Someone commented on a recent post on my blog about a change of perspective on a difficult struggle making a big difference to how she copes with it. She raises a very important point when it comes to suffering of any kind. We crave a reason, a purpose for it. Nothing hurts more than what we interpret as senseless pain. The pain of childbirth (I’m told) while severe, is sometimes easier to cope with than severe period pain even though the latter may not be as bad. Part of that is the usually intermittent nature of contraction pain, giving relief in between that doesn’t come with period pain, but also there is the knowledge that contraction pain is bringing about the birth of the wonderful gift of a precious child. Period pain has no such purpose and, as such, can seem even worse than it is and, for some of us, it could be pretty bad sometimes!
We see the same thing when tragedy happens and so many people are asking ‘why?’ and commenting on the “senseless” nature of it. Knowing that our pain is going to have something good at the end gives us a strength to endure that can see us through incredible suffering.
So, does pain have a purpose? Physical pain does indeed serve a useful purpose in its right context. If someone breaks a leg but feels no pain then they are likely to walk on the broken leg (or try to) and cause further damage. Nerve damage that causes loss of sensation (including pain) is a serious problem and can lead to amputations in diabetics, for example. Pain, though a very unpleasant experience, is a necessary warning signal that something is wrong and needs some attention. The problem is when that problem is identified but can’t be treated effectively and/or the original problem is fixed but the warning signal stays switched on, such as in phantom pain ‘in’ limbs that have been amputated. The brain is wrongly told there is a problem but it reacts as though the information is true.
I have had a lot of pain in my life and more than enough has been severe. Some of it has been caused by damage to nerves, eg the Trigeminal Neuralgia and most has been caused by ongoing problems like inflammation. Most of it is seemingly pointless repetition of the same problem.
If someone identifies a fire and shouts ‘fire’ in an office then people are likely to pay attention and respond appropriately. However, if someone is standing in the office shouting ‘fire’ constantly, day and night, then the warning means nothing other than a gigantic nuisance and a pointless exercise (and most likely someone who needs serious help!). Chronic pain, especially chronic inflammatory pain, is a bit like that but the person constantly shouting the fire warning is referring to the ongoing fire in a fireplace. The ‘fire’ is real and ongoing but the warning of it becomes unnecessary, exhausting and ‘senseless’.
I do not mean to imply that chronic inflammatory pain is small, controlled and appropriate (as a fireplace fire should be), and as such the analogy is incomplete. In some ways it may be a more accurate picture to imagine someone standing at the scene of a devastating house fire and continually shouting ‘fire’ even when the fire service is fully engaged in battling the blaze. I imagine one of the firefighters turning to that person and saying something like, “Will you just shut up already! We know there is a fire and are doing our best to fight it!” I want to say to the pain, “shut up already, I know my body is sick and damaged but there is nothing more that I can do!”
Of course, pain and suffering are not limited to the physical experience of pain. Emotional and spiritual pain can be every bit as much, if not more, devastating. Grief, when we lose someone close, is extremely difficult to endure. These types of pain also have their warning signal purpose as well as a healing purpose. By the latter, I mean the kind of pain when bodies, minds and souls are creating the scar tissue that holds together what was cut open. So, it is true that pain can have a good purpose but there are many times when that original purpose has been outlived and the pain continues or the suffering is not proportionate to the original trigger/injury.
Many times those who have suffered greatly have needed something ‘good’ to come from it and instead of becoming ‘victims’ they start charities or do other things to bring purpose from the pain. These responses do not make the pain good or the suffering itself any easier but they do provide a strength to endure.
What I’ve said so far is true regardless of our faith but, as a Christian, I have so much more. I can’t always understand why God allows specific sufferings but there are things I know that give pain a purpose beyond that already mentioned and is secure regardless of the type of suffering or whether it seems ‘senseless’ or not. As a Christian, I am called to take up my cross and follow Jesus’ example. My goal is to become more like Him and suffering is one of the best ways of moving towards that goal, for me at least! As pain, exhaustion, weakness etc. take their toll, I see my selfishness, self-dependence, pride, fear, etc. all the more clearly and the clearer my spiritual vision, the better I am able to repent of these (and other) sins and practice becoming more like Christ.
I also have the security, as a child of God, of knowing I can trust both the nature and character of who God is (His goodness, sovereignty, power etc.) and His promises (I’m not in this alone (Joshua 1:9), He has a good purpose for this in the end (Rom 8:28-29), He won’t let anything go beyond what I can spiritually survive with His help (1 Cor 10:13) etc.). Sometimes our suffering is due to our loving Father stripping away the idols that we have wrongly relied on and/or craved in His place. He doesn’t want us settling for second best, especially when it is light years behind the ‘best’ He offers us and longs for us to accept.
Whatever the reason for our suffering, as a beloved child of Almighty God, we can be certain there is a good purpose for it. Some of that good purpose is about changing us and growing us now, some of it is showing a lost world what we have is so different than they expect, and some of it has a purpose that may not be known until Heaven.
Ultimately He is my purpose, whether suffering or not. When suffering, is your purpose to escape the pain at all costs or do you want to bring God glory through the pain and let Him change you in the process? Do you trust His purposes? I choose, daily (oftentimes more frequently), to say “Your Will be done, Lord.”
“Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life; you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and your right hand delivers me. The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.”
(Psalms 138:7-8a ESV)[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]