Retribution and Snoopy


I wish I had Snoopy’s courage to stick my tongue out at those who link suffering with sin. The tendency to attribute trials and tribulations to retribution is problematic on so many levels.

  1. Claims that suffering is divine punishment can’t be falsified and falsification is one of the ways we establish truth. The claim that all swans are white can be falsified by producing a black swan. The claim that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit can be falsified by boiling water at a different temperature. There’s no way to falsify the claim that tornadoes hit lands with laws that displease God.
  2. Claims of retribution are inconsistent. “If a brothel burns down it’s holy justice; if a church burns down it’s divine mystery.” Huh?
  3. Claims that sin lurks behind disease is cruel. I’m no fan of blaming the victim.
  4. Claims that tragedies are acts of divine retribution for sin contradict the words of Jesus who said, “What about the eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them? Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem? I tell you no!”
  5. Claims that sickness happens to those who do wrong is absurd when one considers the suffering of my saintly wife.
  6. Claims that benefits happen to those who do right is absurd when one considers Job, Ecclesiastes, and the writer of Psalm 73.

So, Ms. Lucy, I must agree with Snoopy on this one. Your kind deserve to be bleahed!


A Reframing Approach to Chronic Illness

In ways I don’t fully understand, those who frame pain as spiritual, meaningful, redemptive, or even a divine mystery seem to fare better than those who consider pain mere biology. While I have only anecdotal proof of this, reframing pain in a well-chosen narrative, often called a, “metaphoric approach to pain management,” apparently unleashes some sort of analgesic that ameliorates pain in some … at least a little.

My wish to banish other’s pain entirely is futile–I’m neither doctor, magician, or faith healer. But some sufferers of chronic pain have found the reframing approach helpful and I’m happy to describe it as best I can so others may benefit. Here are the popular frames that have alleviated pain in some.

1. “I suffer from an illness, not merely a disease.” According to this definition a disease is biological and pathological. An illness however is philosophical and subject to interpretation. Disease is a mechanistic sensation, a function of nerve endings. Illness is a story we tell ourselves about pain. An analogy: water boils on my stove because the burner is 212° Fahrenheit. But it also boils on my stove because I want a cup of tea. The scientific cause alone isn’t sufficient to explain why the water is boiling. We need the philosophical cause, too. So too with pain. We need more than just an explanation for the biomechanics of disease. We need a narrative explanation for illness, too.

2. “The meaning of pain changes the pain itself.” Many people endure pain voluntarily because it means something: the pain of cutting means emotional relief, the pain of martyrdom means reward in heaven, the pain of getting a tattoo means looking cool, the pain of childbirth means she gets a baby, the pain of open heart surgery means he gets a new life-saving valve, blisters and muscle ache means a marathoner will finish the race, austerity/asceticism/fasting means advancing spiritual goals, the teenager who walks to school in winter without a coat means he’s tough, elective cosmetic surgery means increased beauty, boot camp means “weakness is leaving the body.” Those who attach meaning to their elective pain endure it better than those who see pain as pointless. Sufferers of chronic pain who attach new meaning to their suffering experience, so I’m told, greater resiliency.

3. “Faith makes pain a bit more manageable.” I never met anyone who refused medical help in favor of mere faith (though we read horror stories once in a while of parents who deny children proper medical treatment). But those who’ve found western and alternative medicine wanting have added these frames: “God allowed this for a purpose,” “I’m being tested,” “I’m following in the footsteps of my Savior who suffered,” “This cross [thorn, whirlwind, snare, trap, pit, net] is going to accomplish something good,” “I’m going to be a better person when this is all over,” “I’m storing up rewards in heaven,” “Chronic pain reminds me I’m a child of Adam battling unholy desires,” “In this world we’ll have tribulation,” and “Oh God give me the grace to get through this hell.” How does it work: placebo, miracle, trance? I don’t know.

4. “Pain is part of some bigger meaning.” Narrative therapy means we tell ourselves stories about our lot in life. If the story is, “My pain is a horrific joke played by a cruel and indifferent universe,” we’ll experience certain feelings. But if that story is, “Pain is a part of God’s plan,” we will (so I’ve been told) experience different feelings. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “The contemplation of divine things suffices to reduce bodily pain.”

5. “Shared sorrow is half the sorrow” (the corollary being, “Shared joy is twice the joy”). I don’t have hard data to prove this but it seems to me those who have an understanding and supportive mate, family member, doctor, or friend who loves the sufferer fares better than those who suffer alone. Is empathy analgesic?

If my 30+ years of pastoral and therapeutic observations mean anything, it appears to me that those who obsess over pain, avoid pain, reject pain, resent pain, and fight pain suffer more than those who face pain, accept pain, and resign their pain to divine providence. I know this approach isn’t ideal; I wish I could make others’ pain go away. But if the reports of the heroes I’ve met count, giving a religious meaning to pain helps.

What I’ve Learned About Chronic Pain from Those Who Suffer

It’s not uncommon for family conflict to be exacerbated if one or more of the parties suffer from chronic pain. In my role as pastor/counselor/mediator it’s been my privilege to meet many heroic souls over the years who’ve grappled with migraine, TMJ, chronic fatigue syndrome, IBS, MS, arthritis, back pain, Crohn’s disease, STD, rash, and Fibromyalgia, endometriosis, and more. Here’s what they’ve taught me about pain that won’t go away.

1. It’s lonely. “People tell me I look fine but my body is in constant pain. I feel so alienated.” It’s almost as if those in pain need to look bad before they get sympathy or understanding. Since pain is subjective we do well to believe other’s reports of pain. Ignoring genuine pain seems more risky (and cruel?) than doubting faked pain.

2. It’s suspect. “People think I’m faking, a hypochondriac, or pretending to be in pain just for the drugs.” Are there malingerers? Certainly. Are all sufferers malingerers? Heavens no. Talk about adding insult to injury. Many loved ones have compassion. But many, tragically, do not.

3. It’s misunderstood. “I’ve been told more than once that it’s all in my head.” Such comments are code for, “If you change your thinking you’ll feel better.” If only it was that easy.

4. It’s complex. “I’ve been to twenty specialists and none of them know what’s going on.” This is either the failure of modern science or testament to the vexing complexity of pain’s causes. When pain lingers long after a sport (or horse, auto, work, or fall) injury heals, the blame goes to any number of culprits: tissue damage, bacteria, viruses, bad character, divine curse, the devil, gluten, genetically modified organisms, random cellular mutations, negative thinking, repressed emotions, illusion, or delusion.

5. It’s expensive. “I’ve never been a fan of snake oil but if I thought it’d help I’d drink a gallon of it.” The quest for relief from chronic pain is relentless. Prescriptions, pain specialists, pain clinics, neurologists, naturopaths, psychiatrists and pain management protocols are not cheap.

6. It’s enervating. “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I can’t imagine what it’s like to be plagued by constant pain. The wear and tear is immense.

7. It’s emotional. “Not only is my pain throbbing, stabbing, and on fire, my brain won’t shut off–Why me? Where’s God? Is this punishment? Do I deserve this?” At a time like this my handouts on the difference between affliction and infliction, theodicy, and tips on suffering seem paltry at best, platitudinous at worst.

8. It’s embarrassing. “I can’t keep burdening my family and friends with sighing.” When repetitive laments are met with boredom, indifference, or disdain one learns quickly to suffer in silence.

9. It’s a disease. “My chronic pain isn’t a symptom of some underlying malady; it is the malady.” Pain is not merely a symptom of a disease; chronic pain is the disease. Clients describe the things they’ve tried: acupuncture, physical therapy, chiropractic manipulation, colon flushing, diet and exercise, hypnoses, prayer, opiates, yoga, massage, pot, meditation, biofeedback, cognitive reframing, and all manner of anesthesia medicines.

10. It’s chronic. “Acute pain eventually goes away. What I’ve got has hounded me for years.” Like a smoke detector that keeps blaring long after the smoke has cleared, chronic pain keeps blaring long after the damaged tissues heal.