The Problems (plural) of Pain
C.S. Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain, seeming to narrow his investigation to a single entity – “the” problem. It’s an excellent book that addresses the philosophical issue of suffering with a keen theological eye mixed with practical pastoral encouragement.
But I find that the experience of suffering or, more specifically, the handling of physical pain, entails a combination of many different problems, not just a singular difficulty.
One week ago I underwent surgery to repair a hernia. Actually it was a double hernia, to be precise. In keeping with my lifelong pattern of going down the road less traveled, my body did not allow for the “typical” approach – a laparoscopic surgery with a shorter, less painful recovery period. No, I needed the more invasive procedure complete with scars not worth describing. Thus, I find myself experiencing numerous problems associated with pain.
The Lament Psalms have offered me great encouragement many times when it comes to handling suffering. They model how we can cry out to the Lord, ask for deliverance, enlist help from positive self-talk, and recall to mind God’s character, help in the past, and ways he has worked on behalf of others. They cover a wide range of lament-inducing circumstances – persecution, discouragement, depression, feelings of alienation from God, etc.
But physical pain offers unique challenges. It is not mentioned often in the Lament Psalms. Psalm 69 is a rare exception, including pain in its list of causes for lament. Psalm 69:29 says, “I am in pain and distress: May your salvation, O God, protect me.”
One could be tempted to think that all we really need to do is recall certain truths or remind ourselves of certain theological concepts and all emotional struggles would vanish.
Counselor and author Edward T. Welch, of the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation, writing about handling fear says this about simply reminding ourselves of fear-countering cognitive thoughts: “This might help, but it rests on the premise that fear submits to logic, which is a dubious assumption. In reality, fears are rarely logical.” (Running Scared, page 23).
I find that there are at least five problems associated with pain. Processing them individually has been helpful for me as I wait for the pain from surgery to subside and some sense of normality to return.
• There’s the problem of fear: With physical pain comes the temptation to believe that it will never go away or it’s the sign of other problems or the harbinger of even worse things to come. Constant prayer for comfort, strength, and the peace that passes all understanding needs to counter this problem.
• There’s the problem of total dependence: When you experience surgery, your body stops performing certain functions that used to just happen. Taking deep breaths, moving without additional pain, and the continuing performance of certain “bodily functions” now take on a level of challenge that used to be reserved for things like mountain climbing or major athletic feats. It’s humbling, to say the least. It involves prayer for things you’ve always taken for granted, which underlines the reality that we have always been totally dependent upon God for every breath, every heartbeat, and every bodily fluid that needs to flow properly.
• There’s the problem of “not-rightness”: I don’t know how else to put it. But every ache and every pain is a reminder that we live in a fallen world with broken bodies that will someday die – and that was never the way it was supposed to be. While you can understand all this, and it’s easy to find this doctrine heavily supported in scripture, it does not minimize the “groaning” component that never should feel normal or acceptable.
• There’s the problem of mental-perseverance: Much of the physical battle takes on the flavor of the mental battle. We must talk to ourselves far more than merely listen to ourselves. Now is the time to converse internally as doggedly as the Psalmists who said, “Why so downcast, Oh my soul?” and other introspective interaction. But it gets tiring and mere mention of these truths does not guarantee full receptivity.
• And, in the darkest moments, there is the problem of despair: With physical pain come attacks from our adversary. He would have us think, “This is never going to get better, God doesn’t care, I must have done something to deserve this,” and dozens of other condemning lies from the pit. Thus, the need for deep reflection on the truth of the gospel, diligent concentration on the power of God’s word, and relentless meditation upon the goodness of God’s care for his people – especially before the times of pain.
C. S. Lewis’ book and others are helpful for wrestling with the theological and philosophical puzzles associated with suffering. But don’t think that mere reading of books will provide the full equipment for all the problems of pain. The issue is far more complex than that. Indeed, life itself is richer, more complex, and, sadly, more painful than we expect. But our God is greater, more compassionate, and more powerful than we suspect.