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The Psychology of Suffering

Ancient Wisdom | Modern Minds

Exploring Psychology in the Bible, Final Week

Luke 8: 43-48

Feb. 11, 2024

Rev. Megan Collins

About 15 years ago, I had the opportunity to take the youth group at the church where I served to summer camp in Montreat, NC. Our two sons were 2 and 4 years old at the time. Montreat had a summer camp program for young children, so Dave and the kids decided to come too. The boys would spend the week playing in the creek, I would chase around a group of 20 teenagers, and Dave would . . . read in a rocking chair by the lake. 

I had to get up before dawn to start driving the youth van to camp. We had planned for Dave to drive up a few hours later with both of our kids. We packed the bags, loaded the car, and got everything ready.  But we did not tell the kids I would be gone when they woke up. 

A few hours into my drive with the youth, I got a call from Dave. I could hear the kids in the background, incensed that he had let me leave without them. Dave, who deserved a medal for his patience, calmed them down enough to load them into the car to start the 9 hour drive with two angry small children.

When they finally made it to camp, our two year old son dove out of the car to come and find me. His shoe caught in the seatbelt and he tumbled onto the ground. He stood up and looked down to see his skin on his knee skinned to shreds. Then he threw his head back, looked up at the sky, and didn’t just cry or scream.

He yelled “WHY?” 

I don’t think it was just the pain from a skinned knee that broke him. It was how he felt about the pain. He was angry that I had left without him, exhausted from the long drive, upset that his knee was now a bloody mess. Everything in his little world had gone wrong. I don’t know if he was asking God, or us, or the small crowd that was watching all of this happen, but it just felt so honest. Why? Why did all of this happen to me? That’s exactly what we ask too. 


Why does God allow us to experience pain? If God is good, and God can do anything, why do we go through such difficult situations? Why do we get sick? Why do tornadoes destroy our homes? Why do people die? Why do marriages fall apart? Why do we lose our jobs? Why are our lives so broken? 

There will be people in your life who think they have the answer. They’ll tell you things like, “you know, everything happens for a reason!” or, “when God shuts a door he opens a window!” or, “maybe you are learning a lesson you need to learn.” 

And you have my full permission, as your pastor, to tell them to shut up because none of that is helpful when you are in the middle of suffering. 

Then why does God let these things happen? The short answer is, we don’t know. Disappointing, right? We know sometimes good comes out of it (maybe we did learn something from what we went through). But why did it happen in the first place? We don’t know. 

I do know this: God loves you. God is with you in it, whatever it is you are going through. God knows first hand how you feel. I don’t agree with everything Tim Keller said, but I do love what he writes about pain and suffering. He wrote: 

Only Christianity, of all the world's major religions, teaches that God came to earth in Jesus Christ and became subject to suffering and death himself. See what this means? Yes, we do not know the reason God allows evil and suffering to continue, or why it is so random, but now at least we know what the reason is not. It cannot be that he does not love us. It cannot be that he does not care. He is so committed to our ultimate happiness that he was willing to plunge into the greatest depths of suffering himself. He understands us, he has been there, and he assures us that he has a plan to eventually wipe away every tear. Someone might say, 'But that's only half an answer to the question 'Why?'' Yes, but it is the half we need." 

We don’t know the full answer to why. I’d like us to spend the rest of our time together thinking about what we do with our pain. All of you have either gone through a really hard time, or are in the middle of one right now. So what do we do with it? What power do we have when we feel so powerless to pain? 

We’re in the last week of our series called Ancient Wisdom, Modern Minds. Each week we have brought together the teaching of the Bible with the experts in the field of psychology to see what we can learn together. 

As I did some reading this week, I came across a distinction I had not thought about before. While I use the terms pain and suffering somewhat interchangeably, psychology draws a big line between pain, on the one hand, and suffering, on the other. 

Because pain is inevitable but suffering is not. 

Pain is Inevitable. Suffering is Not.

Let’s talk first about pain. There is no way to live as a human and not experience physical and mental pain. That’s not all bad, because pain is what helps us survive.  You touch a fire, you experience pain, and it helps you learn to not do it again. 

Not only does pain protect you from doing something stupid more than once, but it also motivates you to want to get better. We don’t like to feel pain, so it motivates us to do three things: to heal, to repair, and to improve. Think about how sensitive to pain your eyes are. One tiny fleck of sand in your eye, and it’s all you can think about. That’s your pain pushing you to get the sand out of your eye before it causes more damage. 

This is true for psychological pain too. The pain of guilt makes us less likely to do the wrong thing again. The pain of shame helps us be good members of our communities.

Pain serves a purpose. I’m not suggesting you seek it out. The only person whose pain was truly redemptive is Jesus. When I have surgery the first person I want to talk to is the anesthesiologist to minimize the pain in any way that I can. Don’t go looking for pain to improve yourself.

But the positive side of pain is that, when something is wrong, it motivates us to get better.

Now let’s talk about suffering, because pain is something that happens to us, a natural cause and effect.

But suffering is different.

Pain is inevitable.

Suffering is not. 

Suffering happens up here, in our minds.

Suffering is a choice. 

Pain is the reaction to a stimulus that’s hurting you. 

Suffering is how you interpret it. Suffering is not the feeling. It’s how you feel about your feelings.

Suffering makes you want to stay in your pain without trying to get better.

It is believing you are alone and no one cares about what you are experiencing.

Suffering sounds like “the pain in my leg will never get better and my life is ruined.”

“I’m worthless because of my depression.” 

“I’ll never find another job.” 

It’s when you get stuck the past with what used to be, before the pain you are in now.

It’s the anxiety and fear you feel about the future and what pain might be coming if things don’t go well

Pain motivates us.

Suffering paralyzes us. It convinces us we are helpless. 

But suffering is actually the one thing we can do something about. 

In between the thing causing the pain, and the suffering that comes with your interpretation of it, is a space. In that space, you have a choice. You can’t choose to avoid pain. But you can choose what you will do with it. 

Viktor Frankl writes this:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” —Viktor Frankl

We’ll come back to Viktor’s story in a minute. But first let’s think about the story of a woman in Luke. Let’s read from Luke 8:

Luke 8:43-48

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her haemorrhage stopped. Then Jesus asked, ‘Who touched me?’ When all denied it, Peter said, ‘Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you.’ But Jesus said, ‘Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.’ When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.’

The Bible doesn’t tell us this woman’s name. All we know about her is that for 12 years she has been bleeding. She would have been weak and anemic. Because of the cultural rules, she would have been considered unclean and cut off from other people. Over the past decade she has been in pain, and has spent all of her money going from one doctor to another, trying to find relief. 

After 12 years, I would certainly understand if this woman would have given up, just stayed in her home, in a puddle of despair and self pity. When I have a cold I want to lay on the couch in a puddle of despair. This woman has been bleeding for 12 years. 

She hasn’t given up. Even with overwhelming obstacles, she still has hope. She has heard others talking that there is this man who can heal. She takes a deep breath and pushes her way through the crowd toward him. No one even notices her. She reaches out with one shaking hand, and quietly touches the edge of Jesus’ coat. 

The woman has made a choice. She stopped in the space between her pain and the suffering it could have brought her. In that space, she made a choice to not let her pain be her whole story. 

There’s a really interesting textual note about this passage, for those of you who are language geeks. This story was originally written in Ancient Biblical Greek. In our English translation, the NRSV, it starts out with “there was a woman who had been suffering.” As I was studying the passage, I wanted to see exactly what the Greek word for suffering really means here. 

So I brought up the original greek version of this text, and it says this:

“And a woman being with a flow of blood for years twelve”

The original Greek doesn’t use the word suffering. It’s not there. It simply describes her pain, that she has been bleeding for twelve years. The assumption that she was suffering doesn’t come from the original Bible story. It comes from the Bible scholars who translated this from Greek into English. 

Now, I’m not trying to disparage the Bible translators who know a WHOLE lot more about Biblical Greek than I do. We can of course assume she was suffering, to some degree.

But it’s interesting that the translators made this assumption. The original story as it was told simply describes her pain. But as we translate it into English, we assume how she felt about it. It shows just how interchangeably we think about pain, which is inevitable, and suffering, which is not. 

Maybe she was suffering, or maybe she wasn’t. 

What we do know is this. She didn’t let suffering keep her from being motivated by her pain. Remember we talked earlier about pain - how it motivates us to heal, to repair, to improve. 

That’s exactly what we see in the hemorrhaging woman. She didn’t let suffering keep her from being motivated to be well. In her pain, she went looking for healing, and she found herself in the presence of God. 

Now, I know, no matter how much faith we have, we won’t always get a physical cure like she did. Some really faithful people have prayed for a miracle and didn’t get a cure. Like we talked about in the beginning, I don’t know why sometimes God physically fixes people and sometimes God doesn’t. 

But I know that if you go looking, you’ll find Jesus, right there with you in it. I also  know things won’t get better if we let suffering keep us on the couch. 

You are, inevitably going to experience pain. 

Some of you are in physical pain from an illness or an injury.

Some of you are dealing with the emotional pain of grief, anxiety, depression, a broken relationship, a lost job.

Most of this pain is not up to us.

What you do with your pain is. How you interpret it, whether you let it make you suffer, that part is up to you. 

The bleeding woman didn’t give up. She went to doctor after doctor and then she went right up to Jesus, full of faith. 

Between pain and suffering is a space. In that space, you make a choice. It doesn’t mean you have to pretend to be happy or that everything is fine. When we experience pain we should be honest about it. It hurts. It does mean you don’t let your feelings about the pain convince you to give up. It means you keep fighting. You let the pain motivate you to keep looking for healing. You keep reaching for Jesus. 

God will meet you there, and I find pain is the place where it is actually easiest to hear God speak. 

Remember the quote I read earlier, from Viktor Frankl? It said Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” 

Dr. Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who ended up as a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps. His mother, father, brother, and pregnant wife were all killed there. Dr. Frankl described exactly how painful, physically and emotionally, the time was for him in those camps. 

He also said the only thing that the Nazis were unable to take away was his choice on how he would respond. He made a conscious decision to claim that small but important space between the pain and his response to it. He drew a hard line between the experience of pain and giving in to suffering. 

I don’t know what your pain is. 

I don’t know why it has happened to you, or why God doesn’t do something to stop it. I wish I did. 

But I do know God will meet you in the space between your pain and suffering, and give you the strength to not give up. 

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