Conversatio Divina

Part 7 of 18

The Problem of Painlessness

Mark Buchanan

I don’t like visiting the doctor. It’s nothing personal. My doctor is skillful and knowledgeable. And he’s a terrific conversationalist. He teems with insight. He brims with curiosity. He’s a compendium of knowledge on a wide range of topics. Religion, economics, food, motorcycles, great places to travel—all and more is up for grabs as he pokes and prods my undersides, stares down my windpipe, and puts that funny little anteater thing into my ear.

I like him. I just don’t like visiting him. Or, more exactly, I dislike the occasions that bring us together.

Like recently. I was in pain. After nearly six months of nursing a gimp elbow—whining to my wife, suffering through my days, but impervious to the idea of doing anything about it—I relented. In fact, I had to: I was required to undergo a standard medical examination to retain a certain class of driver’s license, so I treated it as a providential moment to submit my plaint to medical diagnosis.

The pain had come on without warning and worsened over time. It was at the point where I could barely lift a book without wincing, and I had to abandon certain tasks altogether. The soreness had begun back before Christmas as a dull ache at elbow’s tip. Over the months, it had sharpened and deepened and spread. Now—spring—one false move skewered my whole arm, shoulder to wrist, with a shrapnel of pain.

My doctor asked a few questions, pressed my bones this way and that, turned my arm that way and this, and pronounced both diagnosis and cure in one swoop. The diagnosis was too technical for me to grasp at the time, let alone repeat. But the cure was simple: some magic elixir—$3.64 with my extended medical coverage— syringed into my elbow. It made it worse for three days and then banished the pain altogether.

Now I’m better.

But a funny thing happened: I never noticed, not for almost a week. The pain vanished, but I was oblivious. I went to bed one night bent and ailing as Tithonous.In Greek mythology, Tithonus, a Trojan prince, was granted immortality, but not eternal youth. He continued to age, his strength wilting away, yet he did not die. Weary of his immortality, he yearned for death. I woke up the next day nimble and plucky as Adonis.In Greek mythology, a youth of remarkable beauty, the favorite of the goddess Aphrodite. But I never blinked. Then one day, I doubled my arm back to scratch between my shoulder blades—a move I’d instinctively avoided for almost half a year— and felt nothing. I had to count back through the days to recall how long I’d felt this way, which is to say hadn’t felt anything. Five. Five days of neural blankness. Five days of inhabiting a twingeless body. Five days of my arm, elbow and all, as merely my humble, unobtrusive servant, doing my bidding without compliant or demand. Five days of this, and I hadn’t even stopped to take notice.

I’d forgotten what a gift painlessness is.

Then I thought about ten lepers. It’s the story Luke tells in his Gospel (Luke 17:11–19). Ten lepers accost Jesus and beg him to heal them. He orders them to go show themselves to the priest, an implicit promise of healing according to the rulebook, which they’d know intimately. Showing oneself to the priest, so says Leviticus, is a leper’s first move when he reckons he’s better.

Off they go, ablaze with hope.
And on the way, they’re all healed.
And off they go.

Except one. One stops. One notices—notices, not that he feels nothing, but that, strangely, wonderfully, for the first time in a long time, he feels something. An aliveness in feet and hands. The chill of cold and the scorch of heat. The sharpness of stones underfoot. The ache of joints reawakening, of muscles twining and thrumming.


And he heads the other way, back from where he came. He finds Jesus just where he met him. He falls to his knees, thanking, worshipping.

Jesus has a question: “Where are the other nine?”

Not here. Elsewhere. Gone, and to a man, forgetting what a gift pain is.

Pain is an oddity. It’s a paradox. It makes us human and keeps us healthy. And it diminishes our humanness and ruins our health. It is blessing and curse both.

The paradox is well-captured in the titles of two classic books from the last century. In 1940, C.S. Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain. In 1994, Philip Yancey and Paul Brand wrote The Gift of Pain.

So which is it, a problem or a gift?


Ask Job. His pain was catastrophic. Apocalyptic. Agony added to anguish. Harrowing sorrow and writhing torment all rolled into one long, unrelenting satanic ambush, underwritten by God himself.

Mostly, Job’s pain was sheer curse. No doubt it would have made things worse had Job known the whole thing was a wager God made with the devil. But things were bad enough without knowing that. There’s the loss of everything: sons, daughters, health, wealth. His wife remains, but she appears distinctly unsympathetic. But that’s an untold story: she must be reeling with her own sorrow and bristling with blame.

On top of all that are Job’s friends, Bildad, Eliphaz, Zophar, and Elihu.

I actually feel a kinship with these guys. They think like me. I’ve echoed—though less eloquently—almost everything they say by way of comfort or rebuke. Their theology appears impeccably orthodox and soundly evangelical. There is, for instance, their angst about suffering, their sheer inability to accept that some of it might be purposeless, or worse, serving a purpose beyond their grasp. As evangelicals, we are never so utilitarian as when it comes to pain: all pain must be useful. I’m well-versed in that line of thought. And there is their suspicion, also deeply familiar to me, that much human suffering must be comeuppance. Payback. The consequence, whether meted out by God or built into the situation, for something we’ve done or failed to do.

It’s tempting—comforting in its own way—to see all pain as penalty or crucible. A thing we’re owed, or a thing that makes us better, or both. But Job’s case is tricky. He didn’t have this coming to him. And though he gets better, he doesn’t become better. He doesn’t emerge more humble, less angry, more generous, less lustful. He was a good man already, nigh on perfect. That’s the reason the devil put a target on his back in the first place. Suffering doesn’t refine him. It doesn’t take his already exemplary virtues up a notch. There seems to be no human value at all in what he endures. Indeed, that catastrophic suffering doesn’t strip him of his virtue is the sole point of the exercise.

Yet Job does come away with one thing different: God is bigger, and closer. More mysterious. More majestic. More terrifying. More intimate. And with all that, more comforting. Job’s friends could not produce a scintilla of comfort with all their carefully-wrought, deeply-thought answers to why he suffers. God pours out a deluge of comfort by refusing to answer a single thing; and instead he peppers Job with questions Job can’t answer.

Job’s response to all that? “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5, NIVUnless otherwise indicated all Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™).

God answers Job’s pain with revelation. That’s the gift. That’s the promise. Job’s ordeal reveals God to him in a way that a lifetime of prosperity and a marathon of lecturing had not.

Both prosperity and lectures tend to do that: reduce God to rumors. But a pain-filled life—or at least a lengthy painful episode in life—tends to do the opposite: puts God in your face. We are much more prone to see God in death valleys than in green pastures. That is hinted at in the passage I just alluded to, Psalm 23. Note the shift in pronouns as David moves from green pasture to death valley:


The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters,

he refreshes my soul.

He guides me along the right paths

for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk

through the darkest valley,

I will fear no evil,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

they comfort me.

Psalm 23:1–4


David refers to God in third-person when he lounges by the verdant brook: He is, he makes, he leads, he refreshes, he guides. But he shifts his pronouns to second person as he trudges through the parched gulch: you, your. He stops talking about God and starts talking to him.
Comfort keeps God at a distance. Suffering brings God near. God is a beautiful rumor in the pasture. In the valley, he’s a needed companion. Without pain, we might be theologians, even good ones. What we won’t be is friends of God.

That takes some sorrow.

I’m a pastor, so I’m not making this up.

And I’m a human, so I’m really not making it up.

I’ve suffered only a little in my life so far, but enough that I can attest to Job’s creed: “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.” The death of my father, the death of a close friend and colleague, some hard things in my marriage, a tough season in my parenting, the loss of an intimate friendship—all this has taught me that it’s easier to see God through the lens of pain. Well, that’s not quite it: it’s more necessary to see God then. Seasons of trial have awakened in me dependency and have pulled God close, whereas long stretches of uninterrupted comfort have tended toward the opposite effect: bred in me feelings of entitlement and independence, and held God at bay. In fact, it’s worse: too much comfort has surfaced in me a vague dread that God will show on my doorstep, like Gandalf at Frodo’s hobbit-hole, calling me out into harm’s way.

And being a pastor gives me a ringside seat on this almost every week. A man with stage 4 cancer said to me recently, “It sounds absurd, or maybe over pious, but I actually thank God for my sickness. I’m sixty-three, and since I started following Christ at twenty-seven, I’ve envied those men and women who sang “All to Jesus I Surrender” and meant it. I sang it but never meant it. Cancer has brought me to the place where I do. For the first time in my life I can sing that and do the mental inventory—would I surrender this, and this, and also this? And in every instance, the answer is yes.”

I used to wonder why dogmatists and legalists tend to be young. Those most spoiling for a fight, most willing to split hairs and heads, are usually under thirty. Sometimes the men are barely shaving before they’re shaving doctrine into finer and finer shades. And then I realized: they haven’t suffered enough. It’s pretty much a guarantee that Job’s friends had gone through little by way of sorrow, and it’s no big surprise that the worst of the lot is the youngest of the pack, Elihu. He just won’t shut up, and he reeks of false humility.

Pain is an effective antidote to arrogance. It’s a remedy for know-it-all-ism.

I wonder what Job would have done had one of his friends been made Satan’s plaything. If it was, say, Bildad or Eliphaz who’d lost all in one fell swoop and sat moaning on the dung heap. Would Job, having never suffered, done better at consoling his friend than any of his friends did at consoling him? My guess: he’d have served up the same empty pieties and tired platitudes they did.

Or I wonder what Job would do if, having suffered as he did, Zophar next fell afoul of the devil’s schemes. My guess: he would say hardly anything, maybe nothing. He would sit long with him, and sing low.

It’s not that suffering makes us agnostic, though it can. It’s just that suffering, more times than not, deepens our hunger for truth and at the same time lessens our confidence that we’re the final judge of it or in full possession of it. I’d much rather talk theology with an old man than a young man, and either way if it’s someone who’s been through things. Their grip is tight but gentle. They have more to say, but they say less anyhow. The truth they know isn’t so much a weapon as a solace. Theology for them isn’t a jousting match: it’s a potluck, a sharing of wealth. They’ve become, in Nouwen’s phrase, wounded healers.
We get a glimpse of this in John’s Gospel (John 8:1–11), in that story that isn’t in the “oldest and most reliable manuscripts”: the woman caught in adultery. For my money, I think the story’s authentic though maybe patched in. Jesus tells the angry crowd to go ahead and stone the lady for her sin. Only, he adds,

“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (verse 7).

“At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first” (verse 9).

The older ones first. You can picture it. Some haven’t heard a thing. They are, in their zeal and sanctimony, stone deaf. Others have heard every word, but not really: their bloodlust, their sense of righteous indignation, is so potent it overrides all restraint. They think they are exempt from Jesus’ caveat: If anyone is without sin. . . . They hear it, but dismiss it, their arms cocked back, stones in fists. But there is a stirring the crowd. An old man steps forward. He looks at the earth. He opens his hand. A stone falls. A plume of dust rises. Then, silent, he walks away.

And then another. And another. Only after all the old men have left do the young men follow (John 8:4–9).

Those older men, they’ve been through things.

Like Norm. He used to be, he tells me, a man who never stopped. He had a dream job in sports management. It was long days of hard driving. He had (and still has) a beautiful wife, a house nearly paid for, a fast car, a faster motorcycle. He spent the little leisure time he had riding horses or hanging out with people like himself.

Then one day his horse spooked, threw him, and Norm’s life changed forever in a blink. The fall left him quadriplegic. Now he spends every waking hour in a wheelchair. He’s been that way for nine years, with no functional use of his legs, limited use of his hands.Through Norm’s extraordinary resolve and discipline, and against all odds, he now can take short walks with a walker. He lacks feeling in these parts, too, but suffers chronic nerve pain. There’s nothing romantic about this. This is real suffering, not just the idea of it. Pain is pain, and the wrong kind of painlessness—lack of feeling in hands and legs—is pain, too.

But suffering has turned Norm’s God from provider into friend. God is more real to him than ever before, though Norm’s less dogmatic about it than ever before. Many of his closest friends now are men who before his accident he would have ignored or judged: junkies, con artists, men who just can’t get their act together. Men who can’t seem to pull out of the ditch, or who keep veering into it. Men who tire men like me.

But not Norm. Well, they tire him too, but he’s found in his suffering a calling he did not have before, a wide and deep capacity to speak compassion and hope to those who suffer. I don’t think Norm ever held stones, but any he might have had he dropped long ago. He took up a cross of pain and painlessness and carries it daily. Once-irrelevant Bible verses are now his daily bread—“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18, NASBScripture quotations marked (NASB®) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995, 2020 by The Lockman Foundation Used by permission. ( “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). And many more.

There’s no question that he’d lose the wheelchair in a heartbeat if he could. He’d walk without fainting, and run without growing weary. He’d probably ride a horse again, and certainly a Harley. He’d dance and skip and swim, and he’d burn the wheelchair, and roast a hotdog on its embers.

But the cross, he’d keep that. That cross, it keeps him. I can’t think of a greater gift pain gives.



Mark Buchanan is an author and pastor living on Vancouver Island with his wife, Cheryl, and their three children, Adam, Sarah, and Nicola. Mark holds a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the University of British Columbia and a master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from Vancouver’s Regent College. Mark is a popular conference and retreat speaker, but his deep love is the local church. He has published six books and many articles. His seventh book is due out in early 2012, and he is currently working on a novel and a memoir.