No Pain, No Gain
In this article I continue to drill down into our conception and theology of pain and struggle through some more observations of God’s created order.
Observation 1. It seems that God has designed our body to develop to maturity through its struggle against bacteria.
Between us, my children and I have a cocktail of allergies – asthma, eczema, and hay fever. So when I recently attended a medical research conference focused on allergies, I was captivated. While the doctors were not completely sure of the origin of allergies in all cases, the consensus about why western countries have comparatively higher rates than the rest of the world was that it is somehow related to autoimmune reactions to our western hyper-sanitisation. Two examples stood out. First, Asian people born and raised in Asia have a very small chance of developing these allergies; however, Asian children born or raised in western countries have an exceptionally high chance. Second, children born via C-section have a significantly higher chance of developing allergies compared to those born naturally. In both cases, children raised in the west or born via C-section were less likely to be exposed to certain bacteria that have been found critical for the development of a functioning immune system. Without these bacteria the immune system often becomes dysfunctional, and instead of protecting the body it begins attacking it, a.k.a. allergic reactions.
Observation 2. It seems that God has designed our psychology to develop to maturity through its struggle against obstacles in life.
The golden rule in aged care is that carers should never do something for residents which they can do for themselves, even if they are inefficient at it (see Australian Standards 3.5 & 3.9). If they do this, carers rob residents of their autonomy, which often accelerates their mental decline. Likewise, with children, psychologists say the same thing. If it takes my son 20 minutes to tie up his laces but takes me 20 seconds, it is still better to get him to do it (no matter how frustrating!). When parents, in an attempt to protect their children, continually remove obstacles, this actually undermines their child’s development and often may lead to psychological disorders, sometimes catastrophic.
Observation 3. It seems God has designed our body in such a way that it can only survive if it experiences pain.
Some people are born with a disorder or contract diseases that result in them not being able to feel pain. The absence of pain might at first sound appealing until you realise that ‘these people often die in childhood as a result of illnesses or injuries they have not noticed’. It reminds me of when I left the dentist once after receiving a local aesthetic, and the nurse told me not to eat anything for at least a few hours. Otherwise, she said, there was a real risk that I may chew my own tongue off and not even realise it!
Observation 4. It seems God has designed our body in such a way that it can only thrive if it experiences pain.
You only have to see the movie Wall E if you want to see how sickly the sight would be if all work and the need for physical effort were removed from humans. The truth is, to truly thrive, to truly experience life and life to the full, we need to be fit and healthy. However, in order to grow fitter and stronger we literally have to tear our muscles through exercise, and this is a painful experience. Yet as our muscles heal, extra tissue is generated resulting in a fitter, stronger person; hence the saying, ‘No pain, no gain’.
These observations raise the question, ‘Why are we so quick to conflate pain and struggle with evil?”
While it’s true that evil often leads to a kind of malevolent pain and suffering, does it actually follow that all pain and struggle is inherently evil or even the result of evil? Well, the observations above clearly show it does not. In fact, this kind of reasoning is known as the post hoc fallacy; that is, where we mistakenly assume that something only has one cause when in reality it has multiple causes; in this case it is the assumption that pain and struggle only has one cause – evil. What’s more, we often build on this false assumption and argue that because
- pain and struggle comes from evil, then
- God cannot wish us to experience pain and struggle, and therefore
- it is our duty wherever possible to remove it from our lives as well as from the lives of others.
Thus, we arrive at the theological understanding of pain and struggle that many Christians hold today. Unfortunately, though, just like how hyper-sanitised environments can lead to dysfunctional immune systems, this hyper-sanitised theology may actually be contributing to dysfunction in our psychology, health, relationships, and ministry practice. Instead, our theology needs to agree with the reality that God has designed us in such a way that some pain and struggle is not only critical for our survival and functional development but indeed is critical for us to experience a thriving life. Such a theology can be formed by embracing what James, Paul and Solomon have to say:
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4 NRSV, emphasis added).
…we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (Rom. 5:3-5 NRSV).
To discipline a child produces wisdom, but a mother is disgraced by an undisciplined child (Prov. 29:15 NLT).