Eighty years ago C. S. Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain. The title makes me laugh. Does anyone need to be convinced that pain is a problem? What Lewis was after, of course, is the solution to pain. A dedicated Christian apologist, he sought an explanation for suffering that respects both God’s reputation for goodness and the searing reality of our pain. If God is good, why is there so much suffering? If God can make a world free from suffering by willing it, why the cross?
Some theological conundrums are theoretical. How many angels dance on a pinhead? Whatever answer you posit to such a question, it doesn’t change what you decide to eat for lunch. But when it comes to suffering, we all have skin in the game. It matters what we say about a God who can do anything and still chooses to hang on a cross.
The church maintains that suffering can be salvific. Suffering acts like a spiritual salve on the world’s wounds. Suffering, patiently embraced on Earth, can even rescue souls from anguish on the other side, as spiritual masters have taught. As St. Paul frames it, we can unite our pain to that of Christ on the cross, and the two become one in the great work of divine rescue. This is not to say the crucifixion isn’t sufficient to cover the sin of the world. Your friend’s chemotherapy and my sister’s depression aren’t events that humanity has been in aching need of. Yet when we unite our pain mystically with the pain of Jesus, our tears are given an exalted meaning and purpose.
Because truly: What else are we going to do with all this agony? Still, in seeking a theological compartment that dignifies the legacy of pain, we unwittingly open a door to eccentric practices that seem to glorify pain itself. Saints for centuries donned hair shirts, slept in stress positions, whipped themselves, or stayed in abusive marriages hoping to save their errant spouses from condemnation. Most of us today are convinced this sort of elective suffering isn’t at all equivalent to Jesus submitting to the cross. Is there a line we can draw between suffering that saves and pain that’s just plain unnecessary?
A year ago I broke my shoulder. It was a funny break—not funny ha ha but funny strange. During an unspectacular stumble on a footpath, I put out my right arm to break the fall, the shoulder taking the impact. Pain radiated through to my fingers and down my side. In struggling to my feet, the arm was unresponsive. A passerby tied my scarf into a sling for me. The useless arm didn’t hurt, but the pain in my back was like a madman with a knife riding an elevator up and down my spine, stabbing randomly and gleefully without pity. It wasn’t good.
At urgent care the doctor reviewed the X-ray and offered the grateful opinion that the arm wasn’t broken. “Sometimes these things just resolve themselves,” he said encouragingly. “You should probably see a specialist to be sure.” This was unfortunately hard to do during a spiking pandemic, with hospitals overflowing into tents and medical personnel at a premium. Also, I was losing my insurance in two weeks, relocating to another state. If the arm wasn’t broken, it would have to wait.
It took 10 weeks to arrive at the new address, find a doctor taking new patients, and snare an appointment. And then it took another month to be referred to a specialist, who took a second X-ray and again pronounced the arm unbroken. Four months past the fall, I could raise the arm through most of its range, and it didn’t really hurt. But I hurt—constantly. I moved through waves of pain by day and was drilled with pain all night. The specialist ordered an MRI “to see what may be going on.” Acquiring that appointment took another month.
It matters what we say about a God who can do anything and still chooses to hang on a cross.
So it was five months into a season of anguish when the doctor’s assistant phoned. “Don’t move your arm, and don’t lift anything,” she advised. “Your shoulder’s broken.” The MRI revealed a most clever fracture, so perfectly aligned an X-ray couldn’t detect it: a break of the humerus bone which, as I said, isn’t as funny as it sounds. Part of the bone was still attached to the tendon so that, with each movement, the fragments pulled apart like accordion bellows. This created the silent music of my suffering.
Secured by a body harness, I now endured right-sided immobility to allow the bone time to mend. When released from captivity, the arm hung from the shoulder like an oddly curved fish. Then came physical therapy to restore function. With it I learned the vital distinctions between good pain and bad pain. The five months spent dragging around a broken shoulder had been good for nothing. The bone hadn’t knit together, and the suffering had been wasted. With the proper exercises I felt muscle burn, which was good pain. Stabbing twinges were not. Soreness and aches meant progress; sparkling or drilling pain, not so much. The anguish before physical therapy hadn’t been purposeful. The pain of therapy was salvific. It was giving my arm back to me. Good pain, I came to understand, tends toward strength, healing, and restoration. It widens possibilities. Bad pain signals increased injury and harm. It narrows our focus and darkens hope.
Here’s a cold fact: None of us escapes suffering. When it comes to our woundedness, movement will hurt whether we’re rehabbing the injury or not. So why not invest our pain in the direction of hope? This is what makes Good Friday so good: The sacrifice of Jesus doesn’t pour into a grave but rather opens the door of the tomb. In the same way, no one undergoes surgery or difficult medical treatments for the sake of suffering but in hope of restoring health or extending life.
Useful pain and sacrifice tend toward discernible good. People aren’t named martyrs for throwing themselves in harm’s way. A martyr’s passion promotes some higher purpose. We become living martyrs of charity if we downsize our lifestyles to tithe a portion of our earnings to the cause of justice. Such a sacrifice gives life. By contrast, remaining in a toxic situation, even out of love or loyalty, is an unhealthy and destructive sacrifice.
Why not invest our pain in the direction of hope?
When we lose someone to death, we suffer tremendously. We can use that sadness, perhaps by reaching out to others in a grief support group. Isolating and focusing on the crater left by a loved one’s absence, meanwhile, is an unsalvific use of our pain. Hurting is inevitable either way. Isn’t it better to redeem this inescapable investment in grief?
Sickness and death are unavoidable. We’ll all walk through this bitter valley of shadows with people we love. The reason the church identifies a sacrament to anoint the sick is because sickness has something to reveal to us. Some will turn illness into a testimony of what they believe life is about. They’ll spend their most mortal hours forgiving and seeking forgiveness, demonstrating compassion and caring, witnessing to their confidence in God. This kind of suffering rescues not only those who are sick but potentially everyone around them.
If there is glory in suffering, if we can speak of such things as glorified wounds, they’re the kind that testify to something beyond the pain endured. Since no one has a choice about whether to suffer, isn’t it a good idea to learn how to carry our pain well?
Image: Shutterstock.com/Antonio Guillem