Is there any meaning or purpose to pain?
12 MINUTE READ
I had the flu recently. For the first time in years, I couldn’t get up to get breakfast for my kids. My head ached, my throat felt raw, turning over in bed felt like the biggest project I could contemplate. After a few days in bed, I started to feel my body mending before gastroenteritis threw me down again. Cramps, dry retching and aching everywhere.
On reflection, I have been struck by how pointless the whole experience seemed to me at the time. My prayer was that God would take the pain and discomfort away as soon as possible. It wasn’t just that I wanted to get back to the tasks of life and ministry. It was also that I found the anxious sense of isolation and the vague notion that perhaps God was aloof from me deeply uncomfortable. I wanted the experience over. Having thus wilted in the heat of a mere couple of weeks of discomfort though, I wondered how I would ever cope with chronic pain, not only the physical pain but the mental and spiritual pain that creep in darkly beside it. Pain doesn’t fit into my vision for my life. It seems a pointless interruption.
Is there, indeed, any point to pain? Does it have any meaning or purpose? Doctors assess, treat and help patients through their pain on a daily basis and sometimes do so while experiencing pain themselves. Ensconced in the intricate titrations of pain treatment, however, it can be easy to miss the bigger cultural and biblical stories that shape the meaning we give to pain. It is these meanings of pain that I am seeking to probe in this article. After briefly sketching the basic contours of pain, I will invoke Martin Luther to compare the meaning our culture gives to pain to the rich meaning and comfort that the gospel of Jesus Christ gives to our pain.
“…it can be easy to miss the bigger cultural and biblical stories that shape the meaning we give to pain.”
The concept of pain in much of the current practice of medicine is shaped by concern for finding successful analgesic therapies. Evidence Based Medicine (EBM), with its positivistic emphasis on reproducible, objective and quantifiable ‘facts’ about human pain, has become the key standard for assessing therapeutic legitimacy.1
Behind EBM is a concept of human health and disease, shaped by philosophers of medicine such as Christopher Boorse, that is rooted firmly in biology, chemistry, physics and related natural sciences.2 A particular aim of Boorse was to eliminate any vague value judgements about health and disease that might interfere with the pursuit of objective, explanatory truth.
While EBM has served pain treatment well, it has significant limitations. Psychiatrist and medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman pointed out that medicine is for the benefit of human beings who are, of course, much more than mere biophysical entities. Treatment of pain and disease, according to Kleinman, must take into account how these are perceived, valued and given meaning within a community, as well as how they are biophysically understood.3 The experience of pain is imbued with social and spiritual meaning whether we are conscious of it or not.
The Bible, however, pointed to the complexity of pain for many long years before the anthropologists and philosophers did. Physical pain intersects intimately with spiritual, social and emotional pain because God has created us as relational beings with body and soul intertwined. When Jesus commanded us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your (physical) strength and with all your mind.” (Luke 10:27), he was not separating out discrete aspects of our being but speaking to every aspect of us integrated together. It is interesting to observe the way neuroscience illustrates the remarkable extent to which our body, mind and relationships are interconnected. Physical pain will profoundly affect the way we relate to God, our thinking and relationships. How we relate to God will profoundly affect our experience of pain.4
Reformer Martin Luther’s sixteenth century writings speak with fascinating insight into the way our relationship with God affects our experience of pain. As we, dependent creatures, stand before God, experiencing any of the great variety of pains thrown up amidst the wreckage of a fallen world, Luther describes the two basic theologies by which we can interpret our experience. Actually, in his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, Luther addresses his hearers more personally than that. He identifies the two kinds of ‘theologians’ we can be in this world: theologians of glory and theologians of the cross.5 Here are three points of comparison between these theologians that are particularly important for us to hear as we grapple with pain in our current context.
Theologians of Glory
Firstly, theologians of glory do not grasp the all-pervasive damage of sin. They optimistically assume that people are better and more attractive than God says they are. They assume that their minds can readily understand themselves and the world, as well as discern right from wrong. The confidence of the theologian of the glory shows itself in a characteristic self-centredness. The world is made for them and their pursuit of the good life. Moreover, embracing the good life assumes that the life extends only as far as they can see. There is no greater story that extends beyond death – this life is all there is.
In our current culture, embracing the good life means prizing radical individual freedom: creating our own stories and meaning, freely expressing and fulfilling our dreams, refusing to be suffocated by the needs of others, holding fast to comfort, health, safety and control, and choosing to do what makes us happy.
“…our secular culture is shocked by the interruption of pain and sees no purpose in it.”
If the meaning of life is to choose what makes us happy, then pain destroys that meaning and brings profound terror and despair. The only thing to be done with pain is to track down its source and get rid of it. This is so often the substance of our culture’s response to pain. We flock to therapists who we hope can cure or patch over the problem of our pain with medication, exercise, diet, self-esteem, life coaching and distraction.
In his book Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, Tim Keller observes that we are more undone by suffering in our western culture than were our ancestors.6 While many cultures other than our own see pain and suffering as somewhat inevitable but also meaningful in light of life beyond this world, our secular culture is shocked by the interruption of pain and sees no purpose in it. Pain is a waste of time which takes away from the good life we want and expect.
Theologians of the Cross
Theologians of the cross, however, recognise and lament the awful, all-pervasive scourge of sin. They join with the psalmists, with King David and God’s future Messiah in crying “Why, O Lord”, “How Long O Lord?” and “Lord, where is your love?”
O Lord, all my longing is before you;
my sighing is not hidden from you.
My heart throbs; my strength fails me, and the light of my eyes
– it also has gone from me.
My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague,
and my nearest kin stand far off.
This misery can sometimes result from a person’s sin as in this psalm (see 1 Peter 4:15) but at other times occurs in spite of innocence (Psalm 44). Theologians of the cross are not backward in recognising the terrible reality of pain that cannot be entirely eliminated by human therapy, technology or policy because its roots are too deep in this world’s bondage to corruption and decay (Romans 8:20).
Theologians of the cross also recognise that the ultimate root of pain is the sin of all humanity in which they so deeply and wilfully participate, and for which they deserve judgement. The right disposition of human beings before God is that of humility due to guilt. As Luther says; ‘Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.’7 For Luther, pain helpfully undoes people. It challenges human thinking about how life works and helps to dispel humanity’s proud illusion that they have the competence and strength to rule their own lives.
Secondly, theologians of glory have a very small ‘God’. Although our culture’s story of the good life is largely atheistic, God isn’t necessarily left out. In fact, He is often co-opted in, especially in situations of pain. The preconceived expectations of theologians of glory lead them to see God at work in powerful places of health, wealth, success and present happiness. In reality, however, such a ‘God’ is remarkably small and powerless. He is a projection of felt needs – there to help them realise their dreams and express themselves, boost their self-esteem and quickly take away their pain. He is a ‘God’ of cheap comfort rather than the Lord who claims victory over the greatest scourge of sin and death; a sentimental ‘God’ who has nothing much at all to say to the man in chronic, intractable pain, isolated from loving relationships.8
“…while my pain is to be lamented and relieved where possible, it is also held in the purposeful hands of the powerful Lord who has shown He is for me.”
Theologians of the cross, however, know the powerful Lord who reveals Himself on His terms. Luther says: ‘He deserves to be called a theologian […] who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.’9 In opposition to all human expectation, God chose to reveal Himself to sinners through the pain, weakness, humiliation and death of His Son Jesus on the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 14:6). At the very point at which God seemed most absent and powerless, He was most wonderfully and sympathetically present in salvation, bearing the punishment of desperate sinners and breaking the bondage of sin and death.
Those in pain, then, can look at the cross and see that God is near and He is for them. Despite the way things may appear, God’s anger is turned away from them, and His love, compassion and power is turned graciously toward them. Theologians of the cross can look to Jesus’ resurrection and know they are not abandoned to a world trapped in suffering but have the sure hope that sin and all the pain in its train will be definitively eliminated (1 Corinthians 15:50; Hebrews 6:19-20).
Finally, theologians of glory desire too little. As C.S. Lewis says, they desire only the shallow, momentary, this-worldly cures and distractions to the problem of pain, dismissing the cross as apparently lacking in power (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).10 Theologians of the cross, however, desire everlasting joy in Christ. While lamenting pain, crying out to God for relief and thankfully accepting all the analgesia and human kindness that God provides in His daily grace, theologians of the cross also know that they have been mercifully caught up in God’s salvation purposes. They can long for the new creation, hidden beneath the current creation, waiting to be revealed. In the meantime, they can trust that the God who shows His love to them on the cross has hidden purposes to their pain. He can use their pain to prise their fingers away from goods that will not last and help them cling to hope in Christ.
Reflecting on my brief viral sojourn, I realised that I had quite unconsciously slipped into the mindset of a theologian of glory. But as a theologian of the cross I can know that while my pain is to be lamented and relieved where possible, it is also held in the purposeful hands of the powerful Lord who has shown He is for me. I see now how precious is the help of fellow theologians of the cross who can point me to cross when it seems most hidden. In particular, I see how precious is the help of a doctor who can show me the Lord’s mercy in my pain both physically and spiritually.
Dr Robyn Bain After many years working as a doctor in the Emergency Department, Robyn Bain now works in gospel ministry full time. She has recently completed a masters degree in bioethics and is continuing postgraduate study in theological ethics. She helps her husband, Andrew, teach ethics at the Queensland Theological College (Andrew is vice principal) where she also trains and ministers to women. Robyn is also the convenor of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland Committee responsible for addressing social and ethical issues (GiST). She especially loves raising her two daughters Guinevere (9) and Julia (6).
- M. Goldenberg,‘On Evidence and Evidence Based Medicine: Lessons from the Philosophy of Science’. Social Science and Medicine. 2006; 62: 2621-2632.
- C. Boorse, ‘On the Distinction Between Disease and Illness.’ Philosophy and Public Affairs. 1975 Autumn; 5(1):49-68.
- A. Kleinman, ‘Medicine’s symbolic reality’. Inquiry. 1973; 16:1-4.
- Kelly M. Kapic, Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering. 2017. Illinois: IVP Academic.
- Jaroslav Pelikan, H.C. Oswald, and Helmut T.Lehmann, eds. Luther’s Works, 55 vols, 1999. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, 31:40.
- Tim Keller, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering. 2013. UK: Hodder and Stoughton.
- Luther’s Works, 31:39
- Michael Horton, A Place for Weakness: Preparing Yourself for Suffering. 2010. USA: Zondervan.
- Luther’s Works, 31:40.
- C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory. 2013. UK: William Collins.