But most gladly I will rejoice in my infirmities..that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Cor 12:9)
I am in no way writing as someone who has accomplished the power of pain, but I am writing to express something we all share in common and deal with regularly, so each one may receive hope and strength.
Pain is a very supernatural thing.
Every human life experiences pain in one way or another – from being born into the world until we take our last breath, we face uncomfortable realities that are foreign to our innate being. In our modern day, we are encompassed by a constant obsession with pain – the media is mostly pain-oriented: regularly speaking about disasters, wars, killings, bombings, natural disasters, starvation; music we hear many times is about an obsession of the pain of heart-brokenness and the need for love and incompleteness without another person. We are living in a world (more predominant in some societies, such as that of the West) that is many times focused (whether indirectly or not) on the need to dwell on such pains, of which there are too many to list.
I’m not here to list the types of pains, why or how we experience them; nor am I here to declare that pain should be existential to humanity. I simply want to state that there is a beauty in the essence of pain, there is a gift in it when it is encountered with patience and endurance – and that there is a power in pain.
It seems paradoxical, but like most Christian truths, there exists a greater sense beyond human understanding. Pain is at many times perceived as weak, evil, unnatural, something that should and must be avoided (and I am in no way advocating not to avoid it – ie to self-inflict or to inflict pain upon others). But there must be more than this negative nomenclature of how we explain or see pain to be.
Some pain(s) remain for moments, others for years. What matters most is how we experience this pain and its journey of discovering ourselves through it. How do I see myself when encountering this pain and how do I react?
Now it is easy to say ‘analyse yourself’ when going through a traumatic period, and one of the last things that may come to mind is to tell yourself to stop, reflect and question. But in order to free oneself from the lasting effects of pain and its imprint, there has to be a different reaction, a different way of understanding and experiencing it.
“Nobody’s life is entirely free of pain and sorrow. Isn’t it a question of learning to live with them rather than trying to avoid them?” (Eckhart Tolle, Power of Now) There are many things in life as humans we automatically or consciously avoid – death, grief, mistakes, suffering, pain. All of these are inevitable, since no one’s life is “entirely free” of it, so how can we face it and take from it a power rather than its natural form of weakness and hurt?
The ultimate example of how pain should be received, of course, is Christ. I speak not only about the time of Via Dolorosa and the crucifixion (but this of course was and is beyond human comprehension of sacrifice) – but also throughout His ministry where He regularly encountered different forms of pain. Whether He was judged and questioned by the Jews (who firsthand should have known who He was), or when He wept over Israel for their unbelief, or when He was doubted and abandoned by His disciples – there was plenty of space for pain to be implanted and thrive in Christ’s life. But He didn’t allow that type of pain, that is psychological distress or anxiety or worry to harm Him because He know who He was and is and was not shaken by such temptations. So the way I respond to pain is linked with my identity – I know as a human there will be suffering and sadness and grief, and I know as a human I have a right to have emotions and experience different feelings, but how, as a human, should I channel these emotions and feelings? We are not merely human, but we are divine-imprinted humans, that is, formed and made in the glorious image and likeness of the Perfect One; the same One who showed humanity how to be human in Himself. If you want to be human, you have to imitate Christ. Simply put, but no other answer can be more logical.
This of course, sounds idealistic and can be even seen as illusionary. One may say, Christ was only able to overcome pain because He is God and God, by nature, is impassable. Yes, but Christ being fully human, also took a rational soul and body, – everything that is human He took to Himself and sanctified it. In this sanctification, He also sanctified pain. He turned the face of pain into a means of overcoming the evil of the world and sin; He transformed it so that if one undergoes pain righteously (that is patiently and offering it up to God), it will be accounted as a blessing.
St. Peter says,
“But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are blessed” (1 Peter 3:13)
It makes God sound like a sadist? I must experience pain so that I may receive a blessing. Not in that manner. I naturally experience pain because of the brokenness of this world (pain whether caused by ourselves, others, natural events such as death, so on), but because I trust in the living God who is able to make all pain and evil into goodness, righteousness, holiness, this pain will become a transformative power – in becoming the power of pain.
One may say, but if I experience the pain from the death of a loved one, how is this “suffering for righteousness” sake? How can death become a power for me and a blessing? I believe, any suffering or pain, when realised that God is communicating to me in some way, and we willingly want to be transformed by this pain for the better, it will inevitably become a blessing. How? Because when I recognise God is shouting to me in my pain, and I come to the acknowledgement that He is my Saviour, my Physician and the One who holds my life in His hands, He can mould me from this pain into experiencing Him more and more in every moment of my life – whether in or out of pain. God wants me out of my pain, but in order to do so, I must withstand pain in its face, to expose it, so it can flee from the mere presence of truth. In other words, I must watch myself in how I react to pain, I need to be a watcher of my thoughts and see what they are and how they work and where they want to lead me. Dwelling on a traumatic event and or something that someone said that angered or hurt you incessantly or repeatedly – where do those thoughts take you? Watching your thoughts (and your thoughts that focus on pain, resentment, anger etc) in themselves exposes its darkness. Once I acknowledge and am an observer of the things that go through my mind, I allow myself to heal and move on because I face them and want them to be destroyed and non-existent.
And so, pain is many times an illusion (when we hold on to it and create more pain for ourselves), anything illusionary does not exist in the light of truth.
“But all things that are exposed are made manifest by the light, for whatever makes manifest is light.” (Eph. 5:13)
If we say that pain is illusionary (or even deceptive), then we can say that the same pain that one person experiences, another person likewise undergoes can have the same or very different effect. This is why it is deceptive. If pain were an absolute truth and real entity, that truth would be applied to its nature. So if God is love, (this as Christians believe to be a real truth), then His existence as being love must be in accordance with every act, shown in every purpose, towards every creature. And this is rightly so.
Now one can say, well every human being is infinitely different and their experiences are different and their thinking is different and emotions and well-being and view on life, so everyone’s reaction of pain must be different, therefore because it is experienced, it is real. Without doubt this is former statement is true, however, because it is experienced does not equate with reality. I may have sleepless nights because I worry that I may lose my job because the economy is declining, or I have a constant fear that I may be robbed because someone in the neighbourhood was robbed earlier. All these fears, anxieties and perceptions of what may happen based on the surrounding or past conditions create an illusionary state of pain. The economy is declining is a fact; if I may lose my job is not a fact but a projection of fear based on what I may think may happen because of the situation. The fact is, I have not lost my job and I am anticipating, and in this anticipation I am creating space for fear and pain. Some may call it a preparatory mechanism to ‘expect the worse’, I call it an unnecessary distraction from dealing with the present moment. This distraction swells up pain and covers the consciousness from experiencing the ‘non-pains’ in life; this is why someone who is in touch with their being and experiences one type of pain can transform that pain into healing power and grace- channelling it to the Divine and becoming more powerful than he/she was before that event. And when we are fully in the present, we are able to be grateful and experience the Divine presence within us.
And this is why St. Paul came to the conclusion he will rejoice in pain because there is a grace behind its power:
“… a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. 8 Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness. Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12: 7- 10)
I am strong in weakness. I am strong and become stronger in and from pain.
Pain is Impassable to the One Who Overcomes It
St. Paul was able to overcome his pain because he intimately experienced and knew the grace of God. He was experiencing the “power of Christ” that rested on him. When we are living in the presence of God, this in itself eliminates plenty of self-created pain and pain that we don’t want to let go of. But when we are experiencing it and are unable to avoid it, we have to expose it and take from it a power for strength – or we can allow it to dominate our lives, sometimes without realising that it guides our life and the way we think and act many times. Knowingly or unknowingly we may allow pain to dominate our inner selves and this often happens when we cover up pain by distraction; distracting the reality of pain by constantly being with people, work, family, hobbies, so forth. But that pain becomes buried over time and falls deeper and deeper in the soul. When something triggers that pain – maybe 5 or 10 years later – it “all of a sudden” shows up, clearly revealing to us that it was just hidden under the layers of life without being brought to the surface of healing and being exposed by our conscious. It needs to be brought and exposed in God’s presence – manifesting its darkness will allow the light to heal it accordingly. The acknowledgement of the True Existing One eliminates our present non-existing realities (what we create from pain or dwelling on past or future events); for the One who Exists (“I Am who I Am” as He told Moses, Exodus 3:14) can only destroy the darkness of things that do not presently exist.
As humans, being created in His image and likeness, we have been made in that mystical and wondrous way (for indeed we have been ‘wonderfully made’ as the Psalmist says). It is thus our God-given right and ability to transform that pain through grace into something more wonderful – something that goes beyond human comprehension and something which creates healing and power.
I am in no way belittling the power of suffering or saying that pain and evil is all a mere illusion and that it does not exist. Pain does exist, but the extent of how each person allows it to affect them and in what manner is key. We as divine imprinted beings have the ability, yes the potential, like Christ, to surpass much of how the world experiences pain.
Let me give another example. Many years ago, during a trip to Egypt, I visited a poor village in Upper Egypt. The village was predominately Christian, if not a complete Christian village, and had several churches. One of the days, having attended a liturgy, there was a funeral being held immediately after the divine service. The environment soon became hectic with hundreds of people entering the church at once, and the sadness was distressing of people lamenting and screaming. This particular experience disturbed me significantly, not because the fact funerals in themselves are usually emotionally-filled, but because I soon discovered (and was told by some locals later) that this church, along with other churches in Upper Egypt, hired “lamenters” for the funeral. I was appalled by such a fact, let alone having experienced it firsthand. In most cases, death of a loved one is extremely traumatic and painful, and sadness many times inevitable, so to increase the experience of pain by bringing in mourners is excessive and not rooted in Christian hope and healing.
Many times when we humans experience any type of pain or difficulty, we propel the experience unnecessarily. We hire “lamenters” within our soul when we want to thrive on our pain in order to feel justified and self-pitiable, when healing is possible and attainable, or even when pain can be and should be avoided. The ego (as some may refer to) wants to cling to pain and thrives on suffering and negativity; many times our deep unconscious (or our conscious) does not want to let go of pain, bitterness, resentment, anger – all such siblings of pain because in order to do so, that ‘ego’ will die. Some people only identify themselves (whether they realise it or not) with pain, and to let go of this (including its siblings), they feel they will kill part of their innate being. Well, I would say, as Christians, we are regularly called to “die daily” and “crucify the old man” – and this includes pain we are holding on to and sometimes creating for ourselves. For us to be “pain-free”, we have to die, and die regularly (another beautiful Christian paradox). The death of the old-self (viz pain) must occur so a new created man in Christ may be formed. When we experience death in such a way, power inevitably dwells within us and the Spirit of God rests upon us (1 Peter 4:14).
Now, one can ask, what about self-inflicted pain, (which I think the majority of our pain actually stems from), is there any “power” in that? I think all pain is relative, whatever the source or from whomever the source. In it there is always a place for growth and learning, a room to build strength and resistance, and a time for healing and purification. So, whether I have inflicted pain on myself from a bad decision, or whether someone out of my will threw me into a pit of disastrous trauma (being fired from work, losing a loved one, being in a severe accident…), each of those experiences can create a mode in shaping more of who we are, in becoming more of who we are supposed to be.
So, if I am in a severe car accident, or if I lose someone close to me, that makes me more of who I am or who I am supposed to be? It sounds like a sadistic type of theology. But it is not in the act of pain or the pain in itself that causes change to our being – it is the reaction to every form and experience one faces.
There is that famous saying – “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond to it” – and as I read the Scriptures this statement speaks truth. One will know only how hard and humbling it is to turn the other cheek when someone truly slaps you (figuratively or literally) and to really show love towards someone who intentionally caused harm to you can be excruciating painful in itself. But that type of pain has power – because it is dying to the old self and living in the new creation – in Christ’s image and likeness. Christ was spit on; He was mocked by His own creation that He made with His own hands; His submission and acceptance of the pain was the power that now gives all of humanity the power to overcome pain by His saving grace, by His strength in which He endured during His life.
Expose pain. Bring light to it and it will flee. You cannot heal what you won’t reveal. “When I am weak then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:10) St. Paul was honest of himself and he depended on God’s saving grace in everything he did – in rejoicing, in pain; and this is how he came to be content (“for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content” Phil 4:11).
I’m not here to say that pain will instantaneously go away, or that it should not exist, or that pain is evil and the direct result of sin. Yes as Christians we believe evil (or pain if one equates pain with evil) was and is not instigated by or from God, but we believe that it was a result of the act of being separated from God (ie the fall of Adam, the fall of Satan) that gave birth to pain, evil, suffering, and sin.
Many times pain is equated or identified with evil and sin. It is rightly so that pain erupted as a consequence and natural result of sin, but we cannot say that for every pain. When Christ healed the man born blind in John 9 it was so that “the works of God should be revealed in Him” (v.3) – the man was in pain (as most probably since he was not able to see since birth) and Christ told His disciples his physical state was not because of sin (“neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.”) Likewise the case for Job’s life and all the traumatic experiences he faced whilst being a righteous man.
One can read this passage and think, well then, pain is allowed so God can work and be glorified? Is God again sadist? Is He that needy that He allows suffering so He can work? It is not so in any way. God is not in need of anything – He is passionless, impassable, yet ineffable, incomprehensible, and above all compassion — as the early fathers described him through apophatic theology – “he is incomprehensible, he fills all things yet is not filled by anyone…he is beyond all glorious and perceptible things” (from the Apology of St. Aristides, 2nd c).
So then if God is working, and is not in need of anyone to execute His work or to inflict suffering in order to do so, then what is its purpose? If He loves us, why does all of humanity share in this one common experience and bitter reality?
First thing I think where many of us error is our perception. We question the nature of pain and its role and constantly put God to the test about such matters when it is us who should be put to test by ourselves, regularly. Second, if pain is seen as evil, foreign, and/or a direct correlation to sin – then we have not yet understood its innate healing power (yes I say it paradoxically intentionally), its incomprehensible grace that gives strength and hope in a suffering and broken world.
This can only ‘make sense’ through the crucifixion (and this is why Christianity is most logical). The Orthodox Church *celebrates* (I place asterisks for a reason) the Feast of the Cross yearly (in the Coptic Church twice a year besides Good Friday). For some reason, this time it struck me that we “celebrate” and we “feast” on a most painful, agonising, crucial experience anyone can undergo on account of innocence, sacrifice, redemption, and simply, pure love. If one thinks about it, we can say it us who are sadist – we are rejoicing in the pain of God taking weak, human flesh, experiencing all suffering – sleeplessness, hunger, fasting, weeping, stoning, flogging, and finally crucifixion in nakedness and utter humiliation. So why are we rejoicing? Because pain took a different role, a new and sanctified experience, a power of grace. I can only make sense of pain because of Christ’s pain, because of the joy of what follows. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel as long as our pathway is directed to Golgotha.
And so to return to my earlier point, God is not a sadist, nor is the existence of pain is in need for God to work. Pain is pain; it was a result of the fall, but now Christ has transformed it into a pathway of healing, strength, glory, and a way for resurrecting towards our ultimate resurrection. (And for this reason too the Church focuses in her prayers, hymnology, and sacraments on the utmost hope in Christ – the One who triumphed pain and was resurrected to give everyone life through triumphing pain).
On another occasion, when St. Paul lists the sufferings he experienced during his ministry, he comes to a bizarre conclusion:
Are they ministers of Christ?—I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness— besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? (2 Cor 11:23-29)
St. Paul openly states he is weak (and does so in the following chapter as noted earlier), yet above all his weakness and sufferings – his “deep concern” was for “all the churches.” St. Paul transformed his pain – the countless of encounters of trauma he experienced (whilst doing good in the name of Christ – no prosperity gospel there) – as nothing because all what he cared was for the salvation of men. All those pains he experienced were irrelevant; but when he did truly experience pain which caused him to “plead to the Lord’ (2 Cor 12:8), Christ revealed that whatever He goes through, Christ’s grace is sufficient. And it is likewise for us.
Love destroys the negative dwelling of pain. St. Paul experienced suffering, but his love – his deep concern for churches surpassed those difficulties. Christ’s first words whilst experiencing excruciating pain on the cross was a prayer for others and humanity. St. Stephen prayed for his stoners. St Polycarp along with countless of Christian martyrs prayed for their murders. The Apostles rejoiced in their sufferings that they were “counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). St. Paul was stoned, yet he got up again and kept preaching without any self-pity. St. Peter slept in prison the night before his death sentence. And good ol’ John 16:33 – where Christ honestly and openly tells us we will face tribulation but we will overcome them because He did so for us. We’re not meant to be removed from the world but removed from temptation. This includes temptation of dwelling in pain and succumbing to it.
And so, whatever pain we have experienced, are experiencing, or will experience, we all have the ability to transform it into an element of strength, healing, purification, and power. But we also have the ability (which often we do) to succumb, swim and live in our pain for long periods of time. Denying pain is not human, but dealing with it accordingly and channelling it to and through the Divine is what graces us in becoming more like Him. For in Him, He suffered; suffering is inevitable, but the power of Christ supersedes all things.
“We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” (CS Lewis)