Pain has its own noble joy, when it starts a strong consciousness of life, from a stagnant one.John Sterling
Several months ago I began reading a great deal of C.S. Lewis. I had become fascinated with his unique way of putting old ideas in “new clothes,” to make you take a second look at things that you thought you already knew. About a month ago, I read his book The Problem of Pain, in which he attempts to answer the philosophical issues that arise when we live in a world full of pain, yet claim to believe in a loving, good, and all-powerful God. Honestly, I can’t say that I understand philosophy well enough to know if he makes a very compelling case or not. I’m certainly not going to try and tell you, dear reader, that I have it figured out.
I have had a fair amount of pain in my life, both emotional and physical. More pain than some, and less than many. The most painful time was two years in college, when I succumbed to severe depression. Somehow, I managed to survive (I claim God’s grace and the love and support of family and friends), but I haven’t ever forgotten the deadness and indescribable mental suffering. One of the most difficult parts of that depression was my belief that things would never get better, and there was no hope of ever being happy again. Ultimately, it felt like the suffering was completely meaningless.
I’ve had brushes with depression since then, but it has never become as debilitating. There are many complex reasons, I’m sure, but I think one of the reasons is that once I had finally faced the end of that depression and looked back, I realized that it was not all in vain. To my surprise, I had actually learned and grown. It took me a long time to admit it, but I actually grew from that pain in ways that I might not have otherwise. I learned new coping skills, learned that harmful behaviors and thought patterns can be unlearned, and that it’s dangerous to live life solo. I learned to feel for others in deep pain, and I learned to rely on God, even if my feelings told me he didn’t exist. It is likely I learned things of which I am still unaware.
More recently, I’ve been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that left me unable to function for several weeks (still flaring on occasion), and dealt with chronic pain for nearly two years. Chronic pain is a strange experience. Each morning I’ll get up and hope, “Today will be different,” but it is usually only a few minutes before I feel that familiar but unwelcome twinge, signaling another day of mysterious aches and pains. There are plenty of times when I’ve been so frustrated that depression begins to envelop me like a dark cloud… but this time, something is a bit different. This time, I haven’t ever lost hope completely. I believe that one day I’ll find a cause for the problems and get blessed relief. But even if that day never comes I’ll continue to find purpose in living. Even, in fact, purpose in the pain.
We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.C.S. Lewis
You may wonder how someone can believe that a loving God can actually use suffering for good. I don’t pretend to have a great answer for that. Frankly, I’m not even going to tell you to “Be cheerful, because this will all turn out well in the end.” That’s not especially helpful, and I can’t even figure out what God’s doing with my life; I’m not going to attempt to tell you what He means with yours. What I can tell you that He has used the suffering for good in my life.
When I think back to the times in my life where I grew the most as a person, in character, or in faith, with almost zero exceptions that growing period coincided with a time of great hardship, suffering, or sacrifice. It’s similar to a law of motion (I forget which; my inner high school science nerd just died a bit): we tend to go on with our busy, distracted lives. We are often consumed with things that aren’t terribly important in the long run, until something gets in the way. We rarely choose to make a change until the pain or suffering of not changing becomes more uncomfortable than making the change itself. Our loneliness becomes painful enough to compel us to seek out others, despite our reclusive compulsions. Physical illness finally forces us to get more sleep, eat better, get more active. Even our own consciences may eventually feel enough suffering in the form of guilt to cause us to change our behavior, quit a bad habit, make a relationship right again. Frankly, if we always had bliss, there would be no reason for us to keep growing.
Before I get too carried away, let me say this: I don’t believe that suffering in itself is good. Suffering, in and of itself, is not honorable or valuable. Rather, it’s the change and growth that often comes as a result of suffering that is important. In many cases, suffering is essential to our growth… but never forget that it’s a choice. Suffering can make you bitter, angry, hard, and cruel — or it can make you grow.
Many of you have experienced far more suffering than I have. Compared to most people in the world, I’ve lived a rather sheltered life. And I won’t tell you to just “cheer up.” What I can do is share my story. I can tell you how I can look back on my most difficult times and see how they changed me for the better. I can tell you how now, when I am in pain every day and still wonder what may be going on, I can face each morning with confidence and hope. Over time, I have learned that I can’t do everything by myself, and it’s okay to give yourself a break. I’ve learned that suffering can keep us from getting too attached to material things. I’ve learned patience, and that I’m capable of more strength than I thought. I’ve learned that when I am at my utter end of strength, God will carry me. Every step of the way, He has been there with me, though I often couldn’t see it until long after.
What’s your story? All of us have some source of secret (or not-so-secret) pain. I can’t make it go away. I can’t even tell you why it’s there. I can’t tell you why that tragedy happened. I can tell you that even in the darkest of times, there is hope. Instead of seeing your pain as a crushing weight, do you think you can see it as an opportunity? An opportunity to be alive, and to grow, and to love and be loved. Your pain is not a good thing, that tragedy was not a good thing. But in God’s hands, it may become more beautiful and precious a part of your story than you can ever imagine.
I will end with this extended quote from C.S. Lewis. It is from the book The Problem of Pain. It may not seem relevant at first… but it is a great encouragement to me. Beyond anything this life can throw at you, you can have hope in something far better after it. No matter how much suffering you endure, or what tragedies befall you, or how evil the world around you gets: you can, even then, have hope.
You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words: but most of your friends do not see it at all, and often wonder why, liking this, you should also like that.C. S. Lewis
Again, you have stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life; and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw — but at the first words a gulf yawns between you, and you realise that this landscape means something totally different to him, that he is pursuing an alien vision and cares nothing for the ineffable suggestion by which you are transported.
Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of — something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat’s side? Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for?
You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it — tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest — if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself — you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say “Here at last is the thing I was made for”. We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.
Take heart, my friend. Be encouraged. You are not alone, and your suffering is not in vain.
Beautifully articulated, Michael! I resonate deeply with what you have penned here. You are wise beyond your years! Peace comes from knowing that irregardless of the terrain we encounter along the journey, He assures us of victory in the end! May God continue to bless you as you seek His face on this wonderfully, wacky, wild-ride we call “life.”