I suffer from chronic pain. I have a degenerative joint and bone disease, which necessitated three major surgeries over the past 48 months. Each operation entailed the installation of metallic support structures in different parts of my body. A fourth procedure is scheduled for this summer.
I also have severe arthritis and a hereditary neurological disorder for which there is no known cure and no effective treatments. It causes loss of strength and extreme discomfort in my lower legs and feet, and will continue to worsen as I age. I could go on, but you get the general picture.
I tell you this not to elicit sympathy, not to complain, not to suggest my afflictions are unique, because I know countless others struggle with health problems far greater than my own. Rather, I wish to explain how my personal experience with chronic pain, along with my study of the earthly ministry of our Savior and other readings, have led me to conclude that much of what we teach and preach about pain misses the mark.
Church leaders tell us that pain “ministers to our education [and fosters] the development of such qualities as patience, faith, fortitude, and humility.” That hasn’t been my experience. My faith is no stronger because of my pain, I am more impatient than before and certainly not more humble, and I swear a lot. Anyone with chronic pain who says they don’t swear is either lying or is someone you wouldn’t want to hang out with. Saints can get on your nerves rather quickly.
My tribulations, I have been told, will help me appreciate the suffering experienced by Christ in the Garden and on the cross. So I’m going to feel better because someone else experienced pain a gazillion times worse than what I am called upon to endure? More to the point, how can I make such a comparison since it is impossible to comprehend the agony, misery and feelings of abandonment experienced by the Savior?
People have urged me to read C. S. Lewis’ monograph, The Problem with Pain, which I have, where he preaches that pain has immense cleansing powers, and in our fallen world suffering serves to turn us towards God. If memory serves, God and I were on pretty good terms before my misery began, and I don’t think my afflictions have done much to improve our relationship.
What is most problematical is Lewis’ assertion that, “God, who foresaw your tribulation, has specially armed you to go through it, not without pain but without stain.” Implicit in this statement is the notion that everything is within our control—so long as we have the requisite faith and determination—and that God would never allow us to be subjected to something we could not overcome.
Who would dare say such a thing to a veteran of the Afghan war suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome because he witnessed an IED decapitate his best friend or, while in the heat of combat, inadvertently shot and killed a nine-year old girl? And what do we say to a young man who developed a drug addiction in utero because his mother was hooked on crack cocaine during pregnancy, was abused by his step-father, and then recruited by a gang while in middle school? You can overcome your addiction and the psychological trauma of your childhood if you just suck it up and pray a lot? Yes, God will not give up on individuals in circumstances such as these, and they desperately need our help, but if they fail it is undeniably cruel to attribute their failure to a lack of faith, courage and determination.
I find it instructive that Christ, during his earthly ministry, never lectured people about their need to experience trials and tribulations. His followers didn’t need to be told life is hard nor were they interested in facile explanations for the challenges they confronted. They needed help. And Jesus gave it in abundance.
As Matthew tells us, he healed “every disease and sickness among the people, [who] brought to him all who were ill with various diseases: those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them.” These miracles were often accompanied by valuable insights as to the reason for, and the purpose of, our pains and afflictions.
We are all acquainted with the story of “The Man Born Blind,” whose sight Christ restored. The man’s condition, his disciples believed, must have been attributable to some human failing, so they asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The Savior’s response was somewhat cryptic: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; but rather that the works of God might be made manifest in him.”
If we believe this man was born sightless just so Jesus could perform an impressive miracle and thereby win some more converts, then we are attributing to God some highly questionable, and arguably inhumane, motives. But if we view Christ’s statement as an invitation to reflect on the role each of us is supposed to play, as embodied beings, in alleviating the suffering of others, then we draw nearer to the truth.
The physical body in Mormonism is generally viewed as something we need to acquire to take the next step in our eternal progression. It’s part of our “checklist gospel.” God has one so, if we are to become like him, we need one, too.
We are admonished to nourish, dress, and use it properly, which meshes nicely with the view that the primary purpose of personal afflictions is to teach an empowered individual “patience, faith, fortitude, and humility.” But it fails to answer the threshold question of why we actually need a physical body in order to progress.
Lewis offers a partial response when he acknowledges that disembodied spirits likely find it difficult, if not impossible, to share ideas or impressions without an external world as a point of reference. Thoughts and passions cannot exist in a vacuum, he postulates; they need to be grounded in objects that can be felt and examined, along with a common medium that forms an environment. But this is an incomplete answer.
I believe we, as spirit children of our Father in Heaven, were unable to learn and experience genuine love for, and develop a familial bond with, our brothers and sisters without a body and a tangible place to interact. But the bodies we have been given are vulnerable and the world we inhabit has finite resources and is sometimes hostile—potential obstacles to our goal of living harmoniously with our fellowman.
A theology that views the principal purpose of pain and suffering as a vehicle for strengthening a person’s faith and teaching humility is centered on the atomized individual trying to realize his personal destiny. To fulfill our mission as embodied beings, more is required. First and foremost, we must see our vulnerabilities and afflictions not just as challenges to be overcome but also as something that makes us dependent upon the generosity of others for our health and wellbeing. With this perspective, we discover that the principal purpose of our afflictions is to remind us of the reciprocal obligations we owe those around us, who are equally vulnerable.
Disease and injury, in the words of the bioethicist O. Carter Snead, serve to teach us that, “we all pass through stages of life when our will, judgment, strength and beauty are inchoate, obscured, compromised or annihilated.” Emerging from this realization is an obligation “to come to the aid of vulnerable others.”
When we accept that responsibility, our personal self-fulfillment recedes into the background and we become what God meant us to be: the kind of person who makes the welfare of others his own.
By virtue of our embodiment, according to Professor Snead, we are “made for love and friendship.” And affection and companionship find their greatest expression, not when we overcome affliction on our own but when we engage in uncalculated giving to those in need and graceful receiving from those who offer assistance.
In recent months, countless friends and family members have made me the object of their uncalculated giving. Goodies left on the doorstep, unexpected visits, a humorous email, a new book to read—all have buoyed my spirits and strengthened my resolve to serve others with the same pure love of Christ.
There are times, however, when we find ourselves powerless to alleviate the suffering of others or to alter the course of an intractable disease. The Savior taught us how to provide comfort to those in such circumstances, but he did it with such subtlety we don’t see it.
Immediately following the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples retired to Gethsemane, where he began to pray.
During his supplications, Christ began to grasp the enormity of the ordeal before him, prompting him to seek help from his best friends, Peter, James and John. “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death,” he said; “remain here, and watch with me.” But they fell asleep and let him down.
Jesus, during the hour of his greatest suffering, didn’t need someone to tell him that this is a fallen world, that he had volunteered to take upon himself the sins of the world, or that this experience would make him stronger. He needed someone to sit with him. To rest a hand upon his shoulder as a gentle reminder that a friend was near. To offer a silent prayer on his behalf. But more than anything else, to just be there and mourn with him—he who has mourned more profoundly and more deeply than anyone can possibly imagine.
 Elder Orson F. Whitney, as quoted in Spencer W. Kimball, Faith Precedes the Miracle (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1972), p. 98.
 Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis (2006).
 Jesus, in his parting remarks to his disciples, did tell them they would experience tribulation after he left them but that they would be reunited in peace. John 16:33.
 Matthew 4:23-24.
 John 9: 2-3 (John Bentley Hart Translation).
 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), pp. 20-21.
 O. Carter Snead, What It Means to be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2020), p. 8.
 Ibid, p. 3.
 Ibid, p. 8.