Wouldn’t life be great if we could live a pain-free life?
To not have to worry about feeling the agony of pain would, on the surface, seem to be a blessing. We’ve all had to struggle with pain at some point in our lives, and even if we ourselves have not had to deal with how devastating and crushing pain can be, we probably know someone who does. We can see in the eyes of those who HAVE suffered this level of pain how hopeless the world can seem – how pointless life can become. Those moments are when we most understand Jesus’ suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane when he cried out to God to relieve him from this pain. It is in those moments when it is tempting for us to wish for a pain-free life. But have you ever considered what that might look like? What a pain-free life might mean? Steve Pete knows. He is someone who literally feels no physical pain. None. He has a rare condition called congenital analgesia.  When his body is injured, he can’t tell at all. When other kids would get a broken arm or leg, they would stop because of the pain, but Steve would just keep going and would cause even worse injury to his body. His condition meant that his body never gave him any signals that there was something wrong. Often that meant he would have to stay in the hospital. When he was young, he literally bit off his tongue and didn’t feel it. It was then when his parents discovered he had this condition. Because he has no way of knowing the damage he is doing, Steve has often caused far more harm to his body than others ever would and that damage has been so extensive that even though he doesn’t feel it, Steve still has to pay the price. Today at only 32 years of age, he has to face the possibility of permanently fusing his leg or to have his leg amputated and receive a prosthetic. And believe it or not, Steve is the lucky one. Because of the damage done, people with this condition are reported to rarely live past the age of 30. In fact, Steve’s brother, who also suffered from the same condition, took his own life. Steve believes it is precisely because of his condition that he did.
What are we to do about the problem of pain?
Even though we know pain can be useful to protect us from danger, there’s also the other side of the coin. It can crush the life out of us. When we are in severe pain physically, emotionally or spiritually, we often feel separated from God and everyone else. It can make us feel completely alone. It’s hard to concentrate on anything else except for the pain. Sometimes pain is a consequence of our inexperience and bad judgment. Sometimes pain is a consequence of our broken and sinful behavior. And sometimes pain comes to us for no apparent reason. When we are in pain, it can feel like God is somehow punishing us, that God doesn’t love or care about us, that God has abandoned us. Many people feel like that when they experience a death, or illness, or other catastrophe that God must be punishing them for something. They often wonder why God is punishing them so harshly. How do we keep from spinning out of control and getting mired down in life when we are in severe pain?
What if…what if we looked at pain from a different perspective?
What if we took the pain and suffering that we encountered in life not as punishment but as an opportunity to grow and learn? As you know this is the second part of our sermon series and in it we are looking to explore some of the deep questions humanity has wrestled with over the centuries in the context of the movie, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. In the movie, this idea of pain is one that the characters wrestle with. Sybok, the Vulcan prophet, has this unusual ability to help people release their innermost pain. On the surface, this seems like a good thing, but when he takes away the pain, he also takes away part of the essence of who they are. He not only takes away the pain, but he robs them of the transformative power of the pain. So when Dr. McCoy tries to convince Captain Kirk to let Sybok take away his pain, Kirk tells his friend, “…Bones, you’re a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us – the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away. I NEED MY PAIN!” When he shouts this statement, “I NEED MY PAIN!” he doesn’t mean to imply that his pain defines him. We’ve seen people who do this – who hold onto their pain as a crutch or as an excuse for their behavior. But here, Kirk, who has been through a lot of pain – the loss of his son, the death of his best friend, the loss of his career – wants to hold on to those experiences because of what he has endured. He shouts almost in desperation because he is afraid that the only redemption that comes from experiencing those painful moments will be lost if they are simply taken away.
That is how Paul approaches the concept of pain in his letter to the church in Rome.
He writes to them about the redemption of pain as a path to new hope. If you’ve got your Bibles or a Bible app on your phones, please go to Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 5, beginning with verse 1. Romans 5:1. The idea that pain is punishment is one that is not new. In fact, it is literally as old as the Bible. In fact older. Ancient Judaism believed that our favor with God was not part of some future promise in Heaven, but was a very real part of our life now – that we could tell whom God favored by how good their life was. So the persecution and suffering of Christians would lend credence to the thinking that belief in Jesus as the Messiah was the wrong way to go, because surely, if God had blessed this kind of thinking, these people wouldn’t be suffering. But Paul tells us in this short passage that suffering isn’t something to despair over. That suffering is something that God can transform from pain into joy – from despair into hope – if we continue in faith.
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Here in this passage, Paul puts a new spin on pain and suffering.
He’s not saying it doesn’t hurt. He’s not discounting the difficulties that come with pain, and let’s be honest – Paul knows quite a bit about it himself. He’s not only been a victim of it, but some of his friends and colleagues have been tortured and killed for their faith. So Paul is no stranger to pain. But he wants us to look at it with a different perspective. In verse 3, Paul explains, “…we also glory in our sufferings (our pain, our affliction), BECAUSE we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” …we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Paul is making the connection that we grow in our suffering. That it is in the conflict, in the pain, in the tribulations of life that we come to understand the hope we have in Christ and that is the redemptive value of pain. Pain is often a crucible for our character. Pain is often a crucible for our character. It’s a testing ground. It’s the kiln that refines and polishes the clay that is our life. C.S. Lewis, one of my favorite authors, wrote a book called “The Problem of Pain,” and in it he said this, “…pain insists on being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world. His point being that it is often in our pain, our suffering, and our trials that we draw closest to God, that we are most ready to hear him. Not that God causes pain, but in our pain we are most ready to listen.
Pain is sometimes the catalyst needed for our growth and learning.
It is when we are most willing to make room for God. The human being’s natural tendency toward sin and pride and self-reliance too often wins out and only in our pain are we receptive. We see this in Jacob’s story as he is wrestling with God. Something changed in Jacob that night. Up to that point, Jacob had lived up to his namesake, “deceiver.” He had deceived his brother, deceived his father, and deceived his father-in-law. He had always taken the very best for himself. But that night, as he was preparing to face Esau for the first time since fleeing from home, he wrestles with God. The Bible doesn’t tell us if this struggle is metaphorical or real, but during the fight, God wrenches Jacob’s hip out of its socket. You can imagine the kind of pain that Jacob felt. But somehow, he endured. He held on with even more tenacity. And because of his endurance, God noticed a change in Jacob’s character. So when the wrestling match was over, God renamed him Israel. He took away the name “deceiver” and replaced it with a new name symbolizing the new person Jacob became through this ordeal with God. We know that even after this struggle, Jacob still had his limp, and perhaps this reminder of his struggle with God is what allowed him to face Esau not with deception or schemes, but in honest repentance. Perhaps this is the point that Captain Kirk was trying to make when he shouted, “I NEED MY PAIN!” That like Jacob, his own reminders of what he has suffered through are the same things that have transformed him into a better person. The ordeal, the battle, the struggle to endure – it is in these things that our character is shaped and formed.
But the hope that Paul talks about comes from Christ himself.
When Paul talks about how character builds hope, he’s talking about the hope we have in Christ. When he says hope does not put us to shame, he means because we know that Christ has suffered with us and for us. Jesus not only understands your pain, but has felt it himself. In the darkest moment of his life, his friends abandoned him; his people demanded his death; and he was beaten, tortured, and humiliated – and that was before he was put on a cross to die where he withstood unimaginable agony. But the story doesn’t end there. If it did there would be no redemption, no transformation to speak of. A friend of mine put it this way, “God never lets human violence and sin have the last word. He transformed the worst that humans could do into the path of our own redemption.” That is why we have hope in Christ. Because even in this, God can transform and redeem us. It is in the resurrection of Christ that we find this hope that Paul is talking about and it is THAT hope which allows us to endure. As Richard Rohr once wrote, “Faith is not for overcoming obstacles; it is for experiencing them – all the way through!” Faith is not for overcoming obstacles; it is for experiencing them – all the way through.
It’s tempting for us to think that our life would be better without pain.
But the truth is pain serves a very useful purpose. In our physical body, it serves as a warning system. It gives us the opportunity to fix what’s wrong and to bring is more in line with our optimal selves. In our spiritual life, pain serves the same function. It tells us when something is wrong and gives us the opportunity to grow. As Captain Kirk said, we need our pain. We are so often surrounded by the immediacy of the moment, we cannot always see how pain can be useful. Our challenge is to understand the necessity of pain and have faith that even in this God can redeem our pain for his glory. And we rest assured that he can because he has already done so in the most difficult circumstances of all. Most of all, we can take comfort in knowing that we believe in a God who understands pain because he has experienced it first-hand. One thing we can be sure of in life is that we will experience pain, and when we do, let us pray to God to renew our faith, strengthen our resolve, and help us to grow and learn from the experience. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 91.