The Work of the People

FEB 24, 2016 - Visual Epistles

Smashing Idols through Pain

How can we learn to trust that what comes into your life is not against us but for us? For Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, this is a statement of faith that will take us to the core of being human and knowing pain. Taylor shares how pain can break the idols in our lives and transform our lives into something beautiful.


  1. Taylor talks about what she describes as “spiritual bypassing” where people talk about “how to bypass pain, explain away pain.” In what ways do Christians want to bypass pain and find ways around it instead of dealing with it? How is this a healthy response to pain?

  2. Taylor says, “Not to accept suffering as a normal, inevitable part of being alive seems like a big mistake, and covering it up seems like anesthesia.” How is pain an “inevitable part of being alive”?

  3. Taylor says, “If I will trust what comes to me is for breaks my idols.” How can we learn to trust in this way? How will this trust break our idols?

  4. Taylor observes that this pain sometimes breaks people and it is a “faith statement” to say that we could trust that the pain is something “for us.” This, Taylor says, is a “great mystery” as to how some people can handle the pain and others can be broken by it. How can we learn to accept this uncertainty about our lives? How can we allow this to be transformed into faith?


Pain is double sided. Chronic pain is a terrible ordeal that can become debilitating for many people. Sometimes the only therapy for this type of pain is medication, which can pose other problems such as addiction. However, the lack of pain is also

a problem. People with congenital analgesia or CIP (congenital insensitivity to pain) cannot feel physical pain. Immediately, one might be envious of such persons, but imagine if one touches a hot stovetop and there was no reaction to jerk the finger away because of pain. The figure would simply burn without the person knowing it. Pain is a gift, but many of us have difficulties dealing with pain when it becomes chronic, debilitating, or becomes a psychological problem.

Avoiding pain has become the answer for many people. Whether it is alcohol, prescription medication, shopping, and/or sex, numbing the pain seems like a better solution than dealing with the pain. However, if pain is an integral part of human existence, then is denying pain also denying existence? I am not advocating self-mutilation or monastic forms of flagellation, but to trying to help us see the purpose of pain. Pain tells us something is wrong. It wants us to deal with something, a problem a difficulty, an injury.

We should appropriately handle the physical and psychological pain in our lives, seeing them as gifts and not curses. Learning to be present to pain might lead to insights about ourselves that we might not have realized. Texas pastor, Aaron Edwards, suffers from a disease called Trigeminal neuralgia or popularly known as the “suicide disease.”1 It is a neurological disease that causes extreme pain in the face. It is called the “suicide disease” because of cases of suicide related to the disease. He described in a TWOTP interview an experience that he called a “marathon of pain.” This particular time, he was also dealing with the sickness of his two year old daughter. While she was having a fever and he was dealing with excruciating pain, Edwards lifted his daughter up to him and held her. She started singing “some unintelligible song,” perhaps due to her high fever. However, Edwards says, “God gave me a gift right there in that moment. I was overwhelmed by this sensation, this feeling, that I was exactly where I am supposed to be.” Edwards described their embrace as “perfect interdependence” and that “love itself washed over [him].” He started to cry for fifteen minutes and during that time the crying relieved the pressure from his face. However soon afterward, the pain came back as before, but it reminded him “of something that he already knew: That there is a strange experiential overlap between the deepest part of my despair and God’s perfect peace.”

Edwards says that in his community, they often repeat the saying, “God’s strength becomes perfected in our weakness.”2 We can find that God is present in the weakest places, the places of despair, pain, and suffering. This is because God is also able to take on the suffering, which is not foreign to God. In doing this God shows us God’s presence, perhaps not to take away our pain, but to embrace us. There are many practices of physical pain management, such as breathing exercises and mediation. Some psychological pain can only be handled through individual and group counseling. However, not all pain can be easily treated or needs to be avoided. Sitting with it can allow us to delve more deeply into our humanity, a humanity with which even God is not unfamiliar.

{See Aaron Edwards TWOTP video, “Give Up and Die,” http://

Written by Phuc Luu


Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford University Press (1987). 

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