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A theology of pain

05 October 2018

Roy McCloughry considers the presence of God in the experience of pain


Thomas touches Christ’s wounds in The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, 1621, by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri : 1591-1666)

Thomas touches Christ’s wounds in The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, 1621, by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri : 1591-1666)

WE ALL experience pain at some point in our lives. Whether it is a mild headache, or chronic inexplicable pain, it is a part of the human condition.

Some pain is necessary. It is a messenger which tells us that something is wrong in our body which needs to be explored. In such a situation, the absence of pain may be more threatening than its presence.

Our modern world has done much to alleviate pain. We assume that pain must be controlled or alleviated, and are willing to invest considerable resources to live our lives in as painless a way as possible.

Whereas suffering can readily be seen as a social phenomenon, such as in genocide, pain is more often seen as individual. But, from a Christian perspective, there must be a relational link between pain and love, because when we view others in pain we are called to reach out to them.

Being present with somebody in pain is a great gift, even if words are not appropriate. Such love is under threat, however, since the link between pain and indifference may strengthen as we become inured to it through a numbing individualism which cuts us off from each other.

The theologian Thomas Reynolds tell us, in his book Vulnerable Communion (Brazos Press, 2008), that we are all both vulnerable and interdependent. We are vulnerable because we are embodied, and our bodies are fragile; we are interdependent because of that vulnerability. We need each other. We belong in community.

The modern concept of the self-sustaining autonomous individual is a myth. The existence of pain in our lives shows us our need of each other. Pain need not isolate us, but bring us together with an empathy that comes from knowing that pain is a currency which we all share. Nevertheless, many people who experience chronic pain as a part of their daily reality do not reveal the extent to which they are affected by it. It is a hidden experience, to which others may find it difficult to respond, despite the Christian call to mutuality.

What can fracture our relationships is the desire to find an explanation about why somebody is in pain.

Our society has, at its heart, a concept of what it means to be normal. Of course, nobody attains that standard, since, at any one point in our lives, we may succumb to chronic illness, become disabled, live with mental-health challenges, or dementia. Nevertheless, the idea of normality is a socially generated benchmark by which we are all judged. Those who are in good health and able-bodied have nothing to fear from this scrutiny, but it can be used to find others wanting.

To be in pain, or live with a disability, can be seen as a deficiency, and such a judgement can easily be transferred from the condition to the person themselves; so that their experience makes them in some way inferior to others. We then find that we have become awkward in talking to them about their experience, as if, in not experiencing it ourselves, we are in some way different to them, and live in a different world.

Sadly, whereas some who live with pain and suffering find the Church a place of acceptance, others find it a place of exclusion. Despite Jesus’s cutting the link between sin and suffering in John 9, they are told that their pain is due to sin in their life, lack of faith, or, as one person who lives with chronic pain told me “the judgement of God”. Others are told to see their pain as a blessing, since God is teaching them something profound through it. Still others feel that they are treated as objects to be healed rather than people to be included in the life of the community.

Of course, it is true that some people suffer because of things that they have done wrong in their lives. The drunk who, while driving, has a crash and now is in pain is one example.

It is also true that some people who live with pain have, in their faithfulness to God, a great deal to teach us, but that cannot be assumed. Those who are in pain, but do not exhibit great joy, are not letting God down.

Lament is essential to the Christian life. It is easy, but deceptive, for the Church to pretend that there is no need to lament. But our experience of pain tell us that we must avoid a shallow faith, and be honest about our own lives. The Psalmist pours out his heart in the Psalms of Lament and we need to do so as well, if we are to convince a world in pain that we have something to offer which is worthwhile.

When we are in pain, we may feel abandoned, as Jesus did on the cross, yet the Bible constantly reassures us that God is with us when we suffer. At no point in human history has God, in his love, not grieved over our pain. But it is the cross that is the most potent symbol of that painful intimacy. That is the point at which we become most aware of the love of God. The death of Christ transformed the meaning of suffering. His resurrection brought hope into pain and suffering.

Because of the resurrection, we stand in the overlap between “the already and not yet of the Kingdom of God”, which means that Christians have a new perspective on pain because we have a new horizon. We look forward to a world where pain and suffering will be no more.

The late Nancy Eiesland, in her book The Disabled God (Abingdon Press, 1994), pointed out that the risen Christ still had the wounds from the crucifixion in his body. When Thomas wanted to be sure that the person in front of him was Jesus, he was invited to put his hand into the wounds. They had become the way in which he identified himself to Thomas.

The risen Christ still identifies with those who are in pain, and who suffer, by the visibility of those wounds. It is that Christ whom we meet in our prayers; that Christ who walks with us in our pain and suffering, and with whom we share the eucharist. We have our wounds. He has his. Those wounds are the sign that “It is finished.”

Roy McCloughry is the National Adviser for Disability for the Archbishops’ Council.

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