Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Problem of Pain

TITLE: THE PROBLEM OF PAIN
SCRIPTURE: James 1:2-4
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: April 20th, 2013

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,a whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2-4)

We have all heard of the saying, "No pain, no gain." Is it always true? No really. Experts who give advice on physical exercises will often remind people that when they feel pain, do not just press on and force yourself to push harder and farther. For all we know, the pain is a critical warning sign that we must stop what we are doing. Ignoring the pain, or intentionally going against the signals that the body is telling is is not only foolish, but can bring about long term damage to our physical bodies. According to the popular Dr Oz, he reminds us:

"As we age, our bodies often communicate to us via pain. Pain is the body’s protective mechanism that helps motivate us to protect the injured area from getting worse. Many people try to fight pain rather than take it as a sign to slow down and address the issue. Fighting pain only creates a series of compensating movements that puts you at risk of aggravating the injury and lengthening the time needed to heal. Because of this, it’s important to listen to what your body is telling you."

That is wise. When we feel the pain, do not try to kill the pain and ignore what the pain is pointing us toward.  One of the most memorable stories I have heard is the one told by Paul Brand and Philip Yancey in the book, "The Gift of Pain," is the one where leprous person used his arm to push hot charcoals away. Without pain, there is no worry about any sensation. Without pain, there is no feeling of the heat to the nerve system of the leper. Without pain, the muscles and the skin burns away without the person noticing, when they come in contact with hot fire. Pain is indeed an important feedback mechanism for us. That is why in this way it is a gift.

Unfortunately, the culture we live in are increasingly fearful of pain. The Pharmaceutical industry recognizes exactly that and they profit immensely. From the common aspirin to specialized anesthetics used during critical medical procedures, people have found a way either to numb our natural senses to pain in order to cut deep into our skin. Anyone with migraines will appreciate the use of painkillers like aspirin. Women having a difficult labour can request for an epidural. Dentists use anesthetics to assist any tooth extractions or root canal work. Bodily pains are often addressed with different kinds of medication to enable people to live as well as possible. Yet, for all its numbing features, painkillers mainly address the symptoms. They do not heal. They only mask the real problem to buy some time for a better solution.

What about inner pain? What about emotional pain? What about the kind of pain that aspirin or anesthetics do not help? Some use different ways to help them escape, like alcohol, religious trances, even sleep, to run away from it all. Others go into drugs and illicit activities to flee. Pain is scary for it can force one to do the most unexpected things.

On Monday, the world was horrified to hear about the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Three persons died and many have to suffer the painful decision of having their limbs amputated. Doctors in Boston have frequently sought out second, even third opinions about whether to save or to amputate the legs of people whose limbs were blown off during the explosions. Just reading about the decision making process alone pains me in the heart. Even more have to live with the trauma for the rest of their lives. It all seems so painful and meaningless. Like you, I too wonder why the perpetrators of such violence will want to subject fellow humans to such pain and torture. Why?

There is no easy answer to such questions. Even if police and investigators can find out the reason for the horrible bombings, that will not bring back the lives of the dead. Even if the culprits are all apprehended and justice are swift on punishing them, there is no rescue of the limbs that have been amputated. Even if the world can be numbed in some way to the pain caused, there is no guarantee that such violence will never happen again. Will we then live in fear? Will we be paranoid about the future? Will we then start live our entire lives with full of suspicions of people and trepidation about life in general?

Surely not. The human spirit is not easily broken. Pain is a part of life. It may not come from the best of circumstances, but it can bring about the best in people. I read about individuals who came together in the midst of tragedy, regardless of language, race, or religion. Law enforcement officers, black, white, Asian, hispanic, or whatever, all came together as one united body. Runners, walkers, spectators, hold hands and help one another, that as long as it is a person in pain, they will be comforted. Uniting against the common enemy of violence and nonsensical aggression, people will fight back with love and comfort. People will battle against any force of darkness that threatens to break the human spirit. People have shown that in the midst of tragedy, bombs are not going to make people cower in constant fear. Life will go on, and people will come through it all much stronger.

This Sunday, I will be participating in the Vancouver Sun Run event. The organizers have asked for all participants who want to show solidarity with the people in Boston to dress in blue and yellow, the official colours of the Boston Marathon. Such a gesture will be a way to demonstrate to the world that the human spirit will never be cowered into surrender. The human spirit lives on, even though terrorists can strike fear for a moment. This is not to be taken lightly. It has to be lived courageously.

For Christians, the events of suffering and pain need not come across as something totally foreign or strange. In fact, suffering is very much a part of the life of a disciple. Just this week, I shared a small part of CS Lewis's "The Problem of Pain" which has generated some vigorous disagreement. Lewis famously writes:

"The real problem is not why some pious, humble, believing people suffer, but why some do not." (CS Lewis)

This has resulted in some people voicing concern about whether one needs to seek out suffering or pain in order to prove one's discipleship. Here is my reply.


The way I read Lewis in "The Problem of Pain," is that we need not be surprised when people suffer. We ought to be surprised (even suspicious) of anyone who is "pious, humble, believing" and has not been stamped with any hallmark of suffering. That said, there are many different kinds of suffering, including gratuitous as well as non-gratuitous ones. The ones that are of most relevance in this discussion is the kind of suffering that arises out of a wholehearted desire to do all the good that we can. Like Christ who suffered for the sake of others; or the martyrs who suffered for the faithfulness of the gospel; or the persecuted who suffered because of their faith; the upright who suffered by being sacked for refusing to pay bribes; or people who stood up for the truth at great risk to their own lives..... 
In the "Problem of Pain," Lewis is aware that there will be accusations against him about trying to justify suffering. Lewis admits that he is a "coward" when it comes to pain. His purpose of that statement is to show the "old Christian doctrine of being made perfect through suffering is not incredible." 
This is a hard teaching to accept, simply because pain and suffering itself is hard. Yet, I think it is good to be open to what Lewis is saying, that suffering and pain can sometimes be used to purge away the idols or "toys" that try to possess our heart. Pain and suffering is like fire. It burns one up and just like Paul's teachings in the trial of fire, those who pass this test can say like Job: "But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold." (Job 23:10) 
What we can take away from the provocative words of Lewis is this. We need not seek suffering and pain just to prove that we are Christlike. All we need to do is to work toward being Christlike, and lo and behold, suffering and pain will come looking for us. When that day comes, we pray that the Lord will help encourage us, comfort us as we go through the valley of the shadow of death.

Indeed, the just and righteous in Jesus will be persecuted in some way. We do not need to seek out suffering or pain in order to prove our worth. The moment we seek to be more like Christ, suffering and pain in some way will seek us out. Call yourself a Christian? Beware. You're on the enemy's radar already. That said, it is good to remember that when trials and pain come, we have the chance to depend on God more. We have the opportunity to cultivate the skills of perseverance. May we, as we follow after Christ more and more, learn to say like Job, that "when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold."

THOUGHT: "When you suffer and lose, that does not mean you are being disobedient to God. In fact, it might mean you're right in the centre of His will. The path of obedience is often marked by times of suffering and loss." (Chuck Swindoll)


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