“[Dr. Paul Brand] was the one, really, who established that [leprosy], which is the oldest recorded disease, and a greatly feared disease. When you say leprosy people think of movies they’ve seen where patients are missing fingers and maybe even a whole hand, amputations, they are blind. And all of those are common manifestations of the disease. But Dr. Brand proved decisively that all of that abuse came simply because those with leprosy lacked pain. So they lacked that warning system that keeps you from reaching your hand into a fire, that forces you to blink every few seconds. And if you just keep your eyes open all day long, forcing them to stay open, they’ll eventually dry out and you’ll go blind. So millions of leprosy patients have gone blind simply because they don’t blink anymore. They lack the signal that says, ‘Blink, blink.’
“And he was the first person I met who said, ‘Thank God for pain. If I had one gift to give to my leprosy patients it would be the gift of pain. And I had spent my life trying to figure out suffering. I couldn’t think of anything good about it. I read lot of books on the problem of pain, the problem of suffering, but never one called, ‘The Gift of Pain.’ And ultimately, the two of us together ended up writing one. And it shifted my focus from, ‘Why do these things happen?’ Which I don’t think the Bible gives us much wisdom about. Job wanted that wisdom very badly, and he never got it from God. God just said, ‘No, that’s not your job. That’s my job. Your job is, ‘Now that they have happened, what are you going to do about it? How are you going to respond? Are you going to trust me or reject me? Is there something redemptive that can come out of this suffering?”
Dear God, I heard this podcast a few days ago, and I’ve been noodling with it in my head ever since. In fact, I probably let it distract me from actually spending much time simply worshipping you. I used my thinking time as a substitute for worship. I’m sorry about that. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth my time. It’s an interesting concept.
So what would the world look like if there were no pain? I suppose it would be easier to ask what my own life would be like if there were no pain. Prosperity gospel preachers would tell me, I think, that no pain is the goal for life. If we are doing it right with you then you will eliminate my pain. You will make it all sunshine and roses. I recently spoke with a woman whose husband died a few years ago. He had a terminal illness with almost no hope for survival. Yet, she expected him to be healed until the moment he died. She still carries the pain of his loss. She still carries, I believe, some anger towards you for letting her down.
As for me, I’ve certainly been disappointed with you over the years. I’ve had things happen, especially with my children, that have caused me tremendous pain. How could you let this happen? Wasn’t I supposed to get some amount of protection from these bad things if I prayed to you regularly, prayed for them, invested in them, etc.? What gives?
But I’ve learned over the last few years that you are doing things I cannot see. It’s in the Bible over and over again. Some of the stories are obvious to us now (although they were not obvious to the people who experienced them). Joseph, Jacob’s son, could not see how his imprisonment by Uncle Ishmael’s descendants would lead to your glory. But there are other stories that are more subtle. Like Naomi. She lost a husband and two sons, but you ultimately redeemed that to give David his great-grandmother, Ruth. As Yancy said above, ours is not to understand why something happened, but to decide how we are going to respond to the situation or circumstance. Will we trust and hope in you, or will we sink into despair?
My wife and I were talking about Steven Curtis and Mary Beth Chapman’s story of when they lost their young daughter in an accident. They really struggled with both the loss and in dealing with each other and how they were processing the loss. Ultimately, they had to learn to both give freedom to the other as to how they needed to walk through and experience the pain, while still experiencing the pain themselves. And they needed to see how they could support the other in their own walk. It’s complicated, but it’s also essential. Right now, my wife and I are experiencing a painful situation, and we are responding differently. Thankfully, this is not our first rodeo with each other, and we are much better at both communicating what we need and also giving each other the freedom and support to go through the situation the way each of us needs to.
But to go back to the first question because I am way off topic. What would it be like to not experience any of this? What would emotional leprosy (as opposed to physical leprosy) look like? I suppose an emotional leper would be completely insensitive to other people. The parts of my that should contain sympathy and empathy would be gone. I would have no tolerance for others. I also wouldn’t have any motivation to do anything. Without the knowledge that even lethargy will cause me harm, I would totally embrace lethargy and laziness. I would be completely irresponsible because there would be no consequences for my irresponsibility.
I was talking recently with someone about the difficulty of parenting because, as adults we know that we only learn and grow through struggle and trials, but as parents our temptation is to protect our children from struggles as much as possible. I have another friend right now who is struggling to know what to do with his 20-year-old son who is living at home and dropped out of college. Does he kick him out? Does he give him space to figure his life out? Where does he draw the line? And what does he do about his wife’s perspective, which is different than his own? And taking a step further back from the situation, what is it that you are doing for him and his wife through this pain? How are you using it to shape them?
Father, I think it is right that pain is good for us, although it is probably still hard for me to label it as a gift. I’d just call it essential to our development as humans. Right now, the only thing that has restored some of the relationships in my life that were broken was pain and hitting bottom. Alcoholics often have to “hit bottom” to decide that they are powerless over alcohol, their lives have become unmanageable, and they need you to restore them to sanity. It doesn’t happen while they are at the bar. It happens the next morning. So I submit myself to whatever you need me to experience. For repentance. For growth. For love. For empathy and sympathy. For knowing what actions to take. For everything. I give it all to you, Father. I don’t need to know why something is the way it is in my life. I just need to know you are in your heaven and all is right in my world, whether I can see it with my eyes or not.
In Jesus’s name I pray,