One of the great mysteries of our life in this world is that we can endure more pain than pleasure. Indeed, we can endure only a little pleasure at a time. In fact, too much pleasure actually brings pain: sickness, hangovers, obesity, addiction, laziness, and even boredom. Yet we seem to be able to endure a lot of pain. Some of our pain, whether physical or emotional, can be very intense and go on for years.
Why is it that we can endure more pain than pleasure?
Physiologists and anthropologists might focus their answer on the fact that we are wired for survival and being able to endure pain helps us more than being able to enjoy pleasure. Fair enough. But I would like to offer an additional answer from a spiritual point of view.
The spiritual answer is that pain is for now while pleasure is for the hereafter. In this world, this exile, this valley of tears, we are being tested; we are meant to fill up our quotient of pain. And while we do enjoy some pleasures here, they are only a foretaste of what will be fully ours only in Heaven. In this world the foretaste seems limited to bite-sized morsels. Otherwise (as noted) we are overwhelmed by pleasure, distracted by it, and even sickened and enslaved by it. Until pain has had its proper effect within us, we are not disciplined or pure enough to properly enjoy large amounts of pleasure.
Pain is thus our first assignment here in this world, this paradise lost. Pain both purifies and teaches.
We should recall that God offered us the paradise of Eden with the proviso that we trust Him to teach us what is best. But we insisted on the knowledge of good and evil for ourselves and the right to decide what was right and wrong. We wanted a better deal than Eden. Here we are now in that “better deal.” Adam and Eve chose to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, even knowing that God had said it would usher in suffering and death. And we have all ratified their choice on countless occasions.
God, respecting our freedom, did not undo our choice. Rather, He said, in effect, “Fine, I will meet you at the cross of suffering and death, and allow that very suffering and death to be the way back to me.” And thus the way back to paradise, and to an even higher and heavenly glory, is through the cross.
This is why our tolerance for pain is greater now than is our capacity for pleasure. God has equipped us in this way because pain is for now; pleasure is for later.
Frankly, we need a high tolerance for pain, because it is a needed remedy for a very serious malady. Our condition is grave and requires strong medicine. The cross and its pain is the strong medicine needed. And thus our tolerance for pain must be certainly be greater than our capacity for pleasure.
Pain, despite its unpleasant qualities, has many salutary effects. It teaches us limits and helps conquer our pride. It purifies us. It reminds us that this world is passing and cannot ultimately be our answer. It intensifies our longing for Heaven and the shalom of God. If we endure pain with faith, it draws us to seek help and to trust God more. Pain endured with faith is like being under the surgeon’s scalpel. The scalpel inflicts pain but only to cut away what is harmful. It is a strong but healing medicine.
For now, our assignment is clear. Pain has the upper hand and is the strong medicine we need. When in pain, seek relief from God. But if he says no, remember that God promises that His grace will be sufficient for us (see 2 Cor 12:9), and that pain has a healing place for now. It is indeed a gift in a strange package.
Yes, it is a mysterious truth that we have a higher tolerance for pain than for pleasure. But given our current location in paradise lost, it makes sense. One day when suffering, pain, and death have had their full effect, we will enter into the Heaven of God, where pain will be no more and where our capacity for pleasure will blossom like a rose. Having been purified by our pain, our capacity for pleasure will now be full and there will be joys unspeakable and glories untold.
Here is pathos set to music. It is William Byrd’s treatment of a text from Isaiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC