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What a Pain

Thomas J Parlette

“What a Pain”

Romans 8: 12-25



Nobody really likes to be in pain. Nobody really enjoys suffering. We would much rather live in a pain free state, enjoying the opposite of pain – which I suppose might be pleasure. But to be accurate, the opposite of pain and suffering is actually comfort. And that is how we would like to live – in comfort, pain-free. Julius Caesar was right when he observed, “It is easier to find men who will volunteer to die, than to find those who are willing to endure pain with patience.”(1)

Yet, pain does have its positives. Sometimes pain is good. For instance, pain serves as an alarm that something is wrong. Some years ago, the late Paul Brand, a doctor who specialized in treating victims of Hansen’s disease – commonly called leprosy – made a great contribution to the care of such patients. He figured out that those who suffered from Hansen’s disease lost fingers and feet not because the disease caused their flesh to rot, as was widely believed, but because they had lost the ability to feel pain. Since those with the disease couldn’t feel pain in their extremities, they frequently injured themselves without knowing it. And since they couldn’t feel that something was wrong, they didn’t seek treatment quickly enough and would develop an infection. Dr. Brand demonstrated that patients with Hansen’s disease could, with treatment and care, go on indefinitely with deformities. He later extended his work to those with diabetes and others who can lose the ability to feel pain.

When Brand wrote a book about his experiences, his working title was “The Gift Nobody Wants.” He believed that far from being something that worked against life, pain is necessary for life. “God designed the human body so that it is able to survive because of pain” he wrote. When the book came out though, it was called “The Gift of Pain.” Dr. Brand wrote early on in that book, “I readily admit that working among pain-deprived people may have given me a skewed perspective. But I regard pain as one of the most remarkable design features of the human body, and if I could choose one gift for leprosy patients, it would be the gift of pain… I do not desire, and cannot imagine, a life without pain… the human species has among it’s privileges the preeminence of pain.”(2)

The great Christian spiritual writer, C.S. Lewis would agree. He once wrote that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience – but shouts in our pains. It is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”(3)

Pain is necessary to let us know something is wrong. Pain and suffering can also be useful as it can make us stronger and more resilient. I’m sure you remember that catch phrase from the 1980’s – no pain, no gain. If you aren’t pushing yourself, if your workout doesn’t hurt – then you are not getting faster, stronger and better. Dr. Brand also acknowledged this positive part of pain, when he wrote in an article in Christianity Today, “I wish people in our culture would cease seeing pain as something to avoid at all costs. If we would, our lives would not only be richer, but our bodies would be healthier.”(4) In other words – no pain, no gain.

The comedic actor Charlie Chaplin applied this attitude to his work, as he once said, “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it.”(5) Chaplin didn’t seek to avoid or ignore his pain and suffering – he used it, he played with it, and was able to make people both feel and laugh.

We may not like the pain and suffering that we must sometimes endure – but it does have its positive attributes.

With that in mind, let’s consider what Paul says to us today through his letter to the Romans. This passage consists of two distinct, but well integrated parts. Paul starts out by talking about living according to the Spirit instead of setting our minds on the things of the flesh. Then Paul segues into the second part of the passage. He puts forth a sweeping reinterpretation of “the sufferings of the present time.” For Paul, the pain and suffering we are going through now – whether it is a personal, physical pain or a wider, more societal and cultural pain and suffering – is just a prelude for the new thing God is doing.

As Eugene Peterson translates Paul in The Message, “All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs… The spirit of God is arousing us within… That is why waiting does not diminish us any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother… We don’t see what is enlarging us, but the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.”

Paul speaks here of hope. Hope is rooted in an ability to see what one does not yet see. Hope is anticipating an inheritance that has not yet been received. Hope for a glory about to be revealed to us does two important things.

First, it creates the sense of contrast between what is hoped for and the present state of affairs. This contrast causes disquietude, which expresses itself in groaning – expressing the pain of experiencing the negative, the way things are not supposed to be, but the way things, in fact, are. The one who hopes hurts – you can’t get around it. The one who hopes has a restless heart. The one who hopes sees clearly what is in front of us right now, and is disappointed.

Karl Marx warns that religion with its fantasies drugs those who suffer and perpetuates their plight – religion, he says, is the opiate of the masses. But Marx is only partially correct. One who hoes does not necessarily escape the suffering of the present time. In fact, in some instances the one who hopes may be the only one with the courage to endure the suffering of the present. This may be what Paul means when he says, “We wait for it with patience.” Patience is not the same thing as acceptance or acquiessence. Patience in this sense is not satisfied with the present, but lives toward a future promised by God.

The second thing hope does is fuel an imagination for the ways things ought to be. Hope – hope for things that are not yet, but are promised to us – empowers the one who hopes to confront the evils of this age, knowing their way is not the final way. The one who hopes is inspired to work in the present for things to get better in the present. In fact, the word “inspired”, literally means “to have the Spirit.”(6)

For Christians, hope has always involved a movement forward to a unifying end, a share in God’s kingdom. By hope, we struggle to point our life in one direction – to stay on one path, the path that God desires. Hope’s work is not to deceive or trick, as Karl Marx thought; but rather to hold on firmly in the midst of troubling times.

And we do live in troubling times. We have never been more divided as a country. No matter where you are on the political spectrum, it is painful to watch our country descend into vengeful, petty, bickering partisanship. It is troubling that we continue to damage our God created home, the Earth. It is troubling that racism, bigotry and hate are making a comeback. It is troubling that justice, mercy, humility, peace and compassion are getting harder and harder to come by.

Paul’s words are important to hear in an increasingly post-Christian society. 21st Century America is coming to resemble the era of Jesus’ first followers in provocative ways. Consider:

–         The church is no longer at the center of Western society.

–         Attendance in the mainline churches continues to decline.

–         Religious options abound in the spiritual marketplace, and there are more “spiritual tourists” than ever before.

–         Christians are increasingly on the margins of our society, freed more than ever before to become the counter-society Paul calls us to be.(7)

Although the shift of power away from the Christian mainline denominations can be painful, it can also be empowering. This is an era in which Christians, more than at any other time in decades, can understand ourselves to be an alternative community. A gathering of people living by a different set of values than those embraced by the larger culture – values such as love, generosity, sacrifice, compassion, grace, forgiveness, mercy, justice, humility – and most importantly, hope.

As Christians, it is more important than ever that we model an attitude of hope. Hope in the new creation that is not yet – but that God will one day deliver. It’s up to us to live “inspired”, literally to have the spirit of God, as we move forward. Yes, there will be struggles. Yes, there will be painful times. But you’ve heard it said – No pain, No gain.

We don’t like pain. We don’t look forward to suffering. But we can know that pain serves a purpose. Pain and suffering can make us stronger and more resilient.

Our Christian hope is to endure our sufferings in the knowledge that God is at work. God will bring a new creation out of our pain and suffering – a new creation that will make us forget all the pain, just like a mother forgets the pain of childbirth once the baby arrives.

And as Paul says, the longer we wait, the longer we live in hope – the more joyful our expectancy.

May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Homiletics, Vol 29, No. 4, p.34.

2.    Ibid… p30-31.

3.    Ibid… p33.

4.    Ibid… p34.

5.    Ibid…. p34.

6.    David Greenhaw, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p258.

7.    Blair Alison Pogue, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p257, 259.