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

On Goodness and Pain

CC BY-NC-ND, Robbie Veldwijk, Flickr
CC BY-NC-ND, Robbie Veldwijk, Flickr

Today marks the first of three days unfolding Augustine’s Chapter 20 of “Concerning the Nature of Good” in his Against the Manichaeans. It is but a single, large paragraph; but as classic literature tends to be, it is replete with thought. So I will explore it in parts and here is the first:

But pain which some suppose to be in a special manner an evil, whether it be in mind or in body, cannot exist except in good natures. For the very fact of resistance in any being leading to pain, involves a refusal not to be what it was, because it was something good.

Recently, I wrote a post entitled “Counting the Cost” about the possibility of dying for faith in Christ. My life having never been in jeopardy for the gospel, I explained that only the day could reveal whether I would stand for Christ or save myself: “Making bold promises from the quiet of my home and a decision about God while staring down an assault rifle is a world of difference psychologically.”

I use that to highlight the idea running through the quote above, especially the second line. (Take a second and reread it.) Every living thing fights to live because living, reproducing, and thriving is what it is designed to do. We say ‘death is a natural part of life’, but really by design it’s not.

CC BY-NC, William Burkhardt, Flickr
CC BY-NC, William Burkhardt, Flickr

Again, we defend ourselves and defend the defenseless according to the same rationale. We possess an internal, God-given instinct for our own physical-mental-social well-being and understand that to be every person’s right. And we’ve long contended for wholesome, traditional values the same way. (So don’t trust the relativists—or go punch one in the face and then tell him it was the right thing for you to do. See just how relativist he is.)

Therefore, it would be awfully tough, in a situation where my life is on the line, to override what is the natural and instinctive thing to do, which is to save myself. Foundational to that notion is the inherent worth and goodness of what is being threatened. Thus, pain has resulted for “a refusal not to be what it was, because it was something good.”

Reassessing the Value of Pain

I encourage you to read “Concerning the Nature of Good” and to learn more about Manichaeism. If you’ve read Confessions, then you are familiar with the religion and know that Augustine was once a Manichaean. In this work he strongly refutes its doctrine.

A main premise Augustine uses is this: Everything proceeds from God who is essentially good and he only creates what is good. Ergo, all nature, he says, is “naturally good” because it is God’s handiwork.

Augustine asserts, “But pain…cannot exist except in good natures.” It’s a striking thought. If you didn’t get it, pain only intrudes where conditions have been prime. This will be developed more in the next post; however, the concept forces us to reevaluate how we view pain.

As he notes, some people see pain as evil. Yet doctors would certainly disagree, and doesn’t God permit pain in our lives? So if pain isn’t necessarily an evil, we are forced to consider its facility in other ways: perhaps as a tool to fashion; as an indicator of desire, strength, or resolve; or as consequence in a cause/effect scenario.

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