Pain and its Purpose

April 9, 2011

There are people who can’t feel pain. Not emotional pain, but physical pain. Those who have been diagnosed with the extremely rare genetic disorder (there are only 17 people diagnosed in the U.S.), congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis (CIPA), have lost their use of sensory perception to touch. It sounds like an enormous blessing: to never feel pain, to never feel the hurt of everything from a skinned knee to a serious injury. But as any parent of a child with CIPA will tell you, the disorder is a nightmare.

Pain has a purpose. You learn through experience to avoid burning yourself, to go indoors when you feel too hot, or that falling on a gravel road is painful. These children can’t learn that because they can’t feel pain. One of the early warning signs that a child has CIPA is that when they begin teething, unable to feel pain and wanting to gnaw on everything in sight, they will gnaw through their fingers and tongue.

When it comes to emotional pain we all wish it was something we could escape from. We all wish that we could be immune to the hurt of a lost friendship, a lost loved one or any number of things in this world that cause us serious emotional pain. But pain has its purpose. Pain is a warning sign that something is wrong. We learn through pain to avoid dangerous and hurtful situations. Pain is often the result of an unexpected event: the loss of a loved one, a life-altering accident or any number of traumatic events. It is in the midst of these moments that a relationship with God may be tested and strengthened as a result or abandoned altogether. It is the difficult questions that arise out of these experiences that can cause real growth to occur.

Strength training and building endurance are what builds muscles. The pain felt in the muscles means that, in a few days, the tears will begin to rebuild and grow stronger. The heart is one of the hardest working muscles in the body and, in the same way, it grows stronger after enduring pain. Few people would understand this better than the late Pope John Paul II who, after spending his teenage years in Nazi-occupied Poland, lost his father, mother and brother before the age of 20. The late Pope credits the death of his father with his decision to enter seminary.

C.S. Lewis explored many of the difficult questions that arise when questioning the purpose of pain. In A Grief Observed Lewis lamented that, “(Man) has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.” It is in grappling with the difficulties of pain that we might discover the true test of our faith.

Pain has a purpose. It warns us against dangerous situations and causes us to realize we have lost something valuable. Working through deep loss causes us to seriously question our relationship with our Creator and may lead us to a better understanding. Pain has a purpose. And it is when you don’t feel pain that you know something is truly wrong.



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