Listening to Suffering

In the liturgical calendar, Christmas is followed immediately by the Feast of St. Stephen, whose martyrdom is recorded in Acts 6 and 7. In the midst of celebration, we are reminded that suffering is interwoven in the tapestry of our faith.

In the Christian West, we have all but lost the sacrament of suffering. To even suggest that suffering may have benefit is to invite scorn in most quarters. While it can be a laudable service, the alleviation of suffering is a tyrannical and merciless master.

The advance of euthanasia in the West is an stark example of this. In our efforts to minimize suffering, we instead seek — and increasingly impose — death. As we increasingly commodify our very bodies, there is increasing pressure and apologetic for aggressive organ harvesting in order to supply the demand of those awaiting donation.

All of this seeks to avoid the sacrament of suffering. Pain is unpleasant, but it often clarifies our vision and prunes our priorities. Intense pain makes it difficult to focus on much else, but lower-intensity chronic pain is wearying. In this weariness, the unrelenting constancy of chronic pain, we learn what it means to lay our burdens on our Lord. Pain prompts us to prayer — not invariably, but if we are already formed in the faith it ought to.

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, The Problem of Pain

Increasingly, we silence that megaphone by treating all pain as the enemy and warring against it with the tenacity that should be leveled against sin.

I still remember, in the aftermath and recovery from a ruptured appendix, lying in a surgeon’s office to have my wound repacked and reattached to a wound vac. I carried the portable vacuum pump with me for weeks to aid in pulling the hole in my side back together for proper healing and drainage. Having the adhesive dressing ripped from my skin and the foam packing similarly removed from my side twice every week was a spike in the low-grade pain of healing.

As I lay on the exam table, staring at the ceiling in the earth-toned room, I closed my eyes and prayed, “Jesus, don’t let this pain be wasted.” Though I didn’t know it at the time, it may have been one of the most profound prayers I have ever uttered. A decade later, I still reflect on those two months of my life. That experience — from the sickness to the pain of the rupture through the surgery and the long recovery — is a defining moment in my life.

Throughout most of the history of the church, suffering has been viewed as a means of sanctification. It is the uncontrolled version of asceticism — voluntary denial in order to increase attention to God. Suffering finds us; we do not have to seek it. It may be a headache or the discomfort of a long car or plane ride. Occasionally it is more intense, and eventually, it marks the way to death.

We are right to be cautious about intentionally seeking pain, but we should also be cautious in always viewing pain as an enemy. It can be God’s means of speaking to us.


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