Culture At Large

Why does God allow pain? A possible answer from the Sochi Olympics

John Van Sloten

Have you ever noticed how the most powerful Olympic stories involve pain? A world-class ski jumper rises up from an improbable and impoverished past. A figure skater goes on in the face of her mother’s death. A hockey player who’s way too small to play at this level makes the team. The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics will be no different. In fact, every athlete has suffered to get there - sacrificing long hours of training and enduring injury all to have that one glorious chance at the podium.

The pain somehow makes the victory sweeter. Our national pride swells all the more as an athlete pushes through and wins in the face of barely surmountable odds. 

At the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, cross country skier Petra Majdic showed the world what it means to compete through pain. In the warm-up for her event, she had a terrible accident in which she crashed into some rocks while skiing down a bank. Unaware of the extent of her injuries - four broken ribs - she kept going, qualifying for her event and then winning her quarterfinal. During her semifinal race, one of her broken ribs punctured a lung. Majdic went on, in excruciating pain, to win the bronze medal in her final. She accepted the medal with a tube in her chest (for the collapsed lung). It was the first individual Winter Olympic medal for Slovenia in 16 years.

When we hear stories like this, we often assume that pain is the enemy - a purely negative force to be overcome, minimized or avoided. Think of what Majdic could have done were she not suffering! But is this assumption true?

A recent Globe and Mail report on the extremes elite athletes face tells of a University of Wisconsin study that researched the impact of pain on the performance of elite cyclists. Physiologists ran tests where they blocked lower body pain from reaching the brain and then measured the effect on the athlete’s performance levels. Imagine their surprise when the cyclists got slower! “Without the feedback of pain,” the article states, “they couldn’t pace themselves properly.”

Suffering calls us to adjust our orientation to self, God and others.

All of this started me thinking about the problem of pain in our world and how we often wonder why God allows it. “If only life were free of all suffering,” we think, “imagine how much further ahead we’d be, how much easier it would be to run life’s race.” But is this assumption true? Could it be that by mysteriously allowing these pain-filled conditions, God is giving us the best chance to perform at peak levels and to medal? Is pain an inexplicably necessary part of finishing well? If the physiological parable of an athlete’s body (and all of our bodies) is any indication, the this-side-of-heaven answer may be “yes.”

When we relive the mental pain of a past struggle that we were able to push through, we create and develop perseverance, character and hope. Enduring the physical suffering of a painful moment can also keep you from detrimentally pushing yourself beyond your limits. By running your race well and staying within yourself, you are better able to stay the course and avoid a crash. And as you rightly operate at that peak level - and not beyond because of the regulating effects of pain - your pain threshold can even rise, enabling you to do more.

Those pain signals do much more than bring discomfort. In the Globe and Mail article they are said to also “warn your body to adjust breathing and circulation to deliver more oxygen to tired muscles.” So, too, with all of life’s pain; suffering calls us to adjust our orientation to self, God and others. Human lives are made to run at a certain pace on a certain track. In a strangely mysterious way, pain keeps us where we need to be.

So as you watch all the world-class athletes at the Sochi Olympics over the next two weeks - suffering, enduring and even failing - consider the mysterious, performance-regulating and -enhancing power of pain. Their suffering may be the precise thing that enables them to reach the podium. Perhaps the same is true for us. After all, each of us is made in the image of a God who suffered, endured and won.

Topics: Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Sports, Theology & The Church, Theology