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Does God Want Us to Suffer?

Physical pain can transform or destroy us. It's best not to determine which category another's pain falls into.

This is the second of two posts on Christian perspectives on physical pain. The first explored the idea of pain relief as a human right.

Melanie Thernstrom, in her critically praised new book, The Pain Chronicles, examines the role of pain in religious belief. "If we try to describe the particular terror of pain," writes Thernstrom, "it seems to lie in the way that it kidnaps consciousness, annihilating the ordinary self." Yet annihilation of the self is precisely what many religious traditions strive for. And "while some pain poses a grave threat," she notes, "other pain paradoxically strengthens the sense of self."

Childbirth, rigorous physical training for sport or career, and coming-of-age rituals in some cultures can all be painful, but participants understand their pain as necessary for transforming the self—into a mother, a champion, a soldier, an adult. Thernstrom refers to this type of pain as integrative; we incorporate it into a positive sense of who we are. Thernstrom contrasts ...

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