The Problem of Pain

by Celia DeWoody

After a conversation with two of my student-friends yesterday about the effects of suffering on a person’s life, I remembered a newspaper column I wrote about this years ago. Here it is, an old dusty column from 2008. May it be a blessing to somebody…

Having just celebrated my 52nd birthday a few days after Christmas, I’m well into the last quarter of my life, even if I’m given man’s allotted “three-score years and 10.” I hope I’ve acquired some wisdom along the way. I want to — I long to.

Along my journey, I’ve made many foolish mistakes, poor decisions, done things that have hurt myself and those I love along the way. One of my prayers for this new year, and for the rest of my life, is that I will grow in wisdom, in good judgment — that I will be able to look at life through a clear lens of truth, not one sullied by selfishness or made foggy by foolishness, and that my steps will be firmly planted in the footprints left behind for me by the One who goes always before us.

One part of the search for wisdom, for me, is struggling to make sense of sorrow and pain and loss. It’s a huge question, one that much wiser and more expansive minds than mine throughout history have fought to make sense of and explain, but one, I think, that we all have to come to terms with if Life is to be anything but a fool’s pinball game to us.

I’m helped along the way toward a new grasp of what C. S. Lewis called “the problem of pain” by the gift of meeting people whose stories I write. I have the privilege to meet and talk to people who have lived through much greater sorrows than I have been asked to bear, and who walk through them with great grace and courage, because they have achieved an understanding of the transforming power of pain that only comes from walking through the fire.

People like Peggy and Wesley Bushnell, who lost their only son Billy in combat in Iraq last spring. Knowing how deeply my own two sons are woven into my heart, I asked them how they bore this loss. They told me each of us has to decide if we believe that God is in charge, and if He is, whether or not we believe He’s a God of love.

And if we do, we go from there, believing there is a loving wisdom holding us up and helping us to bring some semblance of sense into our sorrow.

I’m learning, by seeing it played out over and over in flesh and blood, that Love can not only make pain bearable, but by divine alchemy can change the pain — redeem it. Can blossom through it, like a rose blooming in a heap of trash and shards of broken glass. Can make it into something usable, something creative. Love can transform pain into a catalyst for growth in a human soul that can happen no other way.

I once read that pain is like a knife. What kind of scars that knife makes on a human life depends upon whose hands hold it. In the hands of a man made desperate by drugs or despair, a knife can maim or even destroy a life. But in the hands of a skilled surgeon, a sharp, sterile scalpel can cut away the malignant tumor that’s choking the life out of a loving mother, or repair a damaged heart valve in a much-loved child.

Pain, if put into the hands of Love Himself, can be redemptive. In fact, I believe there’s nothing more redemptive in a human life than personal sorrow and pain and loss and disappointment and illness and suffering can be, if offered into the hands of Love.

I’ve seen it over and over again, and I know you have, too. How the biggest heartbreak, the most heart-rending loss, the most difficult struggle with disease or disability, can result in the greatest growth as a person. People who have suffered the most have the most compassion for others’ suffering. Their hearts, having been stretched on the rack of pain, are made larger. That’s why it’s been said that those who have suffered most have most to give.

Thornton Wilder wrote, “In Love’s service, only the wounded soldiers can serve.”

The way I see it, in this life’s journey, we’re all wounded soldiers. What we do with our own personal allotment of pain is up to us. We can cling to it, hoard it like a miser’s coins, and let it warp us and make us sour and bitter and self-pitying and crooked and small — or we can offer it to the One who suffered for us — the One who is the embodiment of Love — and let Him use it to make us kinder, more compassionate, more giving, more tender-hearted.

To make us bigger people.

(Published in the Harrison (Ark.) Daily Times in early 2008. Copyright Neighbor Newspapers).