley of British Columbia and work in northern Washington State as a behavioral health specialist with people experiencing homelessness and those who are overly involved in the criminal justice system. Before that, I spent over a quarter-century as lead pastor of several Virginia churches. My newspaper column, “Spirit and Truth” ran in Virginia newspapers for fifteen years. I am one of fourteen contributing authors of the Patheos/Quoir Publishing book “Sitting in the Shade of another Tree: What We Learn by Listening to Other Faiths.” I hold a degree in Religious Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University, and also studied at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. My wife Christina and I have seven children between us, and we are still collecting grandchildren. You can read more about the author here.
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