Church Health 101: Destigmatizing Pain and Suffering

The Lewis Revelation

“Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say ‘My tooth is aching’ than to say ‘My heart is broken.’”

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

It is customary to hear of the result of pain, not its inception. We’re plagued by stories of individuals who held on to something for so long before it burst, fragments of despair, hurt, and hatred spewing everywhere. Destroying everything and everyone in the wake of their disintegration; their existential ruination.

   Our culture is saturated with stories of husbands who explode with rage from grief. Articles of mothers who imploded at the loss of a child, a miscarriage, or a stillborn baby. Of children who could not discuss their pain with family members and were consumed by the shame of feeling pain, thus leading to substance abuse and suicidal ideations for want of internal peace. 

   As Lewis stated, it is easier for us to confront the physical pain, say, a severed limb, and admit to its resounding absence than it is to acknowledge emotional hurt. 

   News of people suppressing their pain is troubling but of greater discomfort is that much of this desensitization began within the body of believers. The church.

   Too often we’re called to smile in the face of painful situations. Expected to conceal any form of pain so as not to show unbelievers or fellow believers that our faith is lacking. 

   If dad passes away we’re told to show face because we’re emotionally competent Christians. If a spouse loses their ability to walk due to MS (multiple sclerosis) we’re told to hang in there. If they lose their ability to see because of diabetic retinopathy or blindness as a result of diabetes we’re reminded that we must be strong. If we lose a child in an accident we’re told to stand up tall. 

   “Don’t talk about it. Just take it up to the Lord. Be strong. Be of courage. Be steadfast in the Lord. Trust and obey. You’ll see them again so don’t fret. You’ll feel better in no time. God heals all things through time.”

   We’re so afraid of encouraging one another with the reality that yes, it is okay to feel pain. To grieve. To thrash and scream. To shout and tear at the air in the face of loss. 

   We’ve come to accept that it is okay to be plastic people living plastic lives because God is good and God is love but we dare not express that God also speaks through the pain. It is blasphemy to expect that God would allow us to feel anything other than joy, contentment, well-being, pleasure, and satiated bliss! We’re Christian hedonists who cringe at the thought of discussing how we are burdened by an abyss of darkness within because we were taught to dismiss negative emotions. So preoccupied with Psalms of blessings, Proverbs of wisdom, the practicality of Solomon’s Ecclesiastes that we miss the well-engraved messages of loss and pain within scripture. 

   Two-thirds of Psalms contain messages of despair, of exasperated and fear-riddled shepherds who are angry, depressed, suicidal, and spiritually neglected. 

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

    How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I take counsel in my soul

    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;

    light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,

lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”

    lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken. Psalm 13:1-4

Was David’s faith any less because he expressed his impatience with God? His fear of death? God’s silence in the face of possible terror and execution? Was David any less because he shook before God in fear of the natural world and its evils? How long, O Lord? Can we stop and think outside of the poetic nature of this song and think of the implications of David’s heart. The sadness. The loneliness laid bare before the Infinite. The resolute and indefatigable request for rescue and the fear that it might not come. 

This was David, the king, the prince of God’s nation on earth. This is what scripture tells us about this troubled man. “The Lord has sought for Himself a man after His own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be commander over His people.” 1 Samuel 13:14

An emotionally pained and crippled man? An impatient, fear-riddled, death affrighted shepherd turned king was a man after God’s own heart? 

Yeah. Exactly. 

The Scazzero Dilemma

“When we do not process before God the very feelings that make us human, such as fear or sadness or anger, we leak.6 Our churches are filled with ‘leaking’ Christians who have not treated their emotions as a discipleship issue. Grieving is not possible without paying attention to our anger and sadness. Most people who fill churches are ‘nice’ and ‘respectable.’ Few explode in anger—at least in public. The majority, like me, stuff these ‘difficult feelings,’ trusting that God will honor our noble efforts. The result is that we leak through in soft ways such as passive-aggressive behavior (e.g., showing up late), sarcastic remarks, a nasty tone of voice, and the giving of the ‘silent treatment.’”

Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality

Scazzero plasters our faulty understanding of emotions on the wall of history demonstrating how inept we’ve become when challenging dated religious narratives about pain. We have become ‘leaking’ believers who suppress so much of that which is natural and God-given that through time these things begin to seep through the cracks unveiling the nastiness that festers in our soul. Our efforts have duplicitous motives where on one hand we want to help the poor but on the other, we want to save face by showing our neighbors we care for the less fortunate. We tell our children we love them every morning but every night we can’t help but vent our frustrations about their conduct at the top of our voice. We nestle an environment for open discussion in our church communities but we hide our own shame, pain, and discomfort for fear of social ostracization. 

And given enough time we begin to crack and leak and our witness is then tarnished not because we failed to feel and express pain correctly but because the pain has festered and what comes out of us is bitterness. When called to love we are forced to fake a semblance of love. When asked to give we do so with avarice in our hearts. When asked to pray for someone we do so in passing only, dismissing their necessities and focusing on things we have not. When asked to give counsel we use the opportunity to degrade, judge, show how supercilious we can be in the face of someone else’s faults and how condescending we have become. All in the name of religion and the suppression of pain.

   The agitation within is caused by a rupture that could have been avoided long ago, had we simply stopped our emotional rigidity and learned to feel. Learned to suffer. 

   Christians suffer too, you know.  

   We leak and what comes out is rotten. Unreflective of the character of Christ who knew when to weep, when to mourn and suffer. Who did not neglect his humanity in favor of saving face. His tears were real. His blood ran red and thick. The pain he felt was excruciatingly real. 

 Scazzero further reflects on the daunting effects of an emotionally desensitized Christian culture this way: 

“In our culture, addiction has become the most common way to deal with pain. We watch television incessantly. We keep busy, running from one activity to another. We work seventy hours a week, indulge in pornography, overeat, drink, take pills—anything to help us avoid the pain. Some of us demand that someone or something (a marriage, sexual partner, an ideal family, children, an achievement, a career, or a church) take our loneliness away.”

The Bennett Observation

“It’s our innate desire to protect ourselves from anything that would cause us discomfort, pain, and fear. Sort of a defensive mechanism, right?”

Daniel Bennett, B.A., Psychology

Daniel has an academic and practical understanding of psychology. He holds a diploma in business administration, he is a professional within his field of work, he is a scholar, a gentleman, and also a great friend. When discussing this topic of pain and how avoiding or perhaps detaching ourselves from such a necessary element of our human experience that was Daniel’s response. 

   It is in fact true that we are inwardly motivated to protect our emotional state as our ancestors were outwardly motivated to protect each other from being attacked by marauders or a pack of bloodthirsty wolves. We can see the connection between protecting the group against outer assault and protecting the self against social disconnect. To make mention of discomfort, pain, and fear is to detach oneself from the status quo of a hyper-individualistic and materialistic society. We’re so preoccupied with appearances that to display anything but happiness and emotional stability is to lose friends, possibly work, and in religious circles, your spiritual credibility. 

Concluding Thoughts

One aspect of the answer here is an understanding of what suffering does to humans. If you live with someone full of cancer or battling chronic pain, you know that suffering reduces a person. It lessens all of their capacities, not just physically but also mentally, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. They become less themselves. That is just as true for unseen wounds as it is for physical diseases. It is true for a combat vet, a rape victim, an incest survivor, a domestic violence victim, or a survivor of war. They may look fine, but the mind and heart wounds run deep and affect them profoundly. If we attempt to enter into the life of someone who is reduced, limited, or altered by their suffering we must reduce ourselves as well. That is in fact why we are quiet in a hospital room. For those suffering trauma, fewer words, quiet voices, patience, and pausing so they are not overwhelmed is vital to our entering in so we do not bring further harm. In doing so, we are following our Savior who was made flesh, greatly reduced from His eternal glory so as to enter in and become like us. It is, in fact, Christlike to reduce ourselves in the face of another’s suffering. And then, when sufferers are slow to speak, slow to listen, or slow to change, our responses are to also be like our Incarnate Savior’s toward us. It is in part how those who are suffering begin to see, in the flesh, a bit of who our God truly is with His creatures when they are reduced, overwhelmed, helpless, or slow. We bring Him to them by who we are with them in their worst places.

Diane Landberg, Ph.d psychology

Where did we go wrong? How is it that the faith community best vested with the divine writ to tackle human suffering, longing, pain, and discomfort is the one most resistant to the idea of openly expressing the same? How much leakage can we afford as a faith before we succumb to spiritual and existential emptiness? We strive to reflect a Creator who experienced both joy and pain but we sacrifice one to be overstimulated by the other. So conscious about the pleasures we can derive from our doctrines but so blind to the richness of spiritual development we can derive from pain. 

We can learn much through painful experiences, you know. Pleasure numbs us to life’s many layers but pain brings them to the forefront of our existence, at times, through disaster, calamity, and death. But we see things clearly then.

Pain elucidates our attention when we touch a red hot stovetop. It brightens the intellect when we fracture a bone. It reveals the damage cancerous cells have done to our organs thus leading us to a professional for advice, for clarity, for answers! 

We can only ignore physical pain for so long before it cripples us. Before it throws our body into a sweat as we writhe in pain, serpent-like on the floor until we’re sedated and carried off to an operating room. Pain is a revealer of things. 

Apostle Paul reflected on the necessity of pain and grief in a Christian’s life when it came to death. 

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as indeed the rest of mankind do, who have no hope.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13

Paul, a first-century Jewish scholar with Roman citizenship did not depart from the fact that we MUST grieve as Christians. He did not sap a believer’s ability to mourn their dead, to experience loss, and contemplate pain. He did not instruct first-century persecuted Christians to omit pain from their vocabulary as they would face beasts, gladiators, swords, and crucifixion in their life. 

Paul pulls our attention to the reality of pain and gives us stable ground to stand on when we do grieve, struggle, and hurt. 

Our faulty understanding that to suffer sickness, illness, disease, plague, persecution, poverty, hunger, and possible death is but a curse from God is to dismiss God’s infinite character. 

 “Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4

When the church community opts for a half-hearted attempt to understand, cope with, struggle through and experience pain we end up missing a part of the foundation that allows us to connect with our fellow man. We become empty vessels made of shiny plastic that does well to stand still and be filled with all forms of vacuous pursuits but offers no true answers to life’s greater questions. 

Christ understood us because He walked in our shoes and was able to experience hunger, homelessness, bullying, abandonment, social ostracization, the blight of xenocentricism as Roman soldiers showed disdain for Jewish citizens. He experienced grief when he heard that his close friend, Lazarus, had died. He experienced betrayal at the hands of one of his closest followers. He was whipped until his flesh was made raw, bruised, punched, his beard torn from his face, a crown a razor-sharp thorns prest onto his head, and led outside the city, naked, tired, bloody, sweaty, dehydrated, and near-death to be pinned to a cross with rusty nails and executed by means of crucifixion.

All this in front of the very people who celebrated and honored him a few days ago.

And yet…

“Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” – Hebrews 12:2-3

Pain brings us closer to God and it is pain that allows us to empathize with our neighbors in their struggles in life. 

To forfeit pain is to forfeit a God-given bridge to connect with each other. To connect with Him

Without understanding and enduring pain, you will not understand God’s love for humanity. His love for you.

You won’t understand love at all. 

Let us welcome pain back into Christianity. 


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