My Theology and My Approach to Pain

By Mandy Smith

There are many ways we can horrify our dentists. I horrified mine last month by saying, “It’s OK if I have to live with the pain.” It was unthinkable for him, but in spite of his best efforts, I’m still left with a dull ache when I bite into an apple. I’m OK with that.

We have become intolerant of pain—physical, emotional, and spiritual. Does that deny the opportunity God sees in pain?

As a pastor, I often walk with people along the edge of emotional and spiritual pain. As they see it coming, it’s natural to want to avoid the pain of shame, anger, or grief. It often seems to me that they’re in whitewater above a thunderous waterfall, desperately dog-paddling against the raging current to fight from being dragged over the edge. It’s exhausting and they resent God for it, but it’s better than releasing themselves to the plunge.

Mental Pain and Spiritual Pain

In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis said that while mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, it is more difficult to bear. And, while mental pain is more common, it is also more difficult to admit.

It’s often my job to ask folks to consider the plunge, and those who accept that awful invitation (after the initial terror and confusion of the fall) find themselves at the bottom in a new, spacious place of peace and freedom. The thing they feared would kill them has happened and here they are, alive and free.

What has this to do with theology?

02_Life6_Smith_JNHebrews 2:14, 15 says, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

The moment when our life ends is one kind of death, but there are many fears of many kinds of death that hold us in slavery: emotional, social, relational, psychological deaths. At least we can treat physical pain with Tylenol.

On the other hand, emotional and spiritual pain feel like the kind of death from which we can never be born again. Our sinfulness, shame, failure, anxiety, and inadequacy confront us with a deeper kind of pain we’d rather not explore—if we just dog-paddle hard enough at the precipice, we think we can avoid them.

But what if we really lived our theology about death and resurrection? What would that mean not only for what we believe about the end of our lives, but also for how we live every day? Our whole story is one of death and resurrection. In fact, it seems to be God’s favorite story. When we die to our own effort to control, to understand, to be strong and independent, we step into intense pain, trusting that there is resurrection on the other side.

Good Pain

Today I went to a physical therapist to get treatment for a muscle problem, and her approach to pain was very different than my dentist’s. As she pressed deeper into the muscle, she asked, “Tell me when it’s a good pain.” She then held that pressure for several minutes until the muscle released.

While she was working hard, I also had to work not to tense up in response to the pain of her pressing. It took all my mental and physical energy to release control. Some kinds of pain are a sign to stop, but this hurt so much because it had been knotted up tight for so long. So it was a good pain, the kind that pinpointed the location of the problem and brought release to places that had long been cramped in unhealthy habits.

Is God’s promise to free us from the slavery of fear of death only a promise for the moment we die? Or can our entire life be transformed by freedom from fear of every kind of death? If we really believe his promises, how will that change our approach to spiritual and emotional pain? How will this help us recognize the difference between good pain and bad pain?

And as we disciple others, how can we kindly invite them to experience good pain, the kind that reveals opportunities to die in ways that will lead to resurrection? How can we trust that good pain pinpoints the location of the problem and brings release to places that have long been cramped in unhealthy habits? Can we trust that dying to control resurrects us to a new place of peace?

Every way I have experienced resurrection in this life has come from what, at the time, felt like death. And as I’ve experienced that resurrection, it’s given my theology a beating heart.

Mandy Smith is pastor at University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her latest book, The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry, was published by InterVarsity Press in September 2015.

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