Treating Pain Like a Phoenix

Byron LeavittDarkness, Healing, Light, Religion, Suffering Leave a Comment

Have you ever felt a pain which cut so deep that it was like a hot knife was sawing through your guts? When all you could do was curl up in a ball and cry out “Why, God?” When all of the reason in the world, all of the beauty, all of the certainties were shrouded behind a wall of blind, intense fury?

What’s weird about this pain is that it can be physical, but I don’t think that it always — or even usually — is. I think very often it’s emotional. And I think that this emotional anguish is normally tied to another person. Or the absence thereof.

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”(1)

I’ve been thinking this week about an awesome guy who lost his dad and then his friend. It seems like everywhere he turned he was met with death. And he started to doubt in a God who could allow such suffering and pain. Or, worse, a God who could even sanction it as some people would seem to suggest. And if God’s really against this pain as others emphatically state, then why didn’t He do something? Why didn’t He answer the prayers so many were praying?

“… But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?” (2)

This can often lead to us taking one of two tactics to salve the pain. The first is to say that we will never fully understand, because God is God and we are man. But this still feels cheap. It’s like putting a Band Aid on a severed limb. The pain is acknowledged, but then it’s buried. And you just hope that the hollowness goes away with time. The second option, though, is worse. The second is when we decide in our anger and grief that the atheists and agnostics must be right, and that if there is a God He is only worthy at best of aloof indifference or at worst of open reviling. And, anyway, when you combine “the problem of pain” with the substance of science, it looks plain to say that there is likely no God in the first place, and that this is all one big cosmic mistake.

But while that might feel good as you revel in “sticking it to God and other assorted fairy tales”, ultimately it opens a terrifying, yawning abyss. Because if it is just a cosmic mistake, then that’s all we are. Mistakes. Life is meaningless, a misplaced integer in the void. There is no hope. There is no reason. Your pain is empty, vapid and pointless. So is your life. And so are your loved ones. So are your stories.

Which brings us to the other option: that we just drop it. That we brush it off and move on. That we adopt willful ignorance. The maddening thing is, this perspective is based on truth. We’re not God. We can’t understand what He’s doing: our perspective is too limited and our brains are too small. There’s not much we can do about the brain problem. But maybe there’s something we can do about the perspective issue.

“Why would a God who loves life take it? Why all this suffering? Why my suffering?” This perspective is very valid, especially when we’re in the depths of our pain. But I think that ultimately it’s based unintentionally on a false worldview: that this world is all there is, or even that it’s what’s most important. Because if Christianity’s right, it’s not. It is good. Even very good. But it’s not best. And it’s certainly not all. When you think about it, in a sense this world could really be thought of as just a 1-to-90-year-long womb.

We enter this world in pain, and fear, and tears. We were warm. We were happy. We were content. And suddenly, over several cataclysmic, traumatic hours, all of that changes. But then, as we grow, we decide this world’s not so bad. And eventually we can’t even imagine going back to where we were. Because we physically can’t. We outgrew it.

Why are we so quick to think that death isn’t just another kind of birth?

Why do we think our work ends when we leave here? That we stop being and doing and growing, instead going all hazy and ethereal amongst some intangible clouds? That’s not Heaven. That’s, at best, the pre-Christian notions of Sheol or Hades: the twilight realms of the dead. Why should the next birth be any less real or tangible? In fact, if the last birth was any indication, why wouldn’t we expect the next one to be more real, more expansive, and more wonderful?

Furthermore, what if our pain is a form of death? And what if every death leads eventually to a new birth?

The story of the phoenix is a moving one because, from the ashes of death, it arises a new and brilliant creature, more formidable and vibrant and beautiful than it ever was in its past life. That is you. You will be reborn from this pain. And if it was borne from another person’s suffering or death, that person will be reborn as well. Perhaps he or she already has been.

You will get through this. You will outgrow this death and be reborn in a new life, tried in the fire and emerging purified. Just don’t stay in your death. Don’t remain in your pain. It’s not worth wallowing in the despair. You have a whole new life to live, if you’ll allow yourself to embrace it. You will probably never truly let go of the person (assuming a person is the cause.) But you can let go of the pain. And it’s okay to do that.

“Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history… Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley, where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.” (4)

“‘She is in God’s hands.’ That gains a new energy when I think of her as a sword. Perhaps the earthly life I shared with her was only part of the tempering. Now perhaps He grasps the hilt; weighs the new weapon; makes lightning with it in the air. ‘A right Jerusalem blade.'” (5)

This post, like so much talk about this subject, is woefully inadequate. I know that as I’m writing it. But I hope it still helps you. And I’d love to talk with you more if you need it.

Please share this if it helped you or made you think.  Let me know if you need prayer.  And, if you haven’t already, check out my new book, “The Complete Cancer Diaries.”  It’s all about finding hope in darkness, and if you liked this you’ll love it. God bless you until next time.



1-5. A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis. HarperCollins, 2001.

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