January 16, 2008

In a World of Hurt


The beleaguered Danish prince steps to center stage, gazes wistfully over the heads of the audience, and, speaking aloud so all may know his anguish, wonders that all humankind must be subject to “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and “the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” In such elevated language, he is expressing something very down to earth: the universal nature of pain in the human life.

Nociception is a word that isn’t heard every day; but it relates to an everyday part of the human experience, and has been described by science as essential to human survival. It means “perception of pain.” In the most elementary study of anatomy and physiology, it is taught that, physically at least, pain is considered a gift. Without it, living organisms would have no defense against injury or even death. It causes the reflexive response to all manner of danger.

Statistically, medical research has documented a small number of children born without nociception. They experience no sensory pain of any kind. Subject to cuts and bruises and fractures without feeling them, they seldom live past 25 years of age. Too many injuries lead to too many conditions that ultimately wear the body down.

Science has also discovered, remarkably, that the same area of the brain senses and records emotional pain as that which detects physical pain. The same electrons fire in the anterior cingulate cortex when a subject endures a broken relationship as when one suffers a broken leg.

Physical pain is considered a gift only in the context of a world that has been blighted by sin. Throughout Scripture are numerous instances of the connection between physical and emotional suffering, both of which can affect spiritual wellbeing similarly.

The entire book of Job is all about a man of God who was, in today’s vernacular, in “a world of hurt.” The reader simply cannot look away from Job’s emotional suffering in the loss of everything he owned. Every single one of his beloved children was wiped out in one terrible accident—in today’s misguided language, an “act of God.” Then, as Job tries to understand why these things have happened to him, he is further tormented with excruciating physical suffering.

The lyricist of the Psalms turns to the same subject and asks God directly why he is not delivered from his suffering when he knows full well that God is “enthroned as the Holy One” (Ps. 22:3),[i] that God could surely deliver him from his pain.

Interestingly this very psalm discloses multiple prophecies of the deeply personal emotional and physical suffering that would be experienced by the promised Messiah: “scorned by men and despised by the people” (verse 6); “they have pierced my hands and my feet” (verse 16); “they divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing” (verse 18). To be sure, Psalm 22 closes with a hopeful and affirming response to the pain, but the suffering is strikingly real.

Throughout Scripture, then, this theme of human misery rises again and again. It would be only natural for it to do so, because we are drawn to stories about the ordeals of other human beings.

Throughout Scripture, this theme of human misery rises again and again.

But Scripture is even more the story of God, of His acts, of His nature, of His attributes. When the reader of Scripture focuses on God, this issue of suffering comes up even more—God’s pain. “We seldom think,” writes Jack Blanco, “of the emotional heart pain of God that continues even today as He feels the pain of a suffering world.”[ii]

On the cross, Jesus, the Son of God, human and divine, experienced excruciating pain as nails were driven into His flesh, as the spear was thrust into His side, as thorns were pressed into His brow. And through this physical suffering, He cried out in deep despair: “‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’” (Matt. 27:46, NKJV). His suffering was both physical and emotional.

But one of the most comforting promises in all of Scripture comes only a few verses before its very end: “‘There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain’” (Rev. 21:4). Then, in a world where sin will be no more, where all has been made new, we will inherit a repurposed area of the brain that we may devote for time immemorial to our relationship with our Creator and Savior. No pain—ever again!

Gary Swanson is editor of Perspective Digest, an online publication of the Adventist Theological Society.

[i] Unless otherwise noted, all scriptural references in this article are from The New International Version of the Bible.

[ii] http://www.perspectivedigest.org/article/200/archives/21-3/when-the-pain-is-over.