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Why do we experience pain?

One of the toughest questions in life is the question of “Why pain?” Why do the people I love struggle so? Why do we have to go through hard times? Where is God in the midst of the pain?   Sometimes, I’ve had so much pain in my life, I’ve just wanted to howl at the moon. The pain has felt …
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes
One of the toughest questions in life is the question of “Why pain?” Why do the people I love struggle so? Why do we have to go through hard times? Where is God in the midst of the pain?
Sometimes, I’ve had so much pain in my life, I’ve just wanted to howl at the moon. The pain has felt overwhelming – there were just no answers. Each new day felt as miserable as the one before it.
In times of prolonged emotional pain, I got depressed. When I was an adolescent, the pain and the depression lasted for years. 
It’s normal in times like these for people get mad at God and reject him. They give up. How can God both be good and so seemingly impotent or uncaring? It doesn’t make sense. Some people cope with pain like that by descending into neurosis.
The Boomer generation, in response to the pain they endured, sought to buffer their children from pain. I’ve watched my friends join the legions of helicopter parents swooping in to protect their kids from the pain of bad grades or poor performance.
Then the pendulum swung the other direction as their children didn’t know how to deal with pain. It became normal to retreat into victim status. Never having experienced healthy levels of pain, they struggled with what to do with their pain. Henri Nouwen’s notion that, “the first step toward healing is often a step toward our pain” seems counter-intuitive. Easier to hide from the pain.
But there’s the problem – we need pain to grow. Growth requires more failure than success. Look at all the falls you take as you learn to walk or ride a bike. How do you grow when you’ve been rescued from failure? How do you learn resilience without resistance? How does a muscle grow without the cells being torn down and rebuilt?
C.S. Lewis on Pain
Extreme pain seems unfair – how are we to understand it? Theologians attempt to solve this philosophical Rubik’s cube with convoluted explanations, but hurt has a logic all it’s own. C.S. Lewis wrote the definitive book on the subject, The Problem of Pain (get it for free here). Here are a few quotes:
“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.”
“Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden.”
“The human spirit will not even begin to try to surrender self-will as long as all seems to be well with it…Pain is unmasked, unmistakable evil; every man knows that something is wrong when he is being hurt.” 
“The real problem is not why some pious, humble, believing people suffer, but why some do not.” 
“Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself” 
“When pain is to be born, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and…the love of God more than all.” 
“Everyone feels benevolent if nothing happens to be annoying him at the moment.”
The book of Job
The book of Job is a magisterial treatment of the subject of pain from God’s perspective. Job loses everything in life and his suffering is unbearable. He says, “my groans pour out like water.”
Initially, Job’s friends are wonderful. They sit with Job in his pain for a week in silence. If you’re going to engage in a conversation about pain with a person who is coping with it, the best response is not words, but empathy.
But then they turn to words. When they do begin speaking, Job’s friends miss it badly. Their explanations and advice just rub salt in the wound. How many times have you been going through a season of pain and anything your friends or family tried to do to comfort you fell woefully short?
Pain has a language all it’s own. It isolates us from the things that bring color to life. It robs us of the ability to laugh. We’re alone with our thoughts and the thoughts just lead us further into dark places.


Four reasons
Your pain is unique to you. But sometimes it’s necessary and God has a redemptive purpose behind it. Here are four: 

1) To show us the consequences of evil. Actions have consequences. God has established spiritual principles that lead to joyful living. Choose not follow them and you’ll suffer the consequences.

2) To lead us out of self-reliance and into a place of dependence. And from there, to a place of intimacy with him. Most of us have to exhaust our own resources in order to begin looking around for other resources.

3) To make us better channels for God’s power. God knows that if we mistake his power for our own, our egos will begin to puff up. As pride appears, we will become poor stewards of his power.

4) To equip us to better train others. As we experience what those we train will experience, we can help them to understand the consequences of their actions and to choose their behavior more carefully.

Why else would God allow us to experience pain? How has God used pain in your life?

Comments (16)

  • We experience the discomforts of pain so that we will know how bad it feels and learn how to prevent it, and eventually be grateful of each moment that we are without it.

    The Bible is loaded with teachings of consequences(pains)of sins…it’s like we are offered a “light” for our taking…if we don’t take and use those lights and we stumble,can we blame the darkness?

    AS humans we always like to learn the hard way, so we stumble, we suffer,we get hurt…the good news is that the Bible also has a long list of “what to dos” in case we stumble and get hurt.

    The Bible is like a vaccine…it’s there to immune us from the disease called pain…but in case we catch the disease before we get the vaccine…well, as doctors always says…its the best natural immunity one can have.. for to experience how it is, makes us really resistant the next time the same disease attacks us!

    Hope this thinking helps…it helped me cope in both the small and big pains I have…your article helps me too! It added to what I know through my experience on pain! Thanks for posting it.

  • #7 resonates with me big time. I have struggled and worked through a lot of emotional challenges. And even though I feel that I have mastered them, they will resurface every great once in awhile. I often think that it’s God’s way of keeping me in touch with people’s pain. I usually pretty happy, and if I didn’t have periodic moments of pain to deal with, I think I would get arrogant and forget how much it sucks and not be able to help others.

  • Pain can isolate us from others, but it can also draw us into community as we count on (or give thanks for) those who offer care during crisis.

  • Just some thought that come to my mind are:

    Without suffering, there would be no need for compassion. Without pain, there would be no space for the expression of the deep kind of love.

    It seems to me, we learn compassion through our own suffering which then transfers to the suffering of others.

    Could we exist without it? Sure, but our experience and understanding of love would lacking much. Imagine if you completely took away all need for and expressions of compassion. How much more shallow would love be?

    Along with compassion comes comfort. If there was no pain, there would be no need for comfort. If there was no pain (or suffering, struggle, difficulty), faithfulness would be almost irrelevent since it is in times of difficulty that faithfulness is tested.

    Acceptance would have no need if there were not also the possability of rejection. Safety would have no place if there were not the possability of harm.

    Really, the more I think about it, I cannot come up with one word that I associate with love that would not become irrelevent outside of the context of pain. Love would loose all meaning if it were not for pain.

  • To make heroes.

    Philippians 3:10-14
    10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

    12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

  • Two thoughts:
    After watching two of my best friends pack up and move out for a new adventure, I’m learning that pain is a signal of your investment, of the importance of others, of the depth of community that is possible in Christ. Thus pain can be a reminder of the goodness available to us.

    Second, I once heard Tony Dungee speak shortly after he lost his oldest son. He shared quite openly about the pain his family was experiencing, and then he told the story of one of his younger sons who has a medical condition that blocks any sensation of pain. And he shared that he envied his son’s freedom until he realized how much pain is a guide, keeping us from the harmful things and pushing us toward healthier things. He said his son (who was quite young at the time) doesn’t know that you’re not supposed to pull the cookie sheet out of the oven without an oven mitt, or that you should let the cookies cool before eating them. He doesn’t feel pain, but the wounds and burns are still there. From working with his son, Tony learned that pain is a purposeful gift, and that’s something that’s always stayed with me.

  • I am currently reading “The Gift of Pain” by Dr Paul Brand and P. Yancey. The “West” I am afraid cannot know the depths of pain as others in such suffering parts of the world. To even look at photographs of refugees and their plight is almost unbearable. Pain in my life has seen the beauty of God running thru it which otherwise would not have seen. Is not pain the greatest teacher. We cling. Its the only sauve that helps. Heaven, oh heaven. No more pain. Thank You God for our great Hope, Here and now and there.

  • Yeah – sometimes you get so tired of it that you want to tap out – thus the opioid epidemic and the rise in suicides.

  • I think pain can make us more empathetic and compassionate towards others as well! Awesome blog, Seth! 🙂

  • This is exactly where I’m at and it’s been the theme of me Race. I love this! I working on how to get this concept in a children’s book. What a blessing it would be for our children to understand this lesson early and how to lean into the lessons of pain! I can’t wait to get together!

  • Glad to hear, Rashidat. We especially need children’s books to help refugee kids. I know that Julie Mudd will be a good one for you to talk to as well as she deals with the special needs that 2 of her kids have everyday. I believe they could be combined with art therapy to help them grieve.

    Other books for special categories of pain are out there, like this one: https://www.fmcpaware.org/why-does-mommy-hurt.html

  • I linked over to this from Christina’s blog she wrote on pain. I’ve learned in my life, and am learning continually- that there is a wisdom that comes only from brokenness and pain in our life. My mother always told me as a child that I insisted on learning things the hard way. She’s right- and I’ve been consistent my whole life in this behavior. I do know that the lessons and things I’ve learned from those painful times have been more far reaching and deeper in my heart than things I just walked through with no cost to myself. Any grace, any good, any empathy I have has come from those place where God literally broke me. So that I could see Him and his grace and mercy for me. Such a good read. PS- Love CS Lewis. He just speaks to the soul, doesn’t he?

  • This really resonated, Seth:
    “Pain has a language all it’s own. It isolates us from the things that bring color to life. It robs us of the ability to laugh. We’re alone with our thoughts and the thoughts just lead us further into dark places.”

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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