The painful insights only pain can give

by Dr. Carla Cornelius, Christian Examiner Contributor |

Whether it's a mild headache or an agonizing bone fracture, pain performs the useful function of warning us that something is not right physically or emotionally. It is not something we get used to no matter how long we've had it, so the question arises – how do we deal with pain when it simply does not go away? Those unhappy folks who seek euthanasia either at home or abroad include those in the grip of physical as well as psychological pain. Paul Lamb, a 63 year old victim of a car crash which left him paralyzed from the neck down, lives with chronic and excruciating pain. In theory, calls to legalize euthanasia only arise in the case of people who are unable to end their life without assistance. Yet, in Belgium, where the euthanasia laws are the most liberal in the world, you can seek assistance to end your life simply on the basis of intolerable physical or mental suffering. Emily, a 28-year-old Belgian woman, was allowed to die despite no terminal illness or incurably painful physical condition.

The Bible recounts the prayer of an obscure young man called Jabez who cried out to God with a desperate petition – "...that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!" (1 Chronicles 4:10, ESV). Unfortunately for Jabez, his name meant "pain" given to him by his mother because she bore him in much pain. This might seem to many an extreme reaction to the pain of childbirth, but it's easy to draw this conclusion when one lives in an age of advanced pain-killers; Jabez's mother did not!

But pain-killers are not as effective as we might think; they only numb the pain for a time, and then we have to take more and higher dosages to get the same effect. The opioid addiction in the USA is symptomatic of their inefficacy. Many become addicted to the euphoric high which this class of medicines gives. Could it be that the underlying message which the popular culture propagates is that we are supposed to be always in a state of bliss whether natural or induced? In modern times, we have been taught that pain is something to be avoided at all costs.

The problem with pain is that it's an individual experience that cannot be measured – "No one else can know your sadness, and strangers cannot share your joy" (Proverbs 14:10, NCV). In her lecture "The Art of Living Every Minute of Your life," Rachel Remen, M.D., poses the question of whether there could be "an unanswerable purpose to life and suffering." She herself has lived with the painful condition of Crohn's disease for more than 55 years, and has had eight major operations. She has come to the conclusion that it's not finding the answers to questions which helps us navigate life's difficult terrain, but rather, asking the right questions.

My encounter with relentless pain has come through personal observation, not experience. I had a dear friend in her eighties. She was one of the sweetest people I have ever met yet she lived in constant pain. She had a fused hip from a surgery she had as a child – this left her with impaired mobility such that getting out of her chair, and walking only a few steps, was too painful for words and painful to watch. With no parents, children, nor husband – only one brother who lived on the other side of the world – her sole sources of companionship were a handful of friends and a cat. What was crystal clear about Marie was that she had no expectations from life. She was grateful just to be able to get through the day. As you can imagine, apart from a few visitors, her only exposure to the outside world was through newspapers, magazines and her TV in the corner of her living room. She was baffled that so many people, who had so much more than she had or could ever dream of having, were still so dissatisfied with life and prone to grumbling and complaining. She taught me and all who knew her a priceless lesson – how to live with pain in the most dignified way.

Indeed, pain is a part of the human experience, yet some get more than their fair share. We have invalidated pain in modern life. Science has advanced to such a degree that we know we don't need to endure physical pain nor the psychological pain which is felt physically, at least not immediately after the pain-killers take effect. Those who live with chronic physical pain know what many of us will thankfully never find out – there is some pain that even modern medicine can't abate. A lovely neighbor of mine has one leg which is a few inches shorter than the next due to an operation following a motorcycle accident. It seems that the nicest people I know have tasted the bitter pill of pain beyond the normal threshold.

So, is it possible for this fearsome "beast" to offer any value at all? Pain drives us out of our self-centered existence to seek answers outside ourselves. We often look to specialists, qualified physicians or at the very least, the local pharmacist. What should be our first point of call, is often our last – to look heavenward to the "God of all comfort." Without pain, we would fail to recognize and seek the Creator as the ultimate Provider of every need. We would become self-sufficient and too much at ease in this life which was only ever meant to be a training ground for the next life.

And God has promised us that in the new Jerusalem to come, He will usher in a dispensation without pain – "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death, sadness, crying, or pain, because all the old ways are gone" (Revelation 21:4, ESV).

– Carla Cornelius, ph.D., gained her doctorate from Trinity School of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana. Her dissertation proposed a biblical model of counseling the suicidal based on the book of Ecclesiastes. Because the causes of suicide are multifactorial, she endeavors to bring a psycho-spiritual perspective to this complex and ever-pressing issue. She is the author of five books including Culture Detox: Cleansing our minds from toxic thinking, Captive Daughters: Breaking the chains and No Way Out: Keys to avoiding suicide.