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Last month, a man I know had surgery on his hand, the second surgery on the same hand.
After the first surgery, his hand had lost quite a bit of feeling. On the one hand (no pun intended), that meant it didn’t hurt any more. But on the other, no feeling meant he couldn’t do his job, which requires using both hands and all his fingers.
After the second surgery, his hand was still numb, which was a huge disappointment for him. But then during the middle of the night, it started hurting. His wife told me he was happy for the pain because that meant he could feel again.
The late Dr. Paul Brand was a missionary surgeon who spent decades working with people with leprosy. In his book, “The Gift of Pain,” he tells about a woman in New Guinea cooking yams over a charcoal fire. When one of the yams fell out of the pot, she called an old man nearby, a leper, who retrieved it by reaching into the piles of burning coals without even flinching.
Brand said he noticed the man had no fingers, just gnarled stubs covered with blisters and scars.
Brand wrote, “While most of us seek out pharmacists and doctors in search of relief from pain, these people live in constant peril due to pain’s absence.”
His life’s work of doing reconstructive surgery to correct deformities on hands and feet on those with leprosy stemmed from his discovery that leprosy doesn’t cause the loss of flesh. Rather, the deformities were a result of the inability to feel pain.
Pain, he concluded, was not “antithetical to life, but a requisite for it and that God designed the human body so that it is able to survive because of pain.”
I get that—to a point. I’ve touched a hot stove and know I don’t want to rest my face on one. Although I love the thought of life without pain, if I had leprosy, I wouldn’t want to not feel a splinter in my toe or an infected tooth.
But there’s another side to pain that can’t be summed up as neatly. What about those who live in constant pain?
What about emotional pain? What about the pain of grief and loss, disappointment and regret? What value is that pain?
I don’t know the answer and I’m not sure any of us are wise enough or qualified to answer that. Some people believe that pain has a holy purpose that its “virtue” redeems us. Some even believe we shouldn’t seek relief.
I don’t, however, believe that. I believe that we are redeemed through Christ’s pain, not our own, through his suffering, his death, his grace.
As for the presence of constant pain, while I don’t know why it exists, I do know that God has promised to be with his people who go through it.
That’s supposed to be enough, and by faith, it is.
Nancy Kennedy is the author of “Lipstick Grace.” She can be reached at 352-564-2927, Monday through Thursday, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.