The Usefulness of Pain

CC BY-NC, Alex Abian, Flickr
CC BY-NC, Alex Abian, Flickr

“If I had only listened…” Sometimes that’s the saddest statement to hear, especially when disease is involved. Men particularly have a tendency to avoid doctors and linger with health issues. It is crushing when I learn that so-and-so now has prostate cancer or some serious malady that probably wouldn’t be if precaution had been taken when the symptoms first surfaced.

In the final portion of the quote I’ve raised, Augustine uses bodily health to express the utility of pain:

But evils without pain are worse: for it is worse to rejoice iniquity than to bewail corruption…in a body, a wound with pain is better than painless putrescence.

My Painless Evil

“Health is wealth” is a worthy saying. I think all of us would trade riches for a well body. Yet when sickness does come, pain serves a real purpose for the body. Already we mentioned the idea of good and bad pain, bad pain stemming from a less than good or malicious source working against the good.

Augustine now suggests the notion of evil without pain, which is rich in a spiritual context but won’t be dealt with here except to advance his illustration. Doctors can quickly acknowledge the truth of this, and so can I.

I have hypertension, which I discovered in my 20’s. Interestingly, I was home from college on Christmas break and suffered a painful neck injury during horseplay. At that time of my life I was really fit and active; and although some family members dealt with hypertension, it made little sense to me that I should suffer with it. I was too young and doing the right things.

That “silent killer” was an evil without pain in my body. Yet Augustine posits that it is worse to go about dying unawares than to grieve over a bad diagnosis. After all, some people never discover their hypertension because it kills them first. I can be thankful that I learned of my condition.

The God Who Controls All

Instead, says Augustine, “a wound with pain is better” because one without it is too risky. Moreover, although the source of pain may not be good, the pain may be of immeasurable value, one reason Augustine refuses to classify it as evil. The (bad, evil) pain stemming from disease is an alert, which is a good thing; and we cannot deny that the body is designed to facilitate pain and other dangers our senses should indicate.

CC BY-NC, Piers Nye, Flickr
CC BY-NC, Piers Nye Flickr

Certainly pain should be avoided if possible. I cannot believe that God created life with pain in his purpose for it. But although life allows for the possibility of it, pain does not exist without usefulness. Even the pain of the soul and relationships are critical indicators of complications to be healed.

Gratefully, God being sovereign has a design for all evil and pain and that only demonstrates his profound wisdom and glory.

It should give us great comfort that our personal pain is seen and felt by the Lord. It is never wasted of purpose. We cannot always perceive God’s purpose, but we can be sure that all our involvements hold purpose in his hands. This is also why he tells us to do good despite evil individuals and mistreatment. It’s because he backs the good; and as the landowner in Matthew 20:7 says, so declares the Lord—“Whatever is right, I will pay.”

The New Testament is correct in explaining that perseverance is born of faith. When we possess an assurance that God has a purpose and design with our most hateful experiences, we will endure them better.

More in the series: On Goodness and Pain and The God of All Purpose

13 thoughts on “The Usefulness of Pain

  1. This is (good) food for thought. Yes, pain is good for it yells out to the body that something is not right. Painless maladies, spiritual or otherwise, gets overlooked and ignored until it becomes life threatening.

    Great perspective on pain 🙂

  2. I wonder if there was pain in the garden of Eden? I guess there was no disease, but if Adam stubbed his toe? I’m guessing that would have hurt! Which I guess means that pain is a part of the life intended for humanity. Perhaps it was intensified with sin – it certainly was for child birth!

    • I’ve read some interesting theories on Adam, Eve, and life in the Garden. The body is indeed wired and has a capacity for pain. I like to ask myself this: “Is there pain in Heaven?” I wouldn’t think so. Terrestrial life is probably different than heavenly life, purposely so, even in a perfected state. But the human creature was also something altogether different in quality than it is now. To what degree might pain have existed? It’s fascinating stuff. Thanks for reading, Nate.

  3. If there is an illness, pain is usually better than no pain. Sadly, many are spiritually sick and their hearts hardened that they don’t even know they are unwell.

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