By Dr. Harold Sala

Yet if I speak, my pain is not relieved; and if I refrain, it does not go away.  Job 16:6

“If I held in my hands the power to eliminate physical pain from the world,” said Dr. Paul Brand, “I would not exercise it.” (Paul Brand & Philip Yancey, The Gift of Pain, p. 219).  And what qualifies him to say something so sweeping, so comprehensive? Just think of putting pharmaceuticals out of business—no need for aspirin, tranquilizers, anti-inflammatory steroids or such medications.  Obviously, the statement needs qualification. Who was Paul Brand, and why did he say this?  The short answer is: one of the 20th century’s top researchers into what pain is all about. His fascination with the whole subject was the result of working with leprosy patients in India, those whose bodies are afflicted with the disease lose all sensation and feel no pain. So are they ahead of all of us who know the biting sting of pain?

Not in the least, according to Dr. Brand. While leprosy is rarely fatal in itself, the horrible effects of the disease produce disfigurement and often the loss of limbs, but even worse there has been a centuries-old social stigma attached to the disease separating those with the affliction from their loved ones or neighbors. In Old Testament days, the person afflicted with leprosy had to leave the city and live outside in a hovel with other lepers, crying out, “Unclean, unclean” when anyone approached him.

Dr. Brand’s research demonstrated that it was not leprosy which caused the disfigurement, leaving the victim with a claw-like club of a hand or foot which eventually had to be amputated.  A leper’s absence of pain proved not to be a blessing, but rather a curse which allowed him to burn his hands or feet without knowing it, or walk on raw wounds which he could not feel.  Eventually Paul Brand came to the conclusion that pain is actually a great benefactor to humankind, a gift from God, not a curse, which allows us to know what needs to be done when we hurt.

His book, The Gift of Pain, co-authored with Philip Yancey, is one of the most comprehensive and practical treatments of the subject I have ever encountered, and it’s almost ironic that I started reading the book the day before I pulled a muscle in my back that left me sleepless and restless for two weeks, striving to find some way to eliminate this gift of pain which I would prefer would go away—and the sooner the better.

Our culture today, however, has little tolerance for pain. Constantly we are bombarded with the message that better living comes through pharmaceuticals. Get rid of your pain and discomfort by taking a pill. Subsequently, we want to live pain-free. Ask the dentist to deaden the tooth before he fills it. Make sure that you get enough anesthesia so you don’t feel the pain of childbirth. Silence the voice of pain no matter what the cost.

When you have a toothache or your back hurts you are completely alone. No one shares your toothache or your pain. You are orphaned, and even describing it is difficult. What you think of as mild may be considered severe by another person. Cultures have vast differences as to tolerance for pain.

Paul Brand believed one of the failures of life today is failing to listen to our pain, striving to understand why we hurt, what we have done which could have eliminated the whole thing.  I’ll tell you one thing for sure: the next time I am tempted to play Hercules and lift a heavy box without help, I’ll think twice, and quickly. I’ve heard the voice of pain, and while I still am not convinced it’s my friend, I’m learning fast.

Resource reading: Job 16.