What do we think about pain?
The word itself evokes memories of moments in our lives when we experienced its crippling effect. In fact, few things interrupt our lives more powerfully than the onset of pain, and this can be true not only of our own pain but also of the pain of those we love. Pain can also evoke fear, in that its appearance is often the first indication that something is wrong with our health. Yet, pain is not confined to physical sensations alone and the emotional pain of bereavement, or divorce, or other forms of human loss can be just as acute and just as disabling.
There is a need however to distinguish between the more temporary forms of pain, from which we tend to recover quite quickly, and the experience of prolonged, acute and life threatening pain. The latter can often result in us asking profound questions about the meaning and purpose of life, the rights and wrongs of assisted death and voluntary euthanasia, and even the place of God in allowing people to experience such torment, without intervening. These are difficult and complex questions and we can learn a great deal from the Old Testament character Job, in not looking for simple answers to them.
That does not mean that we should not ask questions, because the Bible itself tells of how the author of the psalms asked some very pertinent questions in the face of suffering, and how he was not afraid to let those questions reflect his anger or despair. Yet, he did not look to God to provide simplistic answers, but in his rage often discovered that God was closer at hand than he had imagined.
Our generation is no different in needing to ask questions, even though ours are sometimes framed in a way that past generations could scarcely have imagined. This is especially true in relation to questions about the rights or wrongs of ending life as a means of resolving intolerable pain, in cases of terminal illness. Individually, Christians hold different opinions on this, but the Church as a whole holds to the belief that the sanctity and God given nature of life is such that we do not have the moral right to end life in this way. Yet, at the same time it encourages and welcomes ever-greater attempts to relieve pain.
This does not exhaust the Christian view on pain. Whilst God may not always remove pain that does not mean that he is indifferent to it. At the heart of the Christian faith is the Cross and the belief that through the life, suffering and death of his Son, Jesus Christ, God knows and shares human suffering and pain and extends his love to us to help us to bear it. At a very human level we know how the love of family and friends can help us in times of suffering; how much more then can the realisation that God responds to our pain by sharing it and equipping us with his strength and love. The Welsh poet R.S. Thomas puts it like this:
the cross is a mystery terrifying enough to be called love
Finally, Christians and other people of faith are called upon to remember that there is more to pain than simply our own experience of it. There are whole areas of our world in which the pain of hunger, homelessness, injustice, and natural disaster is virtually a daily experience. As one national religious leader commented in the aftermath of the pain of the Tsunami: our response to such tragedy should not be to ask: why does God let such things happen? Rather the question of the person of faith should be: ‘how does God want us to help in this situation’? That may well be the most helpful question to ask when faced with the suffering of others: how can we be of help to them.