Pain and Hope

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In 1898, a German scientist believed he had discovered the Holy Grail of pain relief.

Heinrich Dreser, who worked as a chemist for Bayer – the corporation that had created a remarkable new drug called aspirin – was hoping to synthesize a painkiller that wouldn’t lead to addiction.

The world had long known about morphine, the powerful, naturally-occurring opioid.  But morphine users inevitably discover the grim side effect to its amazing painkilling powers: the near certainty of an ongoing dependence that empties one’s bank account and ruins one’s health. 

Dreser cooked up a synthetic opioid called diacetylmorphine.  He declared it to be five times more powerful than morphine, but completely non-habit-forming.  Dreser recommended it as a remedy for colds, hay fever, tuberculosis, asthma, and a variety of respiratory illnesses. 

The leadership team at Bayer called it a miracle.  That’s actually what they wanted to name the new drug.

Since Dreser preferred to see his creation as “heroic,” it came to be known as heroin. 

Bayer immediately began peddling heroin over the counter.  Sales skyrocketed.  By 1900, Eli Lilly had claimed the American market.  Millions of doses were sold on both sides of the Atlantic.  It was declared safe for pregnant and nursing mothers, and parents were encouraged to use this wonder drug to calm fussy babies.

By 1905, it was clear that something was terribly wrong.  Dreser had patient-tested his drug for only four weeks, not nearly long enough to realize it was one of the most addictive substances on the planet. 

By the 1920s, heroin had vanished from drugstores and was available only from black market or criminal underworld suppliers. 

The quest for an ideal painkiller continued to dominate the 20th century.

By the 1990s, the American Pain Society and several large pharmaceutical companies were committed to the idea that no one should have to feel pain.  The APS campaigned for acceptance of the “fifth vital sign.”  There are four classical patient metrics:  body temperature, pulse, respiration rate, and blood pressure.  Each can be objectively measured.  Shouldn’t we add pain as the fifth assessment of patient wellbeing? 

But as Harry Wiland points out in his book Do No Harm, pain is highly subjective.  Seemingly identical injuries can produce widely varying responses.

Our experience of pain can be impacted by a variety of emotional factors, including sadness, depression, worry, fear, and childhood trauma.  How can such circumstances ever be quantified?

Pain control advocates recommended that healthcare providers regularly ask their patients to describe their pain experience, representing their level of pain on a visual scale – from a smiley face (1) to a weepy face (10).  Wiland suggests that physician guilt began to play a subtle part.  Since no one likes intense pain, and the medical community has drugs that can reduce it, shouldn’t we make such products widely available?

We’re still coming to terms with the events of the last three decades – how the medical establishment unwittingly found itself at the epicenter of the public health disaster known as the opioid crisis. 

The runaway distribution of Oxycontin – which, like heroin a century earlier, was proclaimed to be non-addictive despite massive evidence to the contrary – has led directly or indirectly to the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans each of the past few years. 

In 2016, the American Medical Association recommended that pain no longer be called “the fifth vital sign.”  Some doctors rejoiced, claiming that pain is far too difficult to measure.  Other physicians despaired, asserting that pain management has now been set back by a whole generation. 

The quandary continues.  It’s still widely felt that no one should have to feel pain.  After all, we have such fabulous painkillers. 

But we just don’t know how to manage them without causing more pain.  

For as long as scientists and doctors have been seeking the Holy Grail of pain relief, there have been members of the Christian community who think they have the answer.  Are you hurting and sick?  Crippled or broken?  Preachers spotlight verses like Exodus 15:26, where God says to his people, “I am the Lord, who heals you.”  God will take away your pain! 

It’s such a wonderful blanket promise. 

But as the old saying goes, “A text out of context is a pretext.” 

The wider context of any verse of scripture is the entire Bible.  Whenever we’re tempted to place all our hope on a single turn of phrase, the Holy Spirit gently opens our eyes to all 66 books that make up the biblical library.  What we discover is that God’s people routinely suffer pain, hurt, and disappointment.  Followers of Jesus get cancer, ALS, and diabetes.  Sometimes God provides miraculous healings.  Often he does not.  Those who love the Lord grow older and weaker.  And then, in the end, we die. 

So what’s the point of abandoning ourselves to such a God? 

If the medical community is convinced that no one should have to feel pain, those who follow Jesus insist on adding two words:  No one should have to feel pain without hope

That hope has three components:

First, our pain matters to God.  He shared it on the cross.  Jesus knows from experience exactly what it’s like to feel cut off from his Father in heaven:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  (Matthew 27:46)

Second, God never wastes pain.  The apostle Paul asserts that “suffering produces endurance, and endurances produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…” (Romans 5:3-5)  This may not jibe with what well-meaning people have told you in the past, but it’s OK to feel uncomfortable.  It’s OK to have days in which you feel confusion, pain, and uncertainty.  God is never absent from such circumstances.  He is forging our inner worlds.

Third, those who trust Christ have been promised an incredible future:  “He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

In this broken world, there’s no such thing as a pain-free life.

But we weren’t made for life just in this world.

And the God who became one of us, and whose nerve endings have registered hurts just like ours, has promised never to leave our side.