Sunday, February 07, 2021

‘The Pain Chain’ and How to Break It


(Fifth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on February 7, 2021, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Job 7:1-4, 6-7; Psalm 147:1-6; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday 2021]

You’ve probably never heard of “the pain chain”.

That’s because I made up the term for this homily!

But, in all likelihood, you have experienced it—many times.

Pain, of course, is a fact of life.  We can’t escape it totally, no matter how hard we may try.

And there are various types of pain.  There’s physical pain; there’s mental or emotional pain; there’s even what might be called “spiritual pain”—which often results from physical and/or emotional pain.  For example, we contract a disease or we experience a broken relationship, and we wonder if God still loves us; we wonder if the Lord is with us and cares about what we’re going through.

And that wondering causes spiritual pain.

Job, in today’s first reading, is clearly a man who’s in the process of experiencing all 3 of these types of pain—TO THE MAX!  And it all stemmed from one bad day—one very bad day!

Most of us know the story.  The Bible makes it clear that Job was a good, pious, devout, righteous man.

And then, during the course of one 24 hour period, he lost everything: all his animals were either stolen or killed; all his children died when the house they were in collapsed during a terrible windstorm, and he himself was afflicted with a horrible skin disease in which painful boils appeared all over his body.

He was in physical pain; he was in emotional distress—and he wondered why God had allowed him to be afflicted in that way.

He finally got to the point where he said those words we heard in our first reading:

Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?  Are not his days those of hirelings? … So I have been assigned months of misery and troubled nights have been allotted to me. … My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle; they come to an end without hope.  Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again.

Here we have a perfect example of a man who was shackled by what I would call “the pain chain.”  The pain chain has 3 links in it: one is “the past”; one is “the present”; and one is “the future”.

Job was experiencing pain in the present moment as he sat there in sackcloth and ashes.  The problem was that he wasn’t only experiencing the pain of the present moment!  He was also, in a certain sense, experiencing pain from his past and pain from his future life—which made the situation much worse.

Notice his first statement: “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?”

Job’s life was not a drudgery before he had his “bad day”!  It was anything but a drudgery!  It was awesome!  He had good health, and a loving family, and lots and lots of earthly possessions.  From a strictly worldly perspective, the guy had it all!

And yet, in the midst of his present suffering, the only things he was conscious of from his past were the bad things: the sufferings, the trials, the pain (however minimal it might have been).

And then he proceeded to project his present suffering on the future, saying, “I shall not see happiness again.”  [By the way, I think that’s something some people have been saying during this pandemic.]

How, in heaven’s name, did Job know that?  How did he know that he would never, ever, ever experience a single moment of happiness for the rest of his days on planet earth?

The answer is, he DIDN’T know it!  [Just like we don’t know what the post-pandemic world will be like.]

But once again, in the midst of his present suffering and pain, all Job could imagine for his future was more suffering and more pain.

Pain in the present moment (link #1), added to pain from the past (link #2), added to anticipated pain in the future (link #3).

That’s “the pain chain”.

It shackled Job, and it can also shackle us at various points in our lives—as most of us (if not all of us) know from personal experience.

So how are we supposed to deal with it?  How do we go about breaking the pain chain?

This is very important to know because if the pain chain does not get broken, it can eventually lead us to despair.

From my perspective—and from my experience—there are 3 realities that will break the pain chain, especially when we experience them together.

Those realities are faith, hope and love (which should make them pretty easy to remember!).

By faith we know that “For those who love God all things [including our pain and suffering] work together for good”—as St. Paul tells us in Romans 8.  By faith we know that God will not allow us to be tested beyond our strength—as St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10.  And, as today’s responsorial psalm reminds us, God “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”

Faith—real faith that’s rooted in truths like these—breaks the pain chain.

So does hope.  Hope focuses us on the reality of eternal life—which means that every problem, every suffering, every pain that we have in this life is ultimately only temporary.  Understanding that makes a difference!  Notice that Job lacked this hope when he spoke those words we heard in our first reading.  There he said, “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle; they come to an end without hope.”

And when we experience the love of God—either directly or through other people—that, too, breaks the pain chain.

A woman who was battling a very serious form of cancer said to me one day, “Fr. Ray, I know now why God allowed me to get this illness.  He allowed me to get it because, without it, I never would have gotten as close to him as I am right now.”

In the midst of her physical, emotional and spiritual pain, that woman had faith, hope and love: faith that God was at work in her life and still loved her, and hope that God would continue to draw her closer to himself unto eternity.

Faith, hope and love were breaking her pain chain—at least for the moment.  The challenge she faced was the challenge to continue to seek those gifts of faith, hope and love, so that her pain chain would remain broken—even if she was never physically healed.

Jesus once said, “Sufficient for a day is its own evil.”  Put in the terms of this homily that means, “The pain of today is enough for us to deal with.  We don’t need to add any real pain from our past or any imagined pain from our future—like Job did.”

Which is one of the most important reasons why we should ask the Lord to fill our hearts with faith—and with hope—and with love EVERY DAY!