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March 30, 2023

Pain Without the Suffering

We’ve all experienced pain and suffering in our lives.  I’ve used these words interchangeably and often linked them together.  Maybe you have heard things such as this:

That triathlon was 10 hours of pain and suffering.

I should have broken up with her sooner.  The last month was filled with pain and suffering.

It was two weeks post-surgery before I finally found relief from my pain and suffering. 

But there is an important difference between the two.

The light went on in my brain when I read this quote from Tony Robbins— “Pain is part of life.  Suffering is an option.”  We can’t always avoid pain, but we can choose not to add suffering to that pain. 

I’ve heard it explained this way: Pain is the physical or psychological sensation, yet suffering is the ensuing negative perception of that pain.

Pain comes when we hurt physically, emotionally, relationally, etc.  For example, a triathlon can hurt physically, and a relationship that ends in a breakup can hurt emotionally.  Different types of pain, but pain nonetheless!

Most people don’t welcome emotional pain, but they might find themselves prolonging it by dwelling on it endlessly, which adds suffering to the mix.  For example, we suffer emotionally by repeatedly replaying conversations in our minds and wishing things were different when we cannot change them.  We also imagine painful relational scenarios that don’t exist and assign guilt or shame to the original pain.

The dictionary defines suffering as the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship.  We see this in the Scriptures.  For example, the Apostle Paul said in Romans 5:3-5, “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

While suffering might be associated with the immediate pain of an event, over time, we have the freedom to choose how we will respond to that pain.

Paul also reminds us to do everything without grumbling or complaining (Philippians 2:14) and to rejoice always, pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

Since I read that Tony Robbins quote, I have been playing with my response to the physical pain I have experienced for the last six months due to two herniated discs, one in my neck and one in my lower back.  The pain in my back was debilitating for a while. I couldn’t walk without crutches, and sleep was difficult. Nevertheless, I strove to find that sweet spot of acknowledging the pain and doing what I could to alleviate it without getting mad, frustrated, or overly disappointed when the pain prevented me from doing something I wanted.

Suffering was waiting to take hold of me, and I knew that giving in would only bring me down, prolong the pain and make me depressed.  James 1:2-4 was my mantra— “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

These verses didn’t make the pain disappear but gave me the best possible mindset to embrace the pain. Of course, it helped knowing God wouldn’t waste that pain.  And by remaining steadfast, I had something wonderful to gain.

When it comes to emotional pain, it’s easy to slip into a downward spiral of suffering.  But Paul reminds us in Philippians 4:8 to think about things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or worthy of praise.

We have the ability to choose what we want to think about.  We can shut down the negativity that adds suffering to the pain.

Where in your life have you added suffering to your pain?  Was it emotional or physical?

I want to encourage you to think of pain and suffering as two different things. Then, with practice, we can own the pain and avoid the suffering.  And won’t we be better men for it?


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