If there is one thing in Christianity that most people would agree is very difficult to believe in, I think it would be the value of suffering. The world can agree with us about sentiments of peace and love. It can even recognize the value of forgiveness. But who could readily accept the value of pain?
Even though I grew up Catholic, I had a hard time accepting this truth. While I recognized the examples of the saints, I found it quite challenging to imitate the kind of sufferings they went through. Sometimes I would ask myself, “Do I really need to die like a martyr if I wish to become a saint?”
The problem of pain
Pain in itself is not good. It signifies that something is wrong.
In this life, however, no person can ever avoid pain. At the moment of our birth, we cry our way out into the world. We learn by stumbling and falling through life, getting wounded along the way.
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Even as we grow up and experience the bliss of falling in love, we also experience betrayals that break our hearts. And what about those times when we feel the pain of those we love? We see a family member who is sick, and there’s nothing we can do. We witness the senseless death of innocent people at the hands of terrorists, and we can’t imagine what suffering their loved ones are going through.
We ask: Why does a good God allow such terrible suffering in the world he has made?
And often, we don’t find any concrete answers that soothe our aching wounds.
When we try to eliminate pain
Not finding relief from suffering, people try to alleviate pain through different means. Pope St. John Paul II referred to this as seeking various forms of escape: “Faced with problems and disappointments, many people will try to escape from their responsibility: escape in selfishness, escape in sexual pleasure, escape in drugs, escape in violence, escape in indifference and cynical attitudes.”
We find it so hard to face and endure pain, and so we find many ways to escape from it. If it is possible, we would get rid of it. And I think that’s what many among us have tried to do.
Let’s think about the motivation of some women having an abortion. Some pregnant women undergo prenatal screening to determine the likelihood of their children being born with Down syndrome. Not wanting their children to suffer from this condition, they deem it better to just terminate their pregnancies. Others are afraid their children would undergo poverty or terrible conditions in life, and they decide it’s best not to let them experience these at all.
Then there is the case of euthanasia. In the face of agonizing pain, a person chooses to end their life rather than continue suffering.
How did we arrive at this point of giving up on life in order to eliminate pain?
In trying to escape from something bad, we also ran away from something good. In seeking to eliminate pain, we somehow got to the point of eliminating life as well.
We now live in a culture that can no longer tolerate pain. The thought of pain has become so unbearable that we can no longer see the sacredness of life.
Is there any other way?
When Pope St. John Paul II enumerated the various means people used to escape suffering, he also recommended an alternate path when he said: “I propose to you the option of love, which is the opposite of escape.”
And here is where most people would find Christianity very troublesome. Because Christianity, being a religion of love, is not about escaping. It is not about the absence of pain. Love is finding a way through the pain.
Jesus could have escaped the cross, but he did not. He chose instead to give dignity to suffering. From something terribly painful, he chose to create something good.
The cross is an instrument of death, but Jesus transformed even that to make it an instrument of life. By paying for our sins, he set us free from the powers of evil.
And that’s just how something like pain can bring about good. When we endure it for the sake of love.
Just think about a relationship between two people. A relationship would never survive without patience and forgiveness. If all we could think about is avoiding pain, we’d cut off every relationship as soon as we find ourselves hurt or misunderstood. It is only by enduring the pain that we can extend our affection to others. By continuing to love despite the pain, we prove the purity and steadfastness of our love.
The pain in our lives is also what helps us have sympathy for other people. Without sympathy, who knows what kind of people we’d become?
It is said that evil people have two characteristics that set them apart from other people. The first trait is they are too self-absorbed. They notice only their own thoughts and feelings. Their second trait is they have very little sympathy for other people. They can’t feel the pain of others as though they were their own.
In this way, even pain is good if it can make us better people. Pain is good when it helps us become more compassionate with each other.
Last but not the least, pain can serve a good purpose when it points us toward heaven. Pain can tell us that this life is only a fleeting moment and we have another life that lasts for eternity.
Being temporary, we should do all we can to do God’s will here on earth. We must love the best way we know how. And what better way to do that than to follow Jesus himself?
Jesus thought about our good even when he knew what kind of pain he would go through. He endured suffering out of his great love for us.
A world without pain
The goal of our lives should not be to eliminate pain. Our goal should be to love. To love our neighbors and to love God above all. And many times, that love includes pain.
When we try to achieve a world without pain on our own, we end up escaping from the very things that could make us become better people. We can also go as far as eliminating life itself just to escape from pain.
Without God and without love, all we’d end up creating is a cold, empty, heartless world where pleasure is the only purpose and death is the only hope for those in pain.
Christianity gives both hope and meaning to life even in the presence of pain. It helps create a world where true love is possible and where we could look forward to something more valuable than the fleeting pleasures we find on earth.
After our love has been purified and sorrow has enlarged our hearts to contain true joy, we can then look forward to heaven. That’s the only place where we can finally let go of all pain and where God himself will wipe all tears away. As St. John wrote in Revelation, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain” (Rev 21:4). Or as St. Thomas Moore said, “Earth hath no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.” Let’s live in that hope.