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Can pain be a near occasion of sin?



Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 09/10/21

It seems that few people have been taught how to live with their emotional and spiritual pains properly.

Have you ever been asked this question: On a scale of 1-10, how much does it hurt?

I understand the point of the question, but can you really quantify pain? Could you answer the above question this way? It hurts infinitely and always—there is nothing but pain. That’s how Emily Dickinson wrote of pain in one of her most famous poems:

Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.
It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.

My purpose here is not to quantify pain. Nor is it to compare pains. (My mother thought that the “gold standard” for pain comparisons was labor pain—most mothers I know would agree, except for those who’ve passed kidney stones … ) My purpose here is to attend not to the physical or emotional dimensions of pain, but to speak of pain as an occasion of spiritual danger.

We humans aren’t mere bags of nerve endings and appetites waiting to be tickled and fed. We are a psychosomatic unity, a composite union of body and soul. When physical or emotional pain afflict us, the reflex response is to look for the nearest exit. The greatest good appears to be to get away—as quickly as possible. That might be an appealing short-term strategy, but it can lead to disaster – physically, morally, and spiritually.

It would be foolish to jump out of a moving car just because one didn’t like the car’s destination. It would be foolish to try to forget one’s pain by eating a whole cheesecake. It would be disastrous to turn to pornography and promiscuity to ease the pains of loneliness. But all this is at the level of the abstract. Let’s get much more specific. 

After almost 25 years as a priest, I’ve seen innumerable people repeatedly turn to sin, not for the sake of delighting in wickedness, but rather as a poor attempt to manage pain.

So far away

I recall working with a patient who was in the end stages of AIDS. Not very long before I had met her, she was a student on an athletic scholarship at an Ivy League school. She left school and ended up selling herself on the street to support her drug habit. “I can’t tell you the number of times I stepped over the dead body of one of my prostitute friends to sell myself one more time.” Why? “Because, even if it’s just for a little while, the drugs take you so far away from the pain, that you tell yourself that it’s worth it.”

That’s what I mean regarding the spiritual dimension of pain. Pain managed badly can drop our spiritual defenses and open the gates to sin. Yes, it’s certainly true sin can be rooted in malice, pure and simple. People can delight in defying God. I don’t mean to discount or diminish that horror—I’m simply talking about something different. Also, to be clear, I’m not at all attempting to reduce moral theology and spiritual warfare to a near occasion of therapy. Instead, based on much experience and observation, I find myself obliged as a shepherd of souls to sound a warning about the link between pain and sin. After almost 25 years as a priest, I’ve seen innumerable people repeatedly turn to sin, not for the sake of delighting in wickedness, but rather as a poor attempt to manage pain.

The devil takes advantage

Given what Saint Ignatius Loyola has written about discernment of spirits and spiritual warfare, I’m confident that when we are in great pain of any kind, our spiritual enemy shows up to rub salt in the wounds and to take advantage of our panic and our lack of skill in managing pain and processing difficult emotions. Resentment, self-pity, isolation, despair—these are the tools he uses to tell us that our pain is unprecedented, unlimited, unending. Rather than turning to healthy natural means and holy supernatural means of responding to pain, the enemy leads us into a downward spiral. Pain begets sin begets pain begets sin…

As I offer these reflections on pain, I will be speaking more about interior pain rather than physical pain. It appears to me that most people enter adult live with significant deficits, damage, and distortions. That’s the inevitable consequence of being finite creatures who live in a fallen world. Particularly it seems that few people have been taught how to live with their emotional and spiritual pains properly. So many can easily get caught up in a “pain storm” that affects their bodies, thoughts, and souls—they flail about desperately, trying to get away from the pain, and they end up hurting themselves and others in the process.

We must do better. Developing habits in harmony with nature and grace can help.

When I write next, I will continue my reflections on pain. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Mental HealthSpiritual Life
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