The problem of pain

(Disclaimer: I’m a huge hypocrite, so this is what I would like to do, not what I do.  Long post, slightly ranty.)

The Galbena River Cave in Apuseni mountainsDo you guys like music?  There is a great band out there for a bit called “Mumford and Sons”, and they have a great song called “The Cave”.  We’ll get to this later.

Last night and this morning I’ve been pondering sickness, suffering, and death.  Pain.  Why we have it, what it means.  It started with a bit of new legislation in New Zealand, actually, that wants to allow assisted suicide for the terminally ill and seriously injured.  Then I got a bit of news about suffering, and how it should end.  I’m also reminded of my first ALS clinic, where the psychiatrist was quite concerned I would take my own life, and was adamant that I have no guns in the house.

So let us get down to tacks of brass.

What’s the problem of pain?  CS Lewis wrote on this much more eloquently in his book by the same title, so I’m not going to recap.  Go read his book, then come back, I’ll wait.  Ok you set?  Let’s make it visceral then.  Why do we have pain?  Why does my nephew’s arm break if he falls wrong, why does my niece have migraines, my sister have foot pain,  my nephew have joint pain from Lyme’s, etc?  What’s it for?  When you stub your toe, why does it hurt?  When a man gets hit in the private areas, why does it hurt?  (Is it real enough for you yet?  Do you have the image of pain in your mind?). The problem of pain is an often used argument for atheism or agnosticism, why would a good God allow pain?  Lewis does a great job explaining this, again.  And heck Peter Kreeft explains what Lewis means so go read his stuff too.

I get it, immediate and temporary pain isn’t the same as a terminal illness or a serious injury.  We should put those people down like horses with a broken leg, right?  Oh, it’s ok if they choose it?  That makes it all better?  So if I choose to put myself down like a horse, or a cat or dog, it’s totally ok then because rationally I’m making a decision that rationally makes sense?  Ok… then why can’t I just shoot myself?  Why is the shrink all worried that I’m going to do that?  What does it matter?  The hypocrisy here is just sickening, now that I get down to it.  If I rupture my achilles, I can’t walk and I need help, just put me down.  The old, the sick, the disabled… put ’em down.  No?  If you aren’t useful to society or can’t survive on your own or are in pain, what’s the problem?  Aren’t we already treated this way?  If suffering is bad, tell me why.  Tell me why it’s ok to “end my suffering” just because I’m suffering.  Tell me why God wouldn’t allow it and doesn’t exist.  But don’t turn around and tell me that I matter, don’t ask me to go to the doctor or tell me that I can’t consider doing something to myself (I think the doc’s just want to earn the $$ from the visit, honestly.). DON’T LIE TO ME AND ACT LIKE YOU CARE.

Let me throw this out there in no uncertain terms- I am not a horse, or a cat or dog, or any other non-rational animal out there.   I’m a human being.  But like them, I feel pain.  I have suffering.  What makes it different is that I have a rational capacity for thought, for reason, for imagination.  I can take that pain and that suffering and make sense of it.  And I think I made sense of suffering and pain, in my own weird way.

That’s right, I’ve SOLVED the problem of pain.

Remember Mumford?  That song “The Cave”….  “Come out of your cave walking on your hands, and see the world hanging upside down.  You can understand dependence when you know the maker’s land.”  I want you, dear reader to stand on your head (mentally if you can’t do it physically) and look at the world again.  I want you to think about why we don’t just kill you when you stub your toe.  Now, you have this image…. pain, suffering, it is a part of the human condition.  It’s part of being human.  I’m not saying it’s because of original sin, of course it is.  But it’s actually the most natural thing that happens.  That is the opposite of what we normally think.

Don’t agree with me?  Ask any athlete that is successful.  Have they ever encountered pain?  Suffering?  Trials?  Ask them if an easy victory when there is no competition is more satisfying than pushing oneself beyond the physical limits to become the best.  Ask a physicist if solving a difficult problem is more satisfying than an easy one.  2+2 is less satisfying than force = mass x acceleration.  Elon Musk isn’t happy with a Prius.  Ask yourself, why is it that the most rewarding things in life come from hard work and yes, suffering, to reach the goal?

The problem of pain is that we don’t realize there is a goal in the suffering.  The hard work to put on a shirt in the morning, the effort to go through the chemo, to sit while your wife has to help you do things that months before were so second nature you never thought about, all of that has a goal.  What is it?  To be human.  To understand humanity to the fullest ever experienced.  This only makes sense in Christ.  The problem of pain is solved in Jesus.  Suffering goes from something to be avoided to something to be embraced, because Jesus experienced it, arguably the most excruciating (oh… crux = cross, wow, didn’t even think about that) torture and death devised by man.  If you ever want to understand how cruel man can be, look at crucifixion – intelligent minds coming up with a way to cause the most pain possible.  But now it’s redeemed, it has no power, no sting.  Because it’s been enfolded into the human existence as a purpose of good.

If you don’t agree with this, if you don’t believe Jesus did this for us, then it makes no sense.  And it will never make any sense at all to you.  And the world will continue to be hypocrites, saying that terminal patients have the right to die like animals (who, by the way, won’t kill themselves) while also saying how wonderful it is that such and such star overcame X form of cancer.  I can’t help you with the hypocrisy, I can only point it out and ask you to see.

All I can do is tell you this: that while suffering sucks, there is a happiness that comes in accepting it that I can’t explain.  I have a purpose, to deal with, overcome, and sacrifice to have this illness as a human being – it’s the greatest physical challenge I can face.  I know that in having this illness, I get to experience the fullness of the human condition, and that turns the world on it’s head.  I still work for a cure, pray for miracles.  I also work in my condition to improve the lives of mankind because they don’t/won’t/haven’t experienced what I have.  I couldn’t have asked for a bigger blessing than getting Lou Gehrig’s disease, and I can’t believe God has graced me with it.

In closing – I think suffering isn’t something that we cut short out of mercy to the patient. It’s to ease our own unease about it, because we don’t understand it.  Keep on, Keep fighting, hold fast, because the goal is more than worth it.


(Tune in next time to see a first post on Heroes, part of a series.)

9 thoughts on “The problem of pain”

  1. Joe, Interesting read. I went through Dementia with my Dad. He was in a different world. I was the one feeling the pain of seeing my Dad slipping away. But, not for a second would I have thought of ending his life. He of course was beyond a rational decision. Yes, the DRs worry about you having guns in the house. They have seen people that have used them because they couldn’t stand the pain or wanted to spare their families from seeing them suffer. I think it’s now mandatory for them to ask the question. Hang in there Joe. I do miss your corny jokes.


  2. I may have overshared the triumph of my own pain thanks to your healing words of faith, but I can’t help to bring it up again now. Reading this post just resurrects all of those memories. You more than got this, Joe. Stay strong! Praying for you and your family always.


  3. Joe, I know your Mom and Dad very well, and hope I get the opportunity to meet
    you one day. I just read your post of the Problem of Pain and admire your and Mel’s courage. I can well understand your thoughts and feelings. In the past six months, I have been in excruciating pain seeing many physicians and with no relief in sight. I started to doubt that God is all merciful and prayed that he would just get me out of this situation. Finally I started to listen to Him instead of myself. I listened to all my friends who were saying to offer it up for those more in need. I finally started listening to God and my friends, and I was referred to a spine physician who looked at my MRI and x-rays, and said “I can fix this” Three weeks ago I went through two surgeries, and I am now at home recuperating. No more excruciating pain, just some tiredness and achiness in my back, but I can stand up straight and walk. It took me a while to give into God’s plan but I now understand what he was teaching me. That is why I admire you and Mel. You are trusting and not giving in. I know the difficult days and fatigue of the caregiver. Every week, some of my friends come together for a Divine Mercy Cenacle, and we have been remembering you in our prayers and will now add Mel because she needs the strength and support to help you. God bless you and may your trip to Lourdes be miraculous. Also that the UMass treatment is approved.


    1. Judy, you are in my prayers and I’m so happy to hear your are recovering from your pain and surgeries! I hope we get to meet you in person too! Thank you for your witness and your prayers! God bless!


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