Sunday, December 14, 2008

Appreciating The Gift of Pain

Some time ago, I read an excellent book, by Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, entitled The Gift of Pain. Today I was browsing through back issues of the Chicago Tribune, and I discovered an article (12-1-2008, page 22, by Ofelia Casillas) which discussed the same issues. She mentions a website ( which is written from the perspective of people who live with such issues.

Nobody likes physical pain. Most of us would probably like to live in a world in which such pain did not exist. Such a world might indeed be ideal, if it were not for the fact that we are susceptible to injuries and illnesses which can damage our bodies in numerous ways. However, there is an easy way to see what the effects would be if we could not feel physical pain, and that's to examine the lives of the small number of people who have neurological impairments which prevent them from being able to feel such pain. That's what the book by Brand and Yancey is about. It really helps one to see such matters through a whole new perspective.

Pain is our best indicator of health problems which need to be addressed. Without pain, we tend to ignore such issues. Even though we might wish for a pain-free world, we should be glad that God designed our bodies so that they would alert us to physical problems which needed to be addressed.

Admittedly, there are times when chronic pain is caused by neurological malfunctions, just as there are times when people who ought to feel physical pain do not in fact feel such pain on account of such malfunctions. Pain isn't infallible as an indication of physical problems, but it would nevertheless be foolish to ignore pain unless one has very little choice in the matter.

Even when pain is an indication of a real problem, there is nothing wrong with attempting to relieve pain whenever possible. Once pain has served its purpose of calling our attention to matters which urgently need to be addressed, there's no point in allowing pain to linger any more than is absolutely necessary. In fact, allowing pain to linger can, in some cases, hinder effective treatment. There's a good reason for the extensive use of anesthesiology in the operating room. Part of the reason is to prevent needless suffering, and part of the reason is to help to keep the patient as still and relaxed as possible so that the surgeon can do his or her job as effectively as possible. But it isn't sufficient to relieve the pain. The surgeon must then act on the knowledge which he or she has acquired, and actually treat the injury or disease, lest he or she be guilty of professional incompetence.

It's hard not to see some metaphorical significance when examining the issue of pain, because we often experience pain which isn't necessarily physical in nature.

For example, when a person persistently brings problems to our attention, our unfortunate human tendency is to resent the messenger. We might even say that such a person is "being a real pain". That may be true. But the "pain" is not usually the primary problem. In most cases, the "pain" is simply making us aware of the problem. To hold it against the messenger that he or she is making us aware of the problem is illogical, because the problem existed before we were ever made aware of the problem. If indeed there is a problem which needs to be addressed, we should be grateful that someone cared enough to call it to our attention. The longer that problems are ignored, the worse they tend to get. (As a person who sometimes has issues with procrastination, I can attest to that fact.) The result of ignoring problems in the hope that they will magically disappear can sometimes be tragic.

This is true of any family, organization or business. But it's especially pertinent when it comes to the Church, which (interestingly enough) is also described in the Bible as the Body of Christ.

I wrote in an earlier article about what I described as "happy face churches," where people are encouraged to keep it to themselves when they experience problems. This kind of attitude is counterproductive if the goal is to create a thriving and healthy church. Ignoring problems does not make them go away, although doing so may very well drive people away from one's church.

In some Christian churches, there is a tradition of acknowledging that sins can be sins of commission or sins of omission. A sin of omission occurs when a person fails to do something positive in order to address a problem which is brought to that person's attention.

Edmund Burke once wrote, “All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.” is the web address for one page in which the applicability of Burke’s observation is appropriately noted.

We are not always in a position to help, but we ought to help whenever possible. And it should be remembered that the Church is collectively capable of ministering to needs which cannot be met by solitary individuals (or even by individual local churches), provided that those in charge of local churches are not indifferent to their responsibilities to their members and to members of the human community who don't necessarily happen to attend their churches.

When one goes to the hospital, the doctor encourages one to tell him (or her) where it hurts. It isn't that the doctor loves hearing that other people are in pain. It's simply that the doctor knows that an accurate diagnosis is essential if the injury or illness is to be properly treated. Clear communications are essential if the chances of complete healing are to be maximized.

People, and Christians in particular, need to be much more receptive to those who wish to openly express their pain and to communicate freely about problems which need to be addressed, whether those problems be physical, emotional, relational, financial, vocational or whatever. Only by being made aware of problems can we properly address those problems in an appropriate manner.

People employed in the ministry, including (but not limited to) pastors, have a special obligation to be sensitive to the needs of hurting people. Just as it would be foolish for people who can’t handle hearing about people’s physical ailments to go into the field of medicine, it is equally foolish for people who can’t handle hearing about people’s emotional and spiritual issues to go into the ministry. When one is a minister of the gospel, dealing with hurting people is not a distraction from one’ job — it’s a significant and necessary aspect of that job. Those who are unable or unwilling to perform that particular job function are professionally incompetent, no matter how eloquently they may preach the gospel.

If Christian leaders abdicate their moral and professional responsibility to listen to hurting people in a caring, compassionate manner, they should not be surprised when those people turn to secular counselors for help, nor should they be surprised when the humanistic beliefs which are often espoused by such counselors have an adverse effect on the moral values and spiritual commitments of people who have been abandoned or betrayed by church leaders.

We Christians must take care not to send mixed messages to hurting people. It is possible to say that our doors are open to people who are hurting, and yet to turn around and use hostile, needlessly judgmental language which — intentionally or unintentionally — sends a completely different message.

When people open themselves up and talk honestly about their fears and their painful memories, they make themselves extremely vulnerable to those who would abuse them — and make no mistake about it, neglect is a form of abuse. Telling people to “get over it” when they share painful intimacies with us is tantamount to telling them to keep their problems to themselves. It communicates the idea that we are not really interested in them or in the issues with which they may be struggling.

If we truly want to help people to transcend their problems, the best way to do so is to offer comfort comparable to the comfort which is offered by the Holy Spirit, the ultimate comforter.

Telling a person not to think about certain things has been proven to be ineffective. If I tell you, “Don’t think about pink elephants,” chances are good that you will be unable to put the idea of pink elephants out of your mind. The same principle is true with respect to painful memories. The way to heal such memories is not to command people not to think about negative things. The proper solution is to replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts.

In short, we need to emphasize the idea that even though people have been hurt in the past, Jesus is waiting with his arms outstretched, ready and willing to heal wounded people. We need to emphasize the idea that we will do everything in our power to love people, just as God loves us. We cannot change the painful incidents in the past, but we can do our best to make sure that such things do not happen again in the future.

Painful memories seldom if ever disappear entirely (unless people literally get amnesia), but such memories gradually recede in importance when people gain newfound confidence and optimism based on the Christ-like behavior of people with whom they interact on a regular basis.

Such healing is rarely an instant thing. Just as physical injuries and illnesses usually take time to heal, the same is true with regard to emotional and spiritual healing. Yes, there are occasional exceptions to that rule, in which healing is instantaneous, but expecting such instant healings to take place in every instance is unrealistic. Such an expectation is somewhat comparable to saying that since Peter was once able to walk on water with the help of the Holy Spirit, we should all therefore abandon the use of boats and walk on water as our normal mode of marine transportation! Many of the miracles which occurred during Bible times happened only once, never to happen again. Therefore, basing one’s entire methodology on the assumption that such miracles are guaranteed in every situation is literally unbiblical. We should always have faith that God is able to work miracles if God so chooses, but we should also be prepared to do the hard work which is necessary to bring about healing and restoration in the event that such miracles never take place in particular circumstances. If we are willing to be the instruments with whom the Holy Spirit brings healing into people’s lives, God will gladly use us in such a manner, to the mutual benefit of all concerned. When that happens, we will have fulfilled our responsibilities with regard to how we ought to respond to the reality of this sometimes-painful world in which we live.

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