Problem of Pain“It is what it is” — I have so often found myself using this phrase. We all use it from time to time. I suppose it is something like saying “roll with the punches,” or perhaps “let the chips fall,” or “stuff happens.”

It feels good to use this phrase. It implies that I’ve got things figured out. I’m in control.

But some months ago I was told I needed surgery. The whole ordeal was going to be quite arduous, quite serious. The goal was prevention against something even more serious, though it was clear there was some possibility of deeper trouble down the road. “Well, what’s the percentage?” I wanted to know. “No way to know for sure,” I was told. “We don’t have a whole lot of data on this one.”

“It is what it is,” I reported to a friend after talking with the surgeon. I guess I was saying “I am tough enough to match this challenge. I can make it through this.” “It is what it is,” suggesting that whatever comes, I am ready, sufficient. It’s a kind of tough, I-can-handle-things posture, sort of stoic.

I want to say straight up how aware I am that so many people are suffering things far more serious than I did. If there is one thing I have learned in all of this it is a new kind of sympathy for people who face these kinds of challenges. But I have got to admit, with the uncertainties facing me in this moment, the element of fear took the swagger out of my tough-guy posture.

I remember when the surgeon came into the hospital room after the surgery, and there I was with tubes going in and out of me in all directions, and he said quite gleefully, “Well, we lucked out. The pathology reports were absolutely clean.” And I thought, “It is what it is,” and this time that’s good.

But instantly I began to think. “Lucked out,” really? It felt so flat, so inadequate. Really, is the whole thing just luck?

As I moved through the process of recovery — what seemed endless days of pain, the discovery of an awful infection, the hoary side effects of drugs, the fear and uncertainty about the future — even in those hollowed out moments when I could not even pray, I began to sense something else was going on here. “It is what it is” did not adequately explain my full situation.

I knew there were hundreds of people praying for me, for one thing. That was just amazing to me. I was deeply humbled. My heart ached with a kind of gratitude for my family and friends and colleagues in ways I have never known before.

Another thing: I came to understand new things about prayer, that God indeed can change things, that God is on the side of life and healing, but that no matter what happened, prayer aligns us with God’s understanding of “what it is.” I sensed a new kind of acceptance for what God has in store for me. Somehow I understood that luck was not my only hope. Somehow there was a mystery here I could not fully grasp, or explain, but I knew beyond doubt that it was there.

In his book The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis says that pain “would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving.” And that was it for me. In experiencing the pain, I felt as well that “good assurance” of a “righteous and loving” God. Amazing, so seemingly contradictory.

And then Lewis says something that has come to make a lot of sense to me. Suppose, he says, “I am progressing along the path of life . . . absorbed in a merry meeting with my friends for the morrow or a bit of work that tickles my vanity to-day, a holiday or a new book, when suddenly a stab of abdominal pain that threatens serious disease . . . sends this whole pack of cards tumbling down. At first I am overwhelmed, and all my little happinesses look like broken toys. Then, slowly and reluctantly, bit by bit, I try to bring myself into the frame of mind that I should be in at all times. I remind myself that all these toys were never intended to possess my heart, that my true good is in another world and my only real treasure is Christ. And perhaps, by God’s grace, I succeed, and for a day or two become a creature consciously dependent on God and drawing its strength from the right sources.”

I suppose I am in way over my head trying to describe this great mystery of the problem of pain. Christian theologians and philosophers have tried to get hold of this challenge throughout history. But if somehow I brought “myself into the frame of mind that I should be in at all times,” this new surrender to God’s bigger dimensions of what is, and this new dependency on God’s love and grace, then in fact something good has come out of all the serious grief. That’s the mystery I am pondering these days.