Saturday, October 3, 2009

Pain - the sense we NEED !

A small article towards the back of a People magazine told the story of a little girl named Ashlyn.(1) She was described as an incredibly happy child, eager and energetic. According to her mother, Ashlyn has the best laugh in the world, and according to her kindergarten teacher, she fearlessly goes headfirst into everything. In many ways she is a typical, lovable five year-old. But Ashlyn is one of only 50 people in the world with a genetic condition that leaves her unable to feel pain. She can feel touch and be tickled, but she cannot sense pain or extreme temperatures.

Ashlyn's parents are used to being asked why such a condition is daunting news at all. Their reply is one racked with the sting of experience: Pain is there for a reason. When she was a toddler, they had to wrap her with athletic tape because of all the damage she was causing to limbs that knew no fear. She has knocked eight teeth out and dug a hole in her eye without shedding a tear. She once came in from outside proclaiming she couldn't get the dirt off her skin. But it wasn't dirt. Ashlyn was covered with hundreds of biting fire ants.

It is hard to read such a story without coming away with the difficult conclusion that pain is necessary. Imagine not knowing when you have scalded your mouth on a hot meal or bit your tongue so badly that it bled. Imagine your child reaching out for the flickering light of a candle and not having the pain of burned fingers to reinforce your scolding plea not to play with fire.

The great majority of our philosophical frustration about pain is aimed at asking why a loving God would allow it in the first place. And yet, the closing lines of Ashlyn's story were the words of a heartbroken parent: "I would give anything, absolutely anything, for Ashlyn to feel pain."(2) Pain is the body's signal for danger, however severe or slight. It is a navigating force through unknown corridors of life, without which we find ourselves numb to reality, robbed of caution, and disoriented to the world. "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pain," says C.S. Lewis.

There is no doubt something wonderful about the thought of pain removed and eyes wiped dry. We are rightly comforted by the image of heaven as the place where God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. There is indeed much hope in the promise that there will one day "be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (Revelation 21:4). But perhaps there is also something wonderful about a God who gives us pain as a guide, an orienteer, a loud speaker.

There is a line uttered by the psalmist that has been comforting to my grandmother through many years. To God the psalmist confesses, "You have kept count of my tossings, put my tears in your bottle" (Psalm 56:8, ESV). Tear-bottles were small urns of glass or pottery, created to collect the tears of mourners at the funeral of a loved one, and placed in the sepulchers at Rome and in Palestine where bodies were laid to rest. In some ancient tombs these bottles are found in great numbers, collecting tears that were shed with great meaning.

Perhaps equally comforting as knowing God will one day wipe away every tear from our eyes is the thought that God does not see our pain here as a pointless or empty occurrence. Just as our tears will be tended to in eternity, the psalmist reminds us that so our tears on earth do not go unnoticed. Our pain is not haphazardly viewed by the one who made tear ducts that spill over with grief and anguish. God has kept count of our sorrowful struggling; each tear is recorded as pain steeped with meaning. Like a parent grieving at a child's wound, God reaches out to you in—perhaps even through—your pain, speaking gently into your heightened sense of awareness. And with the Son who wept at the grave of Lazarus, God collects your tears in his bottle until the day when tears will be no more.

Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

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