Friday, January 31, 2014

Pain and Suffering

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

Handling pain without it handling you isn't easy. I know this from personal experience and I'm sure that many people can relate. It's not too hard to bear when the pain is temporary as from an injury like a broken arm or one that stems from a bad fall - we know it's going to end and seeing that end in sight makes it a lot easier to cope with. But what about pain that has no foreseeable end? What about the millions of people who deal with chronic pain on a daily basis?

This is where life gets a lot more difficult.

I used to dread getting up in the morning. I mean, to the point where my first prayer of the day was, "Lord, please just help me get through it." I cannot count how many days I missed out on because of this disturbing little prayer. How can there be any joy in life when you just want to get each day over with?

Then, to top it off, I made an even worse mistake - I began to focus on my pain and feel sorry for myself.

Big mistake. My entire world closed in on me and pretty soon I could no longer see the world around me.

Why? Because all I could see was me. I focused so intently on what I perceived as "the prison" of pain that surrounded me that I didn't notice that the key to the prison door was in my hand the whole time. Once I did see it, everything changed. I learned to view my life from the perspective of eternity and my interior freedom grew by leaps and bounds. That freedom had been there all along but I was too blind to see it.

Suffering becomes particularly hard to bear when it comes against a great deal of inner resistance. Often this inner resistance comes in the form of self-pity and pride.

We all know that it's a good thing to offer up our sufferings to the Lord - we should give Him everything. However, we have to be careful in the area of pain and suffering. We have to offer it up...and then give it up. By giving it up I mean that once we place it in God's hands we have to let it go and forget about it to the best of our abilities. This doesn't mean we don't feel the pain but rather we transfer our attention away from the pain and onto something else. Or better yet, Someone else. And I don't mean your husband.

Why do we have to let it go? Because focusing on pain doubles, triples, quadruples it. This goes for both physical and emotional pain. It's the same pain but we enlarge it by giving it our full attention. We give ourselves up to it and whenever we give ourselves up to something it tends to take us over. And that's sad because suffering can be a very good teacher. It has a way of setting our priorities straight while at the same time releasing us from the minutiae that can negatively bog down a life. It can also be redemptive when united with Christ's suffering. Christ himself raised the bar on life when He gave our sufferings purpose by transforming our sufferings in his own. Without this transformation suffering would be useless and without purpose. He sanctified suffering by his own sufferings. This is why so many saints tell those who are suffering to look at the Cross of Christ.

That means eyes off yourself and onto Him.

No easy task sometimes.

The good thing about the Catholic viewpoint on offering up suffering is that it helps us avoid a victim mentality. It gives us a choice. We learn that external circumstances cannot compromise the gift of free will that God has blessed us with. We may not be able to avoid painful crosses but we always have the freedom to choose whether we use it for the good or not.  We have the freedom to let it overcome us or we, on the other hand, can transcend it. We do this by allowing God to transform it into something greater. What pain may cause us to lose in our physical freedom is more than made up for by our gain in spiritual freedom.

To avoid a victim mentality during periods of suffering, in some ways we must choose it. We don't choose it by asking for it or because suffering in itself is good, rather, we choose it by consenting to it knowing God will bring a greater good out of it. This is what Jesus did. Though Jesus is called "victim for our sins", He was not a victim in the sense that we define victim in this day and age with all its negative connotations. He chose to lay down his life for us. We see this in Christ's words about his life, "No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own." (See also Mt. 26:53)  If we pray for healing and it doesn't happen we should understand that God is asking us to carry this cross, at least for now.  Acceptance allows grace in to do its work.

Here are two excellent links on suffering:
A Pope's Answer to the Problem of Pain
Suffering (It's amazing how much the Bible has to say on this subject.)

"Suffering borne in the will quietly and patiently is a continual, very powerful prayer before God."
St. Jane Frances de Chantal


  1. This is an excellent post - almost a chapter of a book yet to be written.

    Yes, pain and suffering can make us focus on self rather than on God. In most cases this is a natural instinct, and different people can bear pain at different levels and for different periods of time.

    God knows that, and He will not let us bear pain more than we can possibly tolerate. People often ask: Why does a loving God allow pain? Perhaps it is to provide an opportunity for others to help.

    Offering pain, for others, is a first step towards helping us bear it a little; and concentrate on the Sacrifice Christ made for us.

    Brilliant post, Mary. Thanx.

    God bless.

  2. Thank you, Victor - I appreciate your comment. While we won't ever have a complete understanding of pain and suffering in this life I love the way the Church teaches us to unite it to Christ's suffering and to trust that God's hand is at work despite the way things look on the outside.

    God bless you too :)

  3. Thank you for this post, Mary. I have been suffering lately with the sin of pride. I've had this "all about me mentality." Thanks for the encouragement to keep my "eyes of me and onto Him."

  4. Hi Kathleen,
    Don't we all suffer from that one, unfortunately. But we don't lose hope because God always has HIS eyes on us! Reminds me of a comment someone left on my blog last week:
    "There's that Jesus picture on the right, looking at me again, with questioning eyes."

    Lol. I knew I had that picture in my sidebar placed in just the right spot...

  5. Thanks, Mary, I had just been feeling sorry for myself and some anxiety over the pain in my feet. I need to let it go and offer it up. When I really think about it, the pain I have tonight is not so bad, I am making it worse by thinking it will not get better and focusing on the pain instead of putting it aside. Just the reminder I needed, I feel better already. Mary @ Hope Echoes

    1. Hi Mary,
      Did the shot help? It helps my brother-in-law. Sometimes his foot will start acting up and he gets another one. I hoped it worked for you.

      Thanks for visiting! I'm glad you liked the post!

  6. Mary,simply wonderful post! Like the one you wrote on death recently, I was looking for the Saint's byline at the end :) As a chronic pain sufferer, I can relate to so much that you wrote. It's so easy to just give in to the pain. But I know that when I try to rise above it, God always meets me with His strength and peace..and sometimes the surprise of unexpectedly feeling much better. Thank you for your sharing your wisdom. xoxo

  7. Hi Patricia,
    Very funny - unfortunately I have to learn everything the hard way, unlike the saints. Still, I guess learning this way makes the lessons sink in deeply so it's not all bad. Thanks for commenting, Patricia!

  8. Hi Mary! What a beautiful image you have with your post! I really liked that.

    It is so true that pain can turn me inward. No one understands my pain, so why bother expressing it, or trying to overcome it? But I do love the way our faith shows us that there is meaning in suffering.

    God can fill that space that is created in our loss of self-control. We can't control the pain, so we have to give it back. My cousin was recently diagnosed with lung cancer with brain metastases. We attended an Hour of Healing for him, and I wish everyone could have heard his message. He wants his pain to be useful to God. He wants his life to be a witness to his faith, even in this horrible diagnosis. It was striking...I cried it was so touching.

    I pray that your pain will bring you closer to God. I hope I can learn from you to do the same with mine.
    Beautiful post Mary.

  9. Hi Ceil,
    Thank you for sharing your cousin's story - it's beautiful. I will pray for him.

    I am not in pain, Ceil. Well, not much anyway, a bit of arthritis is all. But I WAS for many, many years. I was healed at a healing Mass from a disease called Myasthenia Gravis. The priest's name is Fr. DiOrio and he is quite well known for his healing gift. Have you heard of him? I wrote this post hoping I could help others struggling with chronic pain - I remember how difficult it was to cope with at times and how much easier it was when I stopped feeling sorry for myself and stopped focusing so much on the illness.

    Thanks for commenting!