Zelophehad’s Daughters

Pain and the Purpose of Life

Posted by Kiskilili

Every Primary graduate knows that the purpose of life includes the attainment of a physical body and the concomitant opportunities of experiencing both pleasure and pain. We perhaps rightly take pride in the theological basis for our celebration of the physical and, accordingly, our purported denunciation of the impulse toward asceticism. For Mormons, within appropriate limits, physical pleasure is good and even ordained of God.

But what of physical pain? Is it, too, ordained of God?

For much of my life I fastidiously avoided pain killers under any circumstances, believing that deliberately eliminating pain thwarted God’s will and hence was inappropriate. I’ve since become converted to the wonderful and multitudinous uses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen, but I wonder whether there’s a theological justification for this behavior. Our doctrine sounds not unlike a recipe for self-flagellation. If suffering is instructive to a degree that God has choreographed a physical existence in which it is unavoidable, and if God countenances and perhaps even approves of it (even if he does not actively create it), on what grounds is it acceptable for me to avert it? Can we simultaneously assert the necessity of pain in this existence and seek opportunies to alleviate it?

If physical suffering is a specific component in God’s design for the universe, what justifies the Tylenol in the medicine cabinet?

15 Responses to “Pain and the Purpose of Life”

  1. 1.

    Can we simultaneously assert the necessity of pain in this existence and seek opportunies to alleviate it?

    I think this is a crucial question, and one that actually leaves me with some reservations about the very project of theodicy. Any attempt to explain the existence of evil and/or suffering runs the real risk of justifying it–and potentially leaves us with less reason to challenge the status quo. If people are learning necessary lessons from being born into poverty, for example, and God is possibly even orchestrating this situation (as the quote mentioned by Rebecca in her recent FMH post seems to suggest), are those who seek to lessen poverty in the world thereby doing the poor a spiritual disservice?

  2. 2.

    Yes, Lynnette, they are. No more donations to Heifer International or microloans through kiva.org. The only people truly doing God’s work are those who are working to increase human suffering so as to improve others’ chances for spiritual growth.

    No, really, good questions, Kiskilili and Lynnette.

  3. 3.

    I’m not sure if there is or is not spiritual significance to physical pain, but I did want to point out that just because something exists doesn’t make it spiritually significant.

    Pain is an essential biological function. It is a warning of sickness or injury. If we didn’t have pain, we could very easily become seriously ill, or cause serious injury or death with no warning. Now, we can ask the question of why sickness, injury, and death are necessary, but that’s a different question I think.

    So, looking at it this way, our ability to experience physical pain might not be any more spiritually significant that our ability to sleep. If that’s the case, if we are experiencing pain and know why (ie. you have a cold, are having a baby, etc.) I don’t see a problem with taking medication. There is the danger of over-medicating to the point where you don’t know that something is seriously wrong, though.

    I also think there’s a serious danger or a slippery slope here. Is it important to experience cold? If so, how do we justify living in heated houses? Or, as Lynnette pointed out, what about poverty and hunger?

  4. 4.

    Part of the purpose of pain is to learn to alleviate it in others. Therefore, the gospel is most accurately one of “do what you can to alleviate pain, but realize you won’t be able to stop it all.” Something tells me that taking Tylenol won’t mean you feel no pain throughout your life. You’ll get plenty of experience with pain with or without medication.

  5. 5.

    I love this post. In particular:

    For much of my life I fastidiously avoided pain killers under any circumstances, believing that deliberately eliminating pain thwarted God’s will and hence was inappropriate.

    The peculiar blend of faith and masochism in that sentence is wonderful, K. :) It’s reminiscent of the people (mostly men) who argued in all seriousness, a century ago, that pain relief for childbirth was against God’s will. Because God told Eve that he would multiply her sorrow. Genesis 3:16 curses Eve with pain: “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” Some other translations are even more explicit about the pain part of it all.

    Apparently God wants people (especially women) to feel pain (especially in childbirth). It’s there to remind you that you’re all fallen anyway, like Eve who was cursed.

    Outdated misogynistic interpretations aside, is there really a good use for pain?

    On the one hand, pain can be a way to refine or focus our mental energy. For some people, pain can be an almost transcendental experience. In older times, such folks might crawl a few hundred miles to some holy shrine. Or perhaps walk on hot coals, in the East. Today, such people deliberately burn or cut themselves, and then we institutionalize them. Society seems pretty dubious of pain as a route to higher consciousness.

    There is a justification for the link between pain and spirituality, which shows up in groups like Opus Dei. I had a chat once with an Opus Dei member — a very pleasant and intelligent fellow with an Ivy League grad school degree — and asked, “what’s with the hair shirts, anyway?” And he said, it was a way to do supererogatory acts. All of the actions that God wants us to do — e.g., giving our goods to the poor, or praying — are actions that will be rewarded. And so, even though these actions may be painful sometimes, they always result in a net gain. We get paid for them, so to speak. And so one could reasonably be very righteous, and engage in self-denying righteous acts, out of selfishness alone.

    Hair shirts, precisely because they are _not_ required by God, are a way to suffer _without_ any expectation of eternal reward for it. And thus, to more fully understand Christ, who suffered for us, without expecting a reward in return.

    I’m not sure I entirely credit that argument, but it does suggest an intriguing link between self-inflicted pain, and spiritual enlightenment. So you’re in good company, K. You and an albino monk who wants to kill Tom Hanks.

    And of course, Cary Elwes. Life is pain, Kiskilili. And anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell something. :)

  6. 6.

    What justifies the tylenol in the medicine cabinet? Good grief, get some therapy.

  7. 7.

    short version: If Advil is wrong, I don’t want to be right!

  8. 8.

    Seriously, though, I’m intrigued by Mike’s comments about pain being a pedestrian biological function. So will there be pain in the afterlife, since we will have a body?

    Maybe our interpretation of pain as being negative in any sense other than a signal of some kind of body system error, is just emotional and not “real” (that was said badly–emotions are real, but, just try to understand it better than I wrote it :-)). Actually there is a whole philosophy of childbirth that takes this kind of view, to tie in Kaimi’s points. I read books about it, including one called “Childbirth Without Fear.” The newer incarnation is the hypnobirthing movement. The idea is that if you can remove the emotional baggage of pain, and not let pain lead to fear, you can transcend the pain and not be bothered by it. Anyway, don’t want to get the conversation off in that direction except to say there is an interesting separation between physical pain and the emotional and conscious mind interpretation of it.

    Kiskilili, I feel a kind of kinship with your previous eschewing of pain medicine. I don’t believe I ever thought it was denying God’s will. But I did have a sense of not wanting to dull myself to anything. A (rather too melodramatic) sense of “sucking the marrow out of life” and all that. (I use past tense since recently grad school, or life, or something, has beat the idealism out of me) And, frankly, I’ve never really had a problem with pain. Extremely accident-prone childhood, more than my share of stitches and breaks, gave me a very deep sense of confidence in my ability to personally overcome pain. And, ironic given the klutziness that caused it, a strong sense of surefootedness, as far as my grounding in this world. By that I mean, I had full confidence that whatever mishaps my happen to my body, it was a simple matter to fix it; no fear of death or sense of the fragility of our mortality. So I just didn’t want to take painkillers. Which brings me back to the afterlife thing. I believe on FMH a while back, someone was saying they’d be sad if their scars were gone in the resurrection. In an analogous way, I’d be a little sad if there is no pain. I don’t fear pain, and I feel like it participates positively in defining who I am.

  9. 9.

    I appreciate your concern for my well-being, E. Actually, I’m not advocating suffering; I’m personally opposed to it. Heck, I’d happily eliminate all suffering from my life! I’m only wondering aloud how to situate that position in a larger theological framework. Since I don’t necessarily do what God allegedly says, I have no trouble personally justifying my Tylenol purchases. But I am interested in exploring the theological implications of claiming pain is one purpose of our existence.

    In light of the serious problem-of-evil questions that lurk in the background as Lynnette mentions, the issue of whether to take something for a headache seems ridiculously trivial. On the other hand, I think it nicely gets to the heart of the implications of claiming pain is one of God’s purposes for our lives, and what that means on the individual level: am I not following God’s plan for me if I live with the headache? Again, I’m not personally in favor of this position; I’m just wondering by what theological mechanism we wriggle out of it.

    So while we’ve rejected one possible impulse for ascetic behavior–transcending the flesh by mortifying it–we’ve only opened ourselves doctrinally to another one–suffering as a way of embracing and fully experiencing the physical world. Of course, I see no evidence Mormons actually exploit this to any degree at all. This is hardly surprising, since I think our doctrine frequently follows our behavior rather than leading it.

    Like Lynnette, I think it’s dangerous to explain away suffering because we lose the motivation to alleviate it. What I think this gets at is that we’re not adequately explaining it away to ourselves. If we really thought growing up in a ramshackle lice-infested orphanage was spiritually advantageous, we’d put our own children in one. If we’re not willing to subject ourselves and our loved ones to such conditions, I think we’re morally obligated to make efforts toward relieving them for others.

    Interesting ideas, Mike. I also wonder whether pain has spiritual significance or not. Claiming that it’s one of the reasons for our obtaining a physical body would suggest that it does, but perhaps this doctrine is out of fashion? I honestly don’t know. Worshiping a Redeemer whose central salvific act was to suffer would suggest likewise, although I’m not entirely sure how to understand this doctrine either. It’s hardly surprising, if rather disturbing, that early Christian martyrs were so hellbent on finding opportunities to suffer; this was after all the example set by their founder.

    Is suffering morally noble? I’m not sure. I do think self-discipline is noble, and it may entail suffering of a sort. And perhaps it can serve as a sensible corrective to hedonism; as I recall, the protagonist of Brave New World whips himself as a token of his renunciation of the instant mindless gratification of his culture. But I’m not sure exactly how best to steer a course between self-denial and self-nurturing.

    “Not true, that pain instructs,” thinks one of the characters in Ordinary People, by Judith Guest. “Sometimes it merely hurts.” I’m inclined to agree wholeheartedly. It may be true that pain sometimes enables us to grow and develop empathy. But I also suspect it has the power to shrink us into callousness and inhibition.

    Then again, there’s good scriptural support that suffering has redemptive and purgative properties that are essential to the experience of hell, for example.

    To expand on SilverRain’s idea that God licenses evil in the world to give us an opportunity to do real good, I think there’s something to be said for the idea that suffering CAN make us more empathetic. The thing is, if there were no suffering, would there be a need for empathy? This idea sort of explains suffering by assuming its inevitability.

    Of course SilverRain is absolutely right that we can’t eliminate pain entirely. If we operate on the notion that it’s simply important that we have the experience of pain at some point, we’ve all no doubt satisfied this quota and can be comfortable with efforts to alleviate all other pain. Is it safe to assume that suffering we can put a stop to is not ordained of God, and suffering we cannot stop is his will? How would we decide what we’re capable of stopping? And why would God require so much more suffering from some than from others?

    The way we pair pleasure with pain makes it seem unlikely to me that the reasoning behind our doctrine is the importance of alleviating others’ pain, although there are things I like about that idea.

    I was wondering when someone would bring up childbirth, Kaimi! You’re right that the doctrine is both outdated and misogynistic, although it’s not entirely clear to me on what grounds we’ve dismissed it, given the centrality of Eve’s behavior to Mormon thought. (See here for further thoughts on the subject.) It’s silly and obnoxious to claim women are obligated to suffer in childbirth. It’s also perfectly logical if one accepts the authority of scripture.

    The Opus Dei explanation for self-inflicted suffering is really fascinating. But then we claim that, at least in part, Christ suffered so he could better understand us. Should we then suffer to better understand him? It seems if neither of us suffered, neither would need to suffer.

    Really interesting comments, Papageno. If the primary purpose of pain is to clue us into physical dangers of various sorts, then it makes sense that God no longer experiences physical pain since he’s no longer subject to physical danger. But if we have perfect memories in the next life, we’ll be able to remember what the experience of pain is like without having to undergo it on a continuing basis. Of course, a perfect remembrance of everything I’ve ever done would be a bottomless fount of emotional pain as well, insofar as I’m not exactly proud of much of my behavior! But then, I’m not sure I’d want to forget either, as my experience seems like a fundamental part of who I am.

    Good grief! This comment is turning into a monograph, and I’m still absolutely confused about all this.

  10. 10.

    I think another key is fear behind the pain. I went through childbirth naturally. I knew where the pain was coming from and was surprised to find that after all was said and done, it was just pain. Sure, I hollered like a banshee, but even at the time my mind realized I was hollering more to focus my efforts than because of the pain. I found the entire experience interesting. I don’t think I would have had as great of a experience, had I opted for medication.

    I was raised in a family where we avoided taking medication until there was no other way to cope, not for any real spiritual reasons, but because the more medication you take the more your body becomes resistant to it. There is, of course, a balance. When you can’t function because of your headache and you know it’s just a headache, medication is sometimes the only way to end it. It allows your body to relax enough to overcome the pain and eliminate it. One nice aspect of the avoidance of medicine is that I still only need half doses for most medications to do the job.

    I think that pain connects with the spiritual only insomuch as it connects with fear. If you are unafraid of pain, you can learn from it and it becomes incidental. If you are terrified, you obsess about the pain to the exclusion of all else. Perhaps that difference is partly why we don’t experience pain in the next life; we have learned that it is unimportant. As far as empathy goes, empathy is more than just understanding and commiserating with pain. It’s about being able to put yourself in another’s place, to become one with another person. That is a skill that I feel will come in handy in the eternities. Perhaps our mortal pain is just the easiest way to learn it.

  11. 11.

    Seriously, though, I’m intrigued by Mike’s comments about pain being a pedestrian biological function. So will there be pain in the afterlife, since we will have a body?

    Since there will be no sickness, injury, or death, there will be no need for pain to warn us of such things. We will have a body, but it will be in a different state than the body we have now, so I don’t think everything that is a biological function of our current bodies will remain so in the afterlife.

  12. 12.

    I wonder if pain is part of “there must be opposition in all things.” Would we be as thankful and appreciative about feeling emotionally and/or physically healthy if we never experienced pain?

  13. 13.

    This post reminded me of a study I heard about a few years ago where scientists identified the pain tolerance gene. Apparently, based on genetics, some people are just more tolerant of pain than others. In theological terms, God allows us to have pain, but does he allow some to feel it more or less intensely than others? If so, why?
    Very thoughtful post, Kiskilli. Thanks.
    Also, kudos to the women who have natural childbirth. It is definitely fear that keeps me from doing it! (and the pain, I think I’m missing the gene for pain tolerance)

  14. 14.

    Is physical pain necessary? I would guess that there’s probably some optimal level of physical pain for us to experience. Too little and we have no empathy for others in pain; too much and we get bitter. (Or of course this could be a range of optimal pain experience–thanks, Jessawhy.) So we could be safe in attempting to relieve physical pain so long as we kept ourselves (or the people whose pain we’re trying to relieve) in the optimal range.

    Ha ha! Of course that’s all based on wild speculation about how much pain is necessary and that we could even know how much is too much or not enough and that we could measure it very precisely. How about this, then, as a practical consideration based on the Goldilocks Theory of Optimal Physical Pain? There’s such an excess of physical pain in the world that all our puny efforts to relieve it will never push anyone into the “not enough” range. Therefore, we can safely do all we can to try to relieve our own or one another’s physical pain.

    Papageno, I like your idea of there being pain in the afterlife. I think we would need it, if nothing else, to know how happy we were most of the time. I think Lehi’s point about Eve and Adam “having no joy, for they knew no misery” would apply to us as well. Of course, you could make arguments about whether physical pain being necessary or not, or whether emotional pain would suffice. I’m not sure what to think about that argument, but I do think we’ll probably have to experience at least some pain.

  15. 15.


    Hair shirts, precisely because they are _not_ required by God, are a way to suffer _without_ any expectation of eternal reward for it. And thus, to more fully understand Christ, who suffered for us, without expecting a reward in return.

    Thanks for explaining this, Kaimi. It’s fascinating. It reminds me of the arguments about whether we can be truly altruistic. From a religious perspective, we might question whether our attempts at selfless service really are selfless, given that we expect a reward in heaven. Even sacrifice more generally is typically thought of as giving something up in the hopes of getting something better. Sounds pretty self-interested to me. Then from an evolutionary perspective, people have the same types of arguments about whether altruism is possible given that we’re probably hard-wired to help others like us (family members first, etc.) so our genes are just trying to get themselves perpetuated through our supposed altruism.

Leave a Reply