The Transformative Power of Pain

pope, john paul ii

Pleasure and pain are commonplace in human life. However common they may be, we always seem to be seeking ways to deal with and/or lessen pain as much as possible. One of the implications of this desire seems to be that pain has no use or purpose. I want to explore whether or not this might be true.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer claimed that upon the loss of someone dear to us, God does not fill the void left in our lives, but, rather allows the void and pain to remain. In this way, the memory and relationship to the departed can be kept alive. Along a similar vein, Fulton Sheen remarked that pain was meant to be exhausted in this life in preparation for endless joy in the next. The idea seems to be that pain and loss can help us to focus on and attain that which is truly meaningful. But how is it that such pain and suffering can be the means through which we can experience peace and resignation?

Pleasure and Pain

Ex-Navy SEAL David Goggins recently published a book recounting his life’s story. In it, he details all of the adversity he had to overcome in order to achieve the things he has. Goggins grew up with an abusive father, had to deal with racism at school and in his neighborhood, battled obesity, and struggled in school academically. Through his trails Goggins realized one thing, his life and circumstances presented a binary choice.

He could either hide from his pain and his past, or he could acknowledge it, accept it, and build upon it. Through reflection on his past, he was able to learn more about himself, his weaknesses, and how to overcome them. This did not make the pain go away, but it made it bearable. It allowed him to use his pain as “jet fuel” to achieve his dream of being a Navy SEAL and later and Ultra Marathon competitor.

The basic idea behind what Bonhoeffer, Sheen and Goggins are getting at is that we cannot control what happens to us in life. Every single person will experience joy and suffering, pain and pleasure. Some will have more of one and less of the other and vice versa. However, what everyone has in common is that they cannot choose what they will receive. Life will always give you pleasure and pain automatically.

The Christian Attitude Regarding Pain

Where people go wrong is in thinking that the choice we have to make in life, therefore, is to try to avoid pain altogether and seek after pleasure as much as possible. No, there is no escaping pain. You cannot choose whether or not you will go through something painful, you can choose, however, how you will let that pain affect you. Will you let it define you? Or will you use it as an opportunity to learn, grow, become patient, look at things differently etc?

In general, pleasure drives us to seek more pleasure. Pain, on the other hand, can drive us to build endurance, overcome adversity, and achieve self-mastery. It is true that sometimes pleasure can drive us to excel. For example, many people would like the pleasure of winning an Olympic gold medal. However, that pleasure requires a significant amount of pain in the form of habitual arduous practice and the foregoing of many other pleasures. We cannot escape pain. We can either take up our cross or leave it on the ground.

Christ tells us that the way to life is via the difficult path and the narrow gate (Matthew 7:14). And He also reminds us that if we are to be His disciples then we must deny ourselves and take up our crosses daily and follow after Him (Matthew 16:24). So, we can see that the Christian life is not a life devoid of pain. Salvation does not mean painlessness, it means holiness. And if the Source of all holiness Himself suffered to show us the way to live, how can we not expect to undergo suffering ourselves?

God Himself has given us the ultimate way to turn our pain into jet fuel. He has already gone through all the pain and suffering a man could possibly endure and has conquered it all. And He has given us His grace so that when we undergo pain and suffering we can overcome as well. To be sure, grace will not kill the pain. The loss of a loved one, the ravages of cancer or other diseases, being betrayed etc. will always sting. But grace makes it bearable and allows us to be transformed by that pain into an image of Christ.

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2 thoughts on “The Transformative Power of Pain”

  1. R. Dennis Porch, MD

    As a physician and Professor of Neuro Anesthesiology who in retirement obtained a PsyD to work with emotional pain, I think we must remember that our lives are full of pain and joy. That is the human condition and we have no choice but to endure both. The idea though seen in some parts of Catholicism to endure pain for a self reward on earth or fin heaven or for pleasurable characteristics is sadistic and unhealthy.

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