Monday, July 24, 2017

On Pain and Prayer

Why do we ask God to rid us of our pain? Does God necessarily intend to rid us of it, that is, at all times? Is it worthwhile to beseech Him perpetually?  C. S. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain:

"Suffering is not good in itself. What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God."

The type of pain I'm thinking of at the time is emotional pain, especially in the aftermath of a loss (grief, put simply). It seems a common practice to ask God the Father to comfort those who mourn in such situations. Without doubting the good intentions of those who have made similar requests (myself included), I wonder if something is missing here?

Consider another quotation from Lewis' theodicy:

"Lay down this book and reflect for five minutes on the fact that all the great religions were first preached, and long practiced, in a world without chloroform."

And how far the developed world has come since the days of chloroform! The culture in which Western Christians are situated is undoubtedly one that celebrates pleasure, especially happiness. We need not look any further than some of our social norms. For instance, it has come to my attention that a common complaint among those with depression is that they find it difficult to honestly discuss their thought-life with others. This is fostered by a society that prizes positive conversations in face-to-face interaction, even to the point of dishonesty. As well, in the workplace some employees have to perform what Arlie Russell Hochschild calls 'emotional labor.' This refers to the regulation of emotions, for instance, a flight attendant who is payed for their friendliness toward customers (as discussed in The Managed Heart). Happiness is routinized and even commoditized in everyday life.

That being said, there is nothing wrong with being as happy as a bug in a rug. Happiness can be a proper response in certain situations. But happiness is not the standard any more than pain is, especially in the Christian life. This is not limited to grief but could also include other emotional pain like loneliness. As A. W. Tozer puts it in his essay The Saint Must Walk Alone:

"Most of the world's great saints have been lonely. Loneliness seems to be one price the saint must pay for his saintliness. ... He wants to share his feelings with others and to open his heart to some like-minded soul who will understand him, but the spiritual climate around him does not encourage it..."

Undoubtedly, secular social norms have crawled into the Christian church. But why have we accepted with such passivity? Anything that is not of God ought to be shooed away, even happy bugs in rugs, at least, when their origin is in lying. Lying is not just a bug - it is a pest. This, however, must be said with caution. Again, I don't want to dismiss the good intentions of others in praying for the healing of emotional pain, not to mention God's grace when he does heal. All that I want to wager is that emotional pain should be experienced if it is warranted, and that any hesitancy toward it should not be promoted if it involves lying to oneself.


  1. Broadcasting pain (a weird phrase but it works for now) is very contextual, since it can cause undue pain to others. In some cases it could be appropriate in order to resolve it. I lean more towards outward stoicism (not necessarily the Stoicism of the Greeks) as a better way to keep things generally peaceful, publicly. Lots of east Asian cultures recognize this. Pain is contextual and is generally better dealt with privately.

    1. I'd like to look more into that east Asian custom. I see where you're coming from; if I'm interpreting correctly, you're suggesting some of the problems that might arise from being perhaps too social about one's pain. While I did kind of rail against some norms that keep this at bay, I'm honestly not sure I'd like things much different ... I'd say the para is more descriptive than prescriptive. Things can surely get awkward when people lack honesty filters, ha ha.