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Does God Want Us to Suffer?

Sep 24 2010
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 this with what she calls disintegrative pain: "pain that cannot be reconciled with one's sense of self, but undermines and destroys it, as the pain of surgery differs from the pain of disease, even when they result in the same tissue damage."

Pain's transformative nature plays a central role in Christian belief. One need only look toward Jesus' crucifixion to see this. In fact, as Thernstrom explains, crucifixion maximizes pain by targeting body parts that are particularly pain-sensitive, such as the hands. Through Jesus' painful death, we receive salvation and new life. Thernstrom explains Christianity's perspective on pain: "The God of the Gospels answers the problem of pain not by removing it from human life, but by sharing it …. [Christ] suffers unto death, showing Christians not how to evade pain, but how to welcome its redemptive possibilities."

Unfortunately, understanding pain's redemptive possibilities can lead to romanticizing pain, scorning pain relief, and failing to recognize pain's destructive power. In the 19th century, for example, it took decades for anesthetics to become widely used, even after physicians knew that they worked. Surgeons perceived the extreme pain of surgery as a necessary step in healing and a fundamental quality of their work. Christian churches claimed that medication to ease labor opposed the will of God, who had imposed labor pain upon women after Eve's disobedience.

Today, people often respond to others' pain with clichés: "Everything happens for a reason," or, "God won't give you more than you can handle," glossing over the hard realities of pain in favor of the lessons to be learned. In a fascinating study, philosopher Rebecca Kukla showed that giving birth without pain medication has for some become a test of modern women's suitability for motherhood, noting that " 'good' mothers deliver vaginally without pain medication [while] 'bad' mothers make 'selfish' choices," including epidurals and C-sections. Thernstrom also notes that chronic pain patients (particularly women and African Americans) have their complaints misunderstood or dismissed and their dependence on medication quickly pegged as weakness or addiction. Our culture operates under the assumption that "pain is gain" (and that an inability or unwillingness to bear it is a character flaw).

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Does God Want Us to Suffer?