There’s an old story about St. Teresa of Avila falling in the mud. Actually, there are many versions of the story, but in my favorite version she falls in the mud. She was traveling, it was raining, and she was having a really bad day. Looking for someone to vent to and finding God the nearest and readiest to listen, she told God about her day and about the mud. God responded with encouragement: “Don’t complain, my daughter! This is how I treat my friends!” To which St. Teresa of Avila sassily replied, “Well, it’s no wonder you have so few of them!”
St. Teresa is not alone in her mud-falling or her complaining. The biblical tradition is full of examples of God’s friends being quite frank with God about their pain. The psalmist gloomily prayed, “My only friend is darkness” (Ps 88:19). Job declared, “The arrows of the Almighty are in me; my spirit drinks their poison” (Jb 6:4). And the author of the refreshingly dour book of Ecclesiastes is not shy about describing life as “useless” and having “no meaning” (Eccl 1:2; 3:19).
We might note that these are not a bunch of whiners. These are witnesses of life with God. These are God’s people! These are God’s friends. Jesus himself groaned deep in his soul (Mk 8:12). Jesus wept (Jn 11:35). Jesus threw himself on his face in the dirt of the garden and asked if possible—if at all possible—could this cup please pass him by (Mt 26:39). And then, according to both Matthew and Mark, he cried out, in his last moments, not words of triumph or peace but words of desolation and pain: “God, why have you abandoned me?” (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34). He gave a loud cry, and he breathed his last (Mk 15:37).
From beginning to end, Scripture corroborates what we ourselves know: pain is not an option; it is a guarantee. Like Jesus, we will all lie in our own dark gardens, face down in the dirt. We will feel low like the psalmist. We will ask questions like Job. We will “tell it like it is” like the wise author of Ecclesiastes. Because it is abundantly clear that God does not—God will not—protect us from all suffering. God does not stop every hurricane, every tsunami, every house fire, every birth defect, every job loss, or every fall in the mud. We have lived long enough to know this.
When these difficult times come, we may need some tools to help us through, to remind us that despite the pain, God is there, loving us. We may need to look deeper to see and understand this love—to participate in it, to allow ourselves to experience its embrace. We may need to look deeper to see how pain has the potential to transform us as the cross transformed the world. We may need to look deeper to see how pain is an opportunity for love, both human and divine.
The list below is just a start. Some of the ideas will be more useful to you than others. Keep what is useful; let go of what is not. You will have your own ideas, your own experiences, your own perspectives to add to this list, which I encourage you to do. And may our God richly bless you—even in your pain—when you feel the “arrows of the Almighty” and when the mud drips off your clothes!
- Our pain gives us an opportunity to be loved by others.
Put simply, when we are in pain, we need help. It can be hard to let people help us. The world around us tells us that we are supposed to be independent and self-reliant, but that is a lie. We are made for the give-and-take of community. We are made to turn outward, to depend on one another. Allowing others to help us draws us more deeply into relationships that give our lives meaning. If we had no weaknesses, no needs, and no pain, we would be tempted to depend on no one but ourselves. This would be a lonely and inauthentic human life. The self-emptying we experience when we suffer presents us with a choice. Will we choose an inwardly oriented, hollow self-reliance, or will we choose an outwardly oriented, fruitful interdependence?
- The suffering of others gives us the opportunity to love them.
Sometimes the cross we bear is the pain of another person. In fact, at times we may experience the suffering of others with more agony than our own suffering. But once again, pain becomes an opportunity—a place to show love, to grow in compassion, and to become more human. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan who helped the beaten man on the side of the road (Lk 10:29–37)? Who benefitted most from the Samaritan’s actions: the beaten man or the Samaritan himself? Those who passed by on the other side of the road remained turned inward, less than human. It was the Samaritan who turned outward, gave of himself, and became a more complete human being.
- Pain has the potential to change us for the better and strengthen us.
We have all witnessed the deepening of mind, heart, and spirit that can develop in a life that has experienced great pain. We may think we want an easy life, but what we really want is a great life. Sometimes this greatness emerges from pain, if we allow ourselves to be changed by it. This is common sense. We all know that great people have endured. They have absorbed pain and been strengthened by it. They have experienced pain and grown wiser.
- Pain can create inside of us a space for reflection.
Pain has the potential to get us off the “hamster wheel” of life so we can reassess and reprioritize our lives. If we won’t get off the hamster wheel ourselves, our suffering may knock us off, giving us time and space to ponder our situation and perhaps emerge with a fresh outlook and a strengthened spirit. Once we have reflected, reassessed, and reoriented our lives, we can move forward, ready to live more abundantly than we did before.
- Pain teaches us to surrender, which ultimately gives us peace.
To surrender or to let go is perhaps the hardest—and the most important—thing we must do in life. Surrender is a prerequisite for love because it allows us to stop focusing on ourselves and demanding our own way. Surrender is not giving up; it is giving over. Surrender is trust. On one hand, surrender runs contrary to everything we are as human beings; we want control, we want assurances, we want “smooth sailing.” But on the other hand, surrender is the most natural, human thing in the world. We were made to give ourselves over—to others and to God. This is where we find lasting peace.
- Suffering allows us to imitate Christ.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). A disciple believes in and conforms his or her life to that of the teacher. We want to be like Christ. And so we will take up our crosses, and we will follow, believe, imitate, and conform our lives to his. The cross is not simply pain; the cross is an offering. That offering was accepted with open arms and endless love and transformed into the beauty of resurrection. So it can be—so it shall be—for us.
- Suffering allows us to actually share in Jesus’s sufferings.
St. Paul wrote: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death” (Phil 3:10) and “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:19). When we share the cross of Jesus—when we are crucified with him—we know we will share in the joy and triumph of his resurrection: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:5). Pain is not a sign that we have strayed from God or that we are being punished. Rather, pain is a sign that we are one with Christ—“co-crucified,” as St. Paul wrote. This may not always be comfortable, but it is as close as we can be to Jesus.
- Suffering allows us to share in the redemptive work of the cross.
Now we move even more deeply into the reality of the cross and our participation in it. We imitate him; we share in his sufferings; and because we share in those sufferings, we even share in what they do. In his letter on the meaning of human suffering, John Paul II wrote that redemption—although it has been fully accomplished—“remains always open to all love expressed in human suffering” (“Salvifici Doloris,” 24). We may not always understand this mystery, but when we are in pain with love in our hearts, we are a part of it.
- When I am weak, then I am strong because the power of Christ dwells in me.
When we empty ourselves (or when pain empties us), we create a space within ourselves for the power of Christ to dwell. This was an unshakeable conviction of St. Paul, who felt that he had been “taken over” by Christ (Phil 3:12) and who wrote that it was in his own weakness that he most felt the power of Christ (2 Cor 12:10). Another way of putting it is this: when we decrease, Christ increases within us.
- In times of pain, God is near, very near.
Many spiritual concepts, including those regarding suffering and pain, may seem abstract. But if there is anything to wrap your mind around, anything to cling to, anything to believe in, let it be this final point: When we suffer, God is near. Period. You may not see or feel God’s presence, but God is there. You will recall that Jesus also felt abandoned on the cross—but was he? He most certainly was not! As they say, even on cloudy days, the sun still shines. You can’t always see it or feel its warmth on your skin, but it is there, shining away.
When we say that God protects us, this is really what we mean. God protects us in a larger way, an enduring way, by being a gentle, healing presence in our lives. The presence of God is the presence of absolute Love. God protects us by loving us, by keeping his promise to never leave us nor forsake us. It may be a paradox to say that in the midst of our pain we are intensely loved. But we have only to look upon the cross to see and to know that it is true. God will not prevent all bad things from happening to us, but God will hide us under the shadow of his wings; God will write our names on the palms of his hands; and God will hold us there until the day we say with Christ, “It is finished” (Jn 19:30).
Amy Ekeh is the director of Little Rock Scripture Study, a series of Bible study resources published by Liturgical Press. She is also an instructor in the Hartford Catholic Biblical School, a columnist for Catholic Digest, and a retreat director. Amy lives in Milford, Connecticut, with her husband and their four children. Visit her at amyekeh.com.