Silent Shouts of Joy: From Spiritual Pain to Divine Comfort (3/3)

Spiritual Pain and Divine Comfort

My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. [James 1:2-4 (NKJV) ].

We understand how important it is to enjoy the rest and comfort of sleep. Our physical and psychological health depend on it. Unfortunately, many people don’t appreciate the peace and contentment that come from spiritual rest.

Physical pain can be excruciating, but spiritual pain can completely destroy us, if we are not equipped with patience and hope. Our faith, buttressed with perseverance and prayer, is a calming salve for our spiritual wounds. God does not burden any of us with more than we are well able to bear.

Pain is defined as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage and described in terms of such damage” (Mersky). However, any pain is a subjective experience and cannot be seen as a standardized, easily defined entity in spite of efforts to define, measure, or describe it … “spiritual” pain is just as elusive and difficult to quantify … [it] is described in NANDA (1994:49) as the “disruption in the principle which pervades a person’s entire being and which integrates and transcends one’s biological and psychosocial nature.” [Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development].

Spiritual pain brings intimacy to our prayers. It shocks our wandering thoughts into attention. Distractions no longer hover over our supplication. As we bow, crying, longing for relief, we need no other discipline or exercise to keep us focused.

Often it is the people closest to suffering who have the most powerful joy. [John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted].

Profits from Adversity

Trials and ordeals such as illnesses, injuries and disease are distinct from spiritual pain. Indeed, the absence of spiritual comfort magnifies and exacerbates our physical pain.

When we have no spiritual solace, no place for our thoughts to turn, our impaired physical condition can become unbearable.

For the believer all pain has meaning; all adversity is profitable. There is no question that adversity is difficult. It usually takes us by surprise and seems to strike where we are most vulnerable. To us it often appears completely senseless and irrational, but to God none of it is either senseless or irrational. He has a purpose in every pain He brings or allows in our lives. We can be sure that in some way He intends it for our profit and His glory. [Jerry Bridges, Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts, p. 89]. 

Our physical life offers us the opportunity to reach an eternally sacred state by striving in our faith and producing works of great merit. However, pain, suffering and grief are scary.

The process of growth — from a child to adulthood, from maturity to old age — presents countless moments when windows of possibilities are opened. But, we waver because they are surrounded by extremely frightening risks.

I am not a theologian or a scholar, but I am very aware of the fact that pain is necessary to all of us. In my own life, I think I can honestly say that out of the deepest pain has come the strongest conviction of the presence of God and the love of God. [Elisabeth Elliot].

Trust and Patience

Our ability to endure and accept both physical and spiritual pain begins with patience that flows from spiritual trust. When our mind is sure that the pain will eventually stop, when we are confident in our faith, we enjoy what can be called a spiritual placebo, an alleviation that comes from an intangible Divine comfort.

But [as for myself,] patience in adversity is most goodly [in the sight of God]; and it is to God [alone] that I pray to give me strength to bear the misfortune which you have described to me. [Quran 12:18].

Even in severe physical pain, we feel an easing of distress with the solace and consolation that come from reliance on the Divine.

The satisfaction we feel from having endured and persevered to please our Lord provides a soothing balm for the physical pain and discomfort.

The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. A righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all … [Psalm 34:17-19 (NIV)].

Fast-forwarding Pain

By contrast, when our beliefs have no ultimate destination, no spiritual fulfillment, then neither biological nor intellectual mechanisms can alleviate our pain.

Suffering is unbearable if you aren’t certain that God is for you and with you. [Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, p. 58].

When we lose the ability to believe in any future comfort, when we cannot look forward to Divine relief, when we have no hope of an improved condition, then physical pain, combined with spiritual pain, can overwhelm us.

If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain. [John Henry Newman].

If our thoughts revolve around recurring anxiety, our mind continually seeks relief, but finds none. Without the comfort of the Divine Presence in our lives, we are flung into total despair, with no remedy, no ease possibly available. No greater spiritual pain exists than to feel absent from God’s grace.

… we need an interior certainty, a conviction that God is able to act in every situation, even amid apparent setbacks … This certainty is often called “a sense of mystery”. It involves knowing with certitude that all those who entrust themselves to God in love will bear good fruit (cf. Jn 15:5)…. No single act of love for God will be lost, no generous effort is meaningless, no painful endurance is wasted … Let us keep marching forward; let us give him everything, allowing him to make our efforts bear fruit in his good time. [Pope Francis, The of the Gospel, 279].

Pain and Compassion

Another kind of spiritual pain is that which comes from our love–of God and of our fellow human beings. When our compassion and piety generate spiritual pain, we can be certain that God will respond.

Affliction is an adornment for the believer and a mark of honour for the man of intellect, because facing it directly needs steadfastness and firm-footedness, both of which confirm belief. [Imam Ja’far Al-Sadiq, Lantern of the Path, #87. Affliction].

We feel spiritual pain for a wayward child, we share the suffering of the oppressed, we feel compassion for the needy. These emotions evince spiritual pain of a blessed variety, pain that emanates from love bestowed by God.

When pain thus becomes a tool of our faith — an element of our worship — then pain no longer holds power to cause us fear, and our heart has awakened to Divine Comfort.

And most certainly shall We try you by means of danger, and hunger, and loss of worldly goods, of lives and of [labour’s] fruits. But give glad tidings unto those who are patient in adversity, who, when calamity befalls them, say, “Verily, unto God do we belong and, verily, unto Him we shall return.” [Quran 2:155].

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