The Beauty of Pain. Or, "Why I Stopped Whining" (well, most of the time).

Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds
— James 1:2

One of the most frequently asked questions I’ve heard over my career is, “Why does a loving God allow pain?” When I was younger I simply scratched my head and even wondered the same. But now, perhaps due to age or mileage, I have a different response. Recently and frequently this question has been asked through a cascade of tears and emotions due to tragedy. Most of the time the question is without words because I can see it in their eyes. My heart truly aches for those harassed by pain.

I believe God allows pain, both emotional and physical, for several reasons, three of which I want to explore briefly here. The understanding that I have is that pain, to the intensity and pervasiveness we encounter today, wasn’t the original plan. The Bible reveals that pain and struggle increases when humanity rebels against God’s authority. I think parents see this first-hand. When their child rebels against their parental authority the child experiences pain. The more the child dissents, the more the pain increase for him or her – and for the parents! I know that good parents feel their child’s pain, sometimes even more than the child does. You see pain often flows in two directions. And this is a good thing!

Pain unites.

The old saying, “misery loves company”, is very true. Who doesn’t want a shoulder to cry on from time to time? But to an even greater degree than just a damp arm, pain can unite. Our personal pain often drives us out of our shell. A shared, painful experience can quickly glue people collectively in ways and depths the absence of pain doesn't. Pain is an incentive to be part of a community of empathy. Pain helps us identify with others and them with us. Pain that is part of a communal encounter often has the greatest potential for growth and the fostering of camaraderie in our personal lives and community.

Pain Alerts

A long time ago, when I was in middle school, I would spend the summers working at my father’s office. Cutting grass, scraping paint and other odd jobs were all part of my first paid gig growing up. One day I was working on removing evergreen stumps from along the building’s pathway. I was kneeling down on my shins with my knees in front of me whacking with a hatchet at one of the protuberances. Something caught my attention on the street and I looked up in the middle of a thwack. I didn’t hit the stump. I hit my left knee. I paused for a moment and looked at the slash in the fabric of my white carpenter pants. I felt no pain but I did see where the edge of the rather dull hatchet had cut my skin. I could actually see the fatty layers! It’s so vivid even to this day, and I still bear the scar! But, because I didn’t feel any pain, I kept on smacking the lump. A few minutes later, I intentionally looked at my knee curious about it’s condition, this time stopping my swings. Instead of white I saw red! Crimson had replaced the white of my pants in an ever-expanding ellipse.

This is the scar on my knee from the hatchet. It's decades old but a constant reminder of the beauty of pain.

Had it not been for the bleeding, I would've kept on whacking not realizing that I needed attention. Perhaps I would have ignored it completely. Perhaps I would have gotten dirt in the wound and an infection. Who knows? But I remember thinking how odd it was that pain was lacking.

Without pain, we keep on doing whatever we’re doing – and that’s not always a good thing. Athletes know that pain can indicate a serious physical crisis. Many inexperienced athletes have tried to work through the pain only to exacerbate the condition, sometimes even ending careers. Pain can serve as an indicator that something is wrong – either within us or around us – and we should stop and pay attention, look for the source and make the proper changes, either within us or around us.

Pain Awakens

In some of my recent reading I came across a 5-word sentence that is now imprinted in my memory. “God does not waste pain” (Jerry Bridges, Transforming Grace). If this is true, then oh, how often I’ve missed out on the instruction of the LORD by whining about pain instead of researching its root. Regardless of how slight it may be in the vast scheme of things, our personal pain is often there to awaken us to bigger, more important issues. A very good friend of mine added three words to the 5 that made it all more poignant, “But people do”, (Michael Anthony, How sad! How much pain have I wasted? How much growth have I missed out on because I was more focused on merely stopping the pain than on engaging the source? A hard lesson learned, again and again.

Now, I’m not saying I enjoy pain. By no means! I loathe hurting, soreness, aches and wincing. These are big factors as to why I don’t exercise as often as I should! Hey, I can’t stand getting pricked by a needle! But I’ve come to embrace pain as directing me to two things, people and change.

As I said earlier, pain helps us empathize with others and others with us. It also forces us to seek out others for the attention we need. And by attention I do not mean codependent attention, but life-changing, iron-sharpens-iron, healthy attention. I have to admit; in my line of work most people delay seeking help until it’s too late. They’re more focused on placing blame than on seeking healthy, constructive change. I’ve done it and it’s caustic. I have to be very careful in not allowing myself to wallow in self-pity, anger, depression or disillusionment because of my pain. So, I’ve learned to ask a better question.

I can’t prevent pain from entering your life, but I can try to aid you in dealing with it when it comes. I now exchanged the question of “why?” for the query of “how?” when faced with pain. I spend far less time trying to figure out, “why is this happening to me?” and I now focus on the subject of, “how am I to respond to this?”* I’ve found the latter far more productive than the former. I believe you will, too. But keep this in mind, “why” is easier to ask than “how”. And “how” will place the burden of response and change on you! It’s not easy but it’s transformational!

Secondly, I said that pain alerts us to conditions that we need to engage. Sometimes we just want the pain to stop. I know I do. But more often it’s there to communicate to us that we need to pay attention to what’s going on within us or around us.

Lastly, I shared that pain awakens us to life. It reminds us that we’re mortal, fallible, temporal, fragile, week, desperate and often alone. It proves that we’re not numb automatons moving through our nine-to-five as machines (see my post, Man as Machine). It proves that we’re human, that we have real emotions and can be deeply wounded both physically and emotionally. That, my friends, is being alive!

I write this to help you formulate a better foundation for engaging the pain in your life, whether physical or emotional. I can’t prevent it from coming, but I can help prepare you for when it does. And this is the beauty of pain.

*I want to thank Jack Deere for helping me exchange “why” for “how”. Shortly after my mother died of cancer in 2008 I listened to a CD of his on Authority. In it he postulated that exchanging “why” for “how” is a healthier and more spiritual way of approaching pain and sorrow. It changed my life.