There is a book by Philip Yancey and Dr. Paul Brand, called ‘Pain, the gift nobody wants’.
Dr Brand was a world renowned authority on leprosy, and spent his whole life working amongst the untouchables of the Indian subcontinent. What he was able to show was that leprosy was not the direct cause of the damage to skin and tissue or the loss of extremities so common in this terrible disease. Instead, this was caused by the effect of living a life unable to feel pain. Leprosy damages the central nervous system, and suddenly our sensitivity to the world around us – its sharp edges, its heat and its pressure – is removed. The end result is terrible damage. What Dr. Brand was able to show was that pain, far from being a cosmic accident, was in fact a blessing. This was revealed most clearly in the absence of pain seen in sufferers of leprosy – normality in negative.
Could it be then, that at some level, suffering is good for us? It is how we learn about ourselves, and our relationship to objects around us, and helps us to learn essential things that ensure that we do not put our bodies at risk?
This led me to thinking about whether we could apply some of this logic to the more complex human emotions – what would life be like with no suffering?
What if there was no hate?
What if there was no grief?
What if there was no anxiety and fear?
How could we know about love if we had no understanding of what the alternative is like?
If we did not feel appalling loss at the death of a loved one, what would be the value of human life?
Lepers are seen as outcasts, less than human. I wonder what the effect of being impervious to emotional pain would be like. I have come to think that the ability to suffer is one of those defining characteristics of being human.
Perhaps lepers are in fact super-human.
What is light without shade?
But it is all easy for me to get philosophical about this stuff- my skin is clear…
Others have described suffering as a test from God: a process by which our faith is put to the heat and tempered. Some would even say that what does not kill you will only make you stronger.
There seems to be some truth in this as I look around me. We learn far more about our selves and our relationship to life’s big questions during difficult times than when all is calm and peaceful. It seems that we only really turn to God in those moments when all alternatives have been tried and failed. When there is no hope left, but Him. Strangely enough, many people report a strengthening of their faith through adverse circumstances. You must know people like this, and perhaps like me marvel at their fortitude. It is almost as if pain and suffering become a bridge to allow God into the centre of people’s lives – bringing a new kind of peace and joy and certainty. Suffering itself seems for some to have redemptive power – somehow it brings the best (and the worst) from us.
But it is only a small step from accepting that God would use these circumstances for our advantage to wondering if he sent them in the first place. Is there really no other way?