Today I was grossly offended by a hymn that we sang at church. The hymn in question is titled “Happy are they, they that love God” and was written by Charles Coffin in 1736. The line that offended me was “Then shall they know, they that love him, how all their pain is good.” I was singing this song along with the rest of the congregation, but as we started to sing that line I stopped. I couldn’t sing it. All my pain is good? How could anyone write that?
I should explain at this point, that I suffer from M.E. and from chronic migraines. As such I have near constant pain that takes a great deal of effort to control so that I can live my life. I have no pretensions here; many many people suffer far more pain than I do and may be completely crippled by it. My pain is minor compared to those people, but is still greater than that of normal healthy people.
This bold statement that all my pain is good made me angry. More than that though, it led me to some serious thinking. How is pain good? Can any possible good resulting from pain cancel out the bad, to the point that I can say it was all good?
Before we can ask if pain is good, we must discuss how pain is bad. A quick trip to the dictionary is a useful start:
- An unpleasant sensation occurring in varying degrees of severity as a consequence of injury, disease, or emotional disorder.
- Suffering or distress.
Unpleasant. A consequence of injury. That doesn’t sound very nice, does it. Physical pain signifies damage to our bodies. It implies that we must act to prevent further damage, or we must rest to allow healing. Not many people enjoy pain. Pain can be divided in to two types. Apart from physical pain, there is also mental, emotional pain which is a result of our own situation or that of those around us. We may experience emotional pain as a result of our own physical pain. Pain could be considered the opposite of happiness.
How is pain good?
We suffer pain as a result of damage that is happening to our bodies. The pain causes us to act to stop that damage. If you burn yourself on something hot, you feel pain which causes you to move away from the pain. If you cut yourself, the pain causes you to notice your accident and to act to prevent blood loss or further cutting. It is easy to see this as a good thing, but I wouldn’t say that it classifies pain itself as good. It is still not something to seek out.
Pain can cause us to see the good in other people. When we need medical treatment, or help from friends, or just emotional support to get through the pain, we see the kindness of others that are helping us. We might never see this support and kindness until we suffer pain. It can also have the opposite effect, though, and allow us to see the worst in some people if we are treated badly.
Pain can change people for the better. In my experience, the kindest, most helpful people that I know are often the same people that suffer horrendous pain or have been through the most horrible experiences in life. Clearly something has moved those people to help others. While not necessary to make someone act kindly to others, having suffered yourself is a good motivator to help prevent suffering in other people. Unfortunately pain often has the opposite effect too. Pain can cause some people to emotionally withdraw from those around them.
Finally, the context of the hymn that sparked this thought process. Pain can affect us spiritually. Pain can cause us to turn to God. Pain can focus the mind on God. Pain can cause us to pray more than anything else could. Pain can cause us to reach out and help others, not just physically, but also spiritually. A testimony from someone that has been through pain can be a powerful thing. As with every other aspect of pain, it can also have the opposite effect. It can turn us away from God, or cause us to blame him for our suffering.
What does the bible say about pain?
James 1:2 says “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.”
2 Corinthians 7:11 says “See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.”
Romans 8:28 says “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
It seems from this that the bible sees emotional pain and pain resulting from situation as something to make us better, to shape our future. In Romans 8:18 Paul seems to say not that our pain is good for us now, but that it won’t matter in light of what is coming. “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
I could not find much in the bible about actual, physical pain, other than that when confronted with people suffering, Jesus healed the sufferer, and sent out his disciples to do the same.
Can the good cancel out the bad?
It cannot be argued that pain is never good. Clearly good can result from pain. It protects us, changes us, shapes our personalities, affects how we treat other people. But I cannot accept that all pain is good. It clearly isn’t. Pain blocks happiness. Jesus cured pain and prevented suffering wherever he could. While that in itself could be considered a good thing (To be cured by Jesus could not be anything but good!) it does not lend any credence to the idea that all pain is good.
I appreciate that I am not a theologian. I also realise that many books have been written about pain, and that I have not read them. For now though, I will continue to find that hymn offensive.