People, especially in the Western world, now live in an age of the therapeutic. Great and innovative efforts have been expended so as to make existence on this earth as comfortable as possible. The types of drudgery which defined most of human existence is now often reckoned as much as an inconvenience as anything else: obtaining and preparing food, keeping a house clean, getting from place to place, etc. Many drugs have been developed to numb physical pain; other drugs are designed to help a person endure mental pain and trauma. People go out of their way to try to cause as little emotional distress for others as possible. If and when emotional distress takes place, all effort is expended to eliminate that distress as soon as possible.
Modern emphasis on the therapeutic goes hand in hand with a renewed emphasis on one of the fundamental premises of the Epicurean philosophy: the goal to live as pain-free as possible. We can understand the appeal; who in their right mind wants to live a life saturated with pain and misery? But should our life’s goal be to avoid pain at all costs? What are the “side effects” of such a goal?
Pain and discomfort are not most people’s idea of a good time, and yet pain and discomfort exist for good reasons. Pain and discomfort, in and of themselves, are not the problem; they point out that the problem exists. Something is not entirely well with the body; pain signals are sent. Something is not quite right in our environment; we feel discomfort.
It is not as if people throughout time have been ignorant regarding pain and discomfort. For millennia people have sought any means, however desperate, to secure the favor of perceived greater spiritual forces so as to avoid all things painful and difficult and to succeed and prosper. In the ancient Near East people were likely to blame themselves insufficiently righteous if all went terribly, and to believe themselves blessed by the gods if all went well; the greatest horror would be to imagine that the wicked might prosper and the righteous suffer, for how then could discomfort be avoided (cf. Job 3:1-37:24, Ecclesiastes 1:2-12:8)? People today may no longer believe in such gods but their aims remain similar. Many wish to believe we can somehow eliminate all evils and discomfort through “progressive” policy and technological innovation. No doubt much discomfort has been reduced, and yet new forms of discomfort are manifest: a lack of community, a feeling of rootlessness, and a wonder of what the purpose and value of life might be. How many spend their lives self-medicating their pain with sex, drugs, and alcohol, or other types of unhealthy coping mechanisms? How many will endure great mental and emotional duress, holding in various types of pain, lest they cause others discomfort? People attempt to smooth over, ignore, or actively try to avoid anything that manifestly causes discomfort, like illness, death, or even things like disagreement among people. Such is what happens when avoiding pain is the goal of life.
Pain, discomfort, and suffering exist because sin is in the world (Romans 5:12-21, 8:18-23). Sin has brought disorder into God’s good creation; decay, corruption, and death follow from it. Things, therefore, are never fully well or good in the creation; we can never be fully comfortable while we remain subject to sin and death. Pain, discomfort, and suffering remind us that all is not well; they prove constant reminders of how we cannot hope in this world alone (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:13). We are not perfect, we are not really in charge, and we are subject to significant limitations. We cannot do everything we might want to do; our bodies can only take so much expenditure of effort. As C.S. Lewis so aptly spoke, pain is often God’s megaphone to us, reminding us that we remain entirely dependent on Him and do not maintain sufficient strength in ourselves.
The people of God of old did not enjoy pain and suffering, but they learned to endure it and obtain the benefits which come from that endurance (cf. James 1:2-3, 1 Peter 1:3-9). The Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations provided, and still provide, a voice for the people of God to give full vent to their pain, frustrations, and difficulties while in distress, while establishing a path forward to abide in faith. We learn humility and dependence through pain and suffering; we come to grips with our own difficulties, challenges, and are given reason to acknowledge our own sins and failings through pain and suffering. Empathy and sympathy can flow, and communality among people increase, when we prove willing to sit with others in their pain and distress.
So much of modern society is predicated on the attempt to avoid any kind of pain or discomfort. And yet the people of God do well to always remember that pain and suffering are part and parcel of life in this fallen, corrupted creation. Pain and suffering continually remind us why we hope for the resurrection to come and a world in which there will be no pain (1 Corinthians 15:51-58, Revelation 21:1-4). Until then, while we may take some steps to help avoid, lessen, or limit pain, we must not foolishly believe that we can just ignore or fully eliminate pain and suffering. We must not become numb to the world and its difficulties; we must not withdraw into escapist ideology. People are in distress; we must sympathize and empathize. Attempts to brush pain and suffering aside or to always feel the need to smooth things over says more about us than we might like to admit. As long as we are in the flesh, we do well at times to endure times of discomfort so as to learn the virtues of faith from them. It is only through suffering and difficulty that we can grow and mature as disciples of Christ; it was only through suffering the cross that the Lord Jesus could obtain the victory over sin and death, and we have been called to follow in His steps (1 Peter 2:18-25). May we prove willing to endure discomfort so as to gain the resurrection!
Ethan R. Longhenry