Pain – It’s always talking to us

foot bandage

Pain daily influences a person’s quality of life. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to be with leprosy patients in India. A leprosy patient, with perfectly normal skin tissue on the soles of his feet, can take a three-mile walk and return with foot ulcers. This week I took a three mile hike in the Colorado Rockies and returned without ulcers. Why? Textbooks from my house and a few notes by Dr. Paul Brand help illustrate the reason.

Netter sole feet

The pictures of color-coded feet show that the way a healthy person puts feet to the ground changes radically from the first mile to the third mile. If at the beginning your great toe is doing most of the work, by the end of the run your lateral toes and the lateral border of your foot will take over. Later the toe and heel will come down together. When you begin a long hike, you will start off heel-toe, heel-toe. But when you return you’ll be lifting your foot and setting it down as one unit – all adjustments having been made subconsciously.

It is not muscle fatigue that causes these subconscious shifts. Rather, pain cells from toes, heels, arches, medial and lateral bones are intermittently informing your brain, saying, “Ease up a little, I need some rest.” I was hiking along oblivious, since my brain assigns these functions to a subliminal control, but every spot in my body is constantly talking to each other. Even as I sit and type this, the pain cells in my hips, legs, forearms are frequently asking me to shift my weight around, and I reflexively obey.

Vertical reaction forces heel-toe

Pain thus is always having a conversation in my body. It whispers to me in the early stages of damage: subconsciously, I feel a slight discomfort and toss and turn as I enter REM sleep in bed. It then speaks to me as danger increases: my arms and back grow tender and sore as I shovel snow off the sidewalk. Pain shouts at me when there is severe danger: blisters, ulcers, hematoma, bleeding – when damage breaks out and it forces me to change behavior immediately. Such pain shrinks time to the present moment. What matters to the pain system is that you feel miserable enough to stop whatever you’re doing and pay attention right now.

A leprosy patient has lost this incessant yet often subtle hum of intercellular conversation in the body and will walk without natural shifts of gait or adjustments to pain.

As I study pain and aim to prevent and treat it, I gain deep respect for the Creator’s wisdom.

Men of Hope, a few questions for you to ponder: Did anything you read above change your attitude to pain? Do you think it is appropriate to thank God for the pain network? What about some psychological parallels to physical pain – warning emotions such as guilt & fear – can these play a positive role in a person’s health in the same way physical pain does?

–Benji Mathews

  • Ackerman, Diane. A Natural History of the Senses. New York: Random House, 1990.
  • Lewis, Thomas, M.D. Pain. New York: Macmillan Company, 1942.
  • Brand, Paul, and Philip Yancey. Fearfully and Wonderfully Made. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House. 1980.
  • Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain

9 thoughts on “Pain – It’s always talking to us

  1. Really interesting post Benji. I feel as though pain definitely has an important and useful role when you look at it from a medical standpoint. I have worked with patients who come in because of abdominal pain or leg pain only to find that after a full work-up that pain was actually secondary to an underlying cancer. Without that pain the cancer may not have been detected and then treated by removal.
    On a more psychological or spiritual level, I feel pain can still serve an important purpose. Similar to physical pain, emotional pain or hurt feels uncomfortable and helps facilitate change. I can recall a period of time after graduating from college when I was upset about a relationship that had just ended. In an effort to relieve myself of the pain I reflected a lot on that relationship and uncovered a lot of sin and ugliness. Turning it to God I have slowly been able to redeem some of that ugliness as I repent and believe in the truth of the gospel. Without that initial pain this never would have happened. As much as pain sucks I do believe it is a gift from God and can result in goodness and glory to Him.
    One final point is pain does not have to be experienced alone (nor should it be) – especially the deep emotional pain. One of the greatest blessings of the Christian life is community – real true deep dirty community. You will always have the support of your brothers when in need (Galatians 6:1-2). Hope does an amazing job of facilitating this so please take advantage (ie small groups, Bootcamp, etc). If nothing else let this be an encouragement and reminder to those of us who are in pain.
    Sorry one last FYI: If any of you out there are book worms I was recommended a book “The Gift of Pain” about a doctor working with leprosy oversees. I have not yet read it myself but its on my list and seems rather pertinent to this post if anyone is interested.

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  2. Enjoyed reading this Benji. I just got a blister wearing new shoes last week, so it totally showed me a different perspective on pain and why/how God wove it into our physical bodies – thanks!

    Thinking about your last question… reminds me of the way sin and choosing to ignore other warning signs like guilt can slowly deaden our senses and tune us out from the Holy Spirit.

    This summer I read a book, The Unity of the Bible, the premise of which is God should be likened more to a doctor who prescribes help and goodness out of His glory (vs. the boss who we work for or serve). Your analogy with pain extends this in a cool way.

    Gracias Amigo-

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  3. Benji,
    Thanks for this insightful and thought-provoking post. Awesome to think about the spiritual/emotional parallels present here and how God works through pain!

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  4. Great insight, Benji. Paul Brand has some amazing perspectives working with leprosy patients, giving us a reason to be thankful for pain. It definitely applies to emotional and spiritual pain, protecting us from bad situations and beckoning us to seek help.

    Pain is such a great example of the delicate balance in our lives and bodies. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from chronic pain, as well. Unfortunately, in the medical profession we often are exasperated by chronic pain patients, caring for them can be emotionally draining. It is a lesson about how pain can arise from a specific process, then long after this process is resolved, the pain has become it’s own beast. Though we don’t understand all of what is happening, with nerves rewiring and behavioral maladaptions reinforcing, the pain becomes the focus of a problem now unrelated to the tissue damage it was warning us about to begin with. How have painful experiences shaped the way that we act and believe? Are these all good changes or maladaptive?

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  5. Benji, Great post. I love how God uses the physical world to teach us about the spiritual realities. So many parallels that we can learn from. I do believe that often our natural reaction to pain (spiritual, mental, emotional) is to make it go away, however this object lesson shows us that it often is meant to redirect us to not cause more damage. Such a loving Father that has wired us this way.
    Thanks for teaching us a little physiology Benji. Love this type of object lesson.

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  6. Nice work Benji,

    My first feeling was a renewed sense of awe regarding God’s creation! How complex and miraculous it is! I used your article yesterday morning when talking to a diabetic — and it went well!

    I can recommend the book The Problem of Pain by CS Lewis. It has been several years since I read it, but it moved me at the time – I can remember that! I guess there are many questions that arise when thinking about pain. Sure, some physiologic pain can help alert us of illness and danger. But what about the terminal people who just suffer on a daily basis? All I know for sure is that I long for the coming of the New Heaven and New Earth when pain will be eliminated. I am reminded that pain is ultimately a result of our original sin — my sin — and the fact that any of us can NOT be in pain is proof of God’s mercy and grace.

    Thank you for your time and thoughts!

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  7. This article on pain was very timely for me personally. I participated in our HS open gym this week at 33 years of age and worked hard getting up and down the court vs 16-18 year olds. I was feeling pretty good and was able to hold my own, for awhile. Then I jumped and tweaked something in my lower back that hurt worse than I have ever felt. It was a good reminder to know limits and keep in shape before doing too much. My chiropractor reminded me that pain was a good thing as well this week when I went to visit him. I am also reminded by my Creator that pain is good and the closer I am to Him, the more I am sensitive to the pain of the world, the flesh and the devil. As I stray from Him the more I am dull to those pains. Thanks for the interesting read and great analogy.

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  8. Thanks for this post Benji.

    What an awesome insight into the world of physical pain. It seems like you could go a million different directions with the questions you posed and have enough material to write a book (as CSL did, as mentioned above). So many good things and parallels have already been drawn here, and as I have turned this over in my mind the last few days a few things have stuck out to me.

    As you said, “pain shouts at me when there is severe danger.” Pain shrinks our existence to that particular moment that we experience it. It pushes aside the big picture and puts a mirror in front of our eyes, directing all our attention inward. But I think it does more than make us self-centered in that moment. In the physical sense, I think it reminds us of our mortality, whether we’re aware of it or not. It’s almost like a taste of death. It is, to me, one of the clearest indicators that all is not as it should be. Just like our pain cells signal our brain that our body needs to make a change, so should conscious pain be met with a conscious change or response.

    This brings me to my second thought, of Paul and the thorn in his flesh. Three times he prayed that the Lord would take it away, but God said “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul’s response should be our response as well, “therefore I will boast all the more GLADLY about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” Tim Keller paraphrased a commentator (?) in one of his sermons, saying that all prayers eventually become praise.

    I think Paul’s attitude and Keller’s insight are glasses we’d do well to see through. A God centered response to pain enables us to suffer well, bring glory to God, and not present ourselves as pitiable people.

    A great encouragement to me is not just that God loves me, so He will comfort me in my pain, but that He’s gone through much worse than I can imagine. He not only loves and comforts me, but He can sympathize with me. He experienced loneliness on a relational level (a sinless man in a sinful world, what could be more alienating?). He was rejected by His closest friends. He endured beatings, whippings, stabbings, and carried his own splintery cross up a hill, on which He was nailed and hung to die. He bore the emotional and spiritual weight of billions of peoples sins on his conscience. And He, most painfully I believe, was forsaken and lost perfect communion with the Father in that moment of extreme physical pain.

    I’d be a fool to say Christ doesn’t know my pain. Our response should be to “rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

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  9. Thanks Benji for the details on pain! It is amazing, how pain is compensated within the body by His design!

    Some more insight into the truth of church – meant to be like a human body! Every spot (member) in the body need each other and should be in constant communication for the health of the body (Church). This reminds us how we need one another and isolation will not help in the recovery, as the pain in the member of the body is sensed and compensated by rest of the body to make the member back to normal

    In the case of psychological pain, the person who is affected may not be aware of this all the time, so the responsibility falls on those who are around to sense the pain and help to ease the pain.

    We all go through pain due to different circumstances in our life. Some due to our wrong choices and some not within our control like: health, family, job loss … If you look back we have learned something from these and made changes and life is different!

    Daily we need to recognize the one who is in control of our life. When we make our choices according to His will, we need to realize all the pain that comes along is with His knowledge! Recently I was reminded of Joseph (OT) reaction to his brothers, “you meant evil(“pain”) against me, but God meant it for good”. E.g Because we are late to a scheduled appointment/class we tend to go over speed limit and have the pain of guilt and fear. But, when this emotion takes over us we are not recognizing His control of our schedules.

    Another thought, our mind get clutter with different things we see/hear around and forces our body and mind to go through certain actions to cause pain that is not needed to begin with. Also we are expecting others to compensate these pains! But, God is still gracious to make these provisions! Solution: Philippians 4:8,9

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