I have a weird threshold for pain. Pinch me lightly and I will scream bloody murder. But break my arm and I will tell you it “feels a little sore.” It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I was writhing in pain on my living room floor over what I would find out a few days later was gallstones and would require surgery, that I finally conceded an important principle of pain — if it severely interferes with your ability to enjoy an episode of Parks and Rec, something is capital-W Wrong. It’s time to call the pain “pain,” and go to the doctor.
Up until that point, I was stubborn about physical pain and sickness. I showed up to work sick. I powered through migraines and more than one asthma attack. I thought I was being noble, but really, I was just being stubborn. Not acknowledging the pain didn’t make it better — it made it worse! I should have been home resting and drinking lots of fluids instead of going to work and passing my cold along. Trying to go about my business with a migraine — answering emails, watching TV, carrying on a simple conversation — only prolonged the migraine and affected the quality of my work.
I have a weird threshold for suffering, too. The light pinches — changing plans, miscommunications, a torrential downpour the same day I’ve schedule a pedicure — set my mind racing and put me on edge and invite all manner of first-world problems! admonitions. But the arm-breaking stuff — ending a relationship, hearing loss, depression — I deal with it by essentially trying to shame myself out of it. I think of all the ways something could be worse, or I think of people who I know have it worse, and scold myself for feeling any pain at all.
Why should I be sad about being single, after all, when so many marriages around me are struggling? What right do I have to days where being hard of hearing is draining, when there are people whose disabilities limit their very mobility? And maybe I’m not really depressed — there are people with actual problems out there, so just get over it, self. This isn’t really suffering.
But in the middle of one of these rants to myself recently, it occurred to me that by not calling my suffering “suffering,” I was missing out on the blessings of suffering. Yes, the blessings.
Consider what God tells us suffering is for:
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. — Romans 5:3-5
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. — 2 Corinthians 1:3-5
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. — 2 Corinthians 1:8-9
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison… — 2 Corinthians 4:17
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. — James 1:2-3
If I don’t understand my circumstances as suffering — if I write them off as unlucky, or just a part of life, or if I determine they can’t possibly be suffering because other people have it far worse — then I’m only hurting myself. Refusing to acknowledge the pain keeps me from going to the Physician who heals. Not calling suffering “suffering” robs me of hope, glory, comfort, steadfastness, and blinds me to the power of God himself. How tragic would that be, to completely miss out on God because I’m too stubborn to admit that I’m hurting?
Our suffering isn’t just for our own selves, by the way; it’s for each other, too, “so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” Our suffering helps us to comfort each other, to help each other make it home. Not only do we need to stop dismissing our own pain, we ought to be extra wary to not dismiss each other’s. We’re all in different places in our own walks with the Lord and what seems like suffering to one person may seem like nothing to another. But we bear with one another in humility and gentleness and love (Eph. 4:1-3).
So let’s be slow to say things to each other and to ourselves like, “At least your pain isn’t this,” or “at least there is this good thing about it.” Let’s be reluctant to compare our pain to someone else’s, or each other’s pain to our own. Let’s not play the “Who Has It Worse?” game with each other at all. Instead, let’s be quick to call suffering “suffering” in all its different forms and trust that God is using the suffering for good in each other’s lives, for his glory, and for the building of his Church.
Call it suffering. Press in to it. Be blessed by it.