Pain is an Opportunity for Spiritual Development

A Talk About Pain, Part 1


Pain is something that tests our endurance daily, posing difficult questions to our ego. Talking about pain means touching one of the main “rails” in a man’s life. Another of life’s “rails” is joy, amazement, and surprise. But pain is a structural and fundamental element of our lives. And the more we know that we’re going to laugh, the more we realize that we’re going to cry.

Growing up, a man understands that pain is a structural part of his life; no one can avoid it; we will all certainly encounter it. Anxiety and questions arise in the soul of man—many questions, and he often asks himself:

“Why? Why do I always have problems? Why do trials keep coming to me one after the other? I can’t stand it anymore; I can’t live like this anymore.”

One day, St. Paisios was visited by a sick woman who was in terrible agony, but at the same time, she was a eucharistic (grateful) person, a person of glorification (doxological): She was in pain, she wept because of it, she was worried, but she had hope and faith that she would recover. And she came to see the saint at Souroti Monastery—he had come off of Athos at that time—and, as people say, the sick woman told the Elder:

“Geronda, I don’t ask God to deliver me from pain—I probably don’t have the right to do that. But I ask Him for a short pause, to breathe without pain, and then let the pain return. I don’t ask Him to exclude me from the common human fate—the fate of suffering, but to at least take a breath without pain!”

This woman bore a huge cross. She was seriously ill. She was on hemodialysis, and her hands were pierced and her veins burst from her constant procedures. The woman showed the Elder her punctured hand and said:

“Geronda, look at what’s happened to my hand from so many injections!”

The saint looked at her hand, made the Sign of the Cross over it, and said:

“I’m looking at your hand, and I see Paradise! I see a Heavenly landscape, because you endure all this and glorify God. And although you could blame God for your bad fate and your unfortunate life, you don’t. This will send you to Heaven.”

Another Athonite once said that if, while suffering from pain, in the crucible of desperation and despair, you can at least once say: “Glory to Thee, O God!” then this is equivalent to thousands of prayers with the prayer rope, to many hours of noetic prayer. Here we’re talking about how a man in hell tastes the dew of Paradise, how his trauma and wounds become a blessing, how he can transform darkness into light. And instead of portraying himself as a victim, he takes his wounds, his misfortune, his injustice, and transfigures and transforms them, as St. Porphyrios said, into an opportunity for life.

In the spiritual aspect, a wound becomes a blessing, and trauma becomes a force of life, because behind what we have achieved, there is always destruction. First we lose something in our lives, then we find something. This was preceded by a crisis that became an opportunity, preceded by a cross that became a resurrection, and this is the goal of the entire spiritual life. St. Porphyrios spoke about how a man can transform darkness into light. This is the whole mystery of the spiritual life. I think this question concerns us all.

The question of pain and how the God of love is silent before human pain, and especially before the pain of a weak man—this is the greatest cross not for an atheist, who isn’t so interested in it, but for a believer who is interested in how God and pain are combined. On the one hand, here’s a suffering man who feels that he’s on the verge of death because he can’t breathe, and on the other hand, God, Who at first glance seems to be absent, as if hiding high up in the sky—but it’s not so.

And the man says:

“Where is God when I need Him? Where is He now, when I’m dying and I feel like I don’t even have the strength to breathe, let alone to pray? There are moments when I feel like I don’t even have the strength to speak.”

Now do you understand that the question of pain is very important for all of us?

Holy Scripture is categorical: The Lord didn’t create evil; He isn’t the cause of evil; He doesn’t want human pain; He doesn’t create diseases; He doesn’t punish people with diseases, troubles, trials, and so on. He doesn’t kill children or fill cancer wards with sick children to sit and watch them suffer because He desires it.


In this story, the Lord is a suffering God. He weeps when we weep, and He prays together with us. He doesn’t stand aloof from the mother who is burying her child, but is near her, next to her, together with her. It is God Who suffers; He is the Suffering Servant. The Holy Fathers of the Church say that Christ never came down from the Cross, and until the end of the world and the ensuing Kingdom of God come, Christ remains crucified and resurrected. He’s with us during our pain and suffering and strengthens, helps, and comforts us.

It often happens that when we’re ill, lying in the hospital or home alone, desperate and disappointed, we ask:

“Where is God?”

What, do you think the Lord will come to you through your roof? No, He’s not coming that way. As said Elder Ephraim of Katounakia: “God is a feeling (sensation).” Remember this word. He is a feeling (sensation): You feel His presence. God is joy, patience, there in the hospital, in your room, in your loneliness, in the midst of your pain and disquietude. God is the power that you feel coming from your chest; God is the sweetness of joy, the feeling that Someone is supporting me, and I don’t know Who, but I definitely know that Someone is supporting me, and I’m not going crazy. Trust, faith, all these opportunities and strength that come from me, what are they? The presence of God. The holy Apostle Paul says: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law (Gal. 5:22-23).

These are signs of the presence of God in a man’s soul. In a man of God, I see the joy that he lives; I see his peace, and I say: “He probably has God.” Therefore, holiness, the presence of God in our lives, isn’t something external, but something very internal that emanates and manifests itself in one way or another. It’s very important to understand this, so we can sense the presence of God in our lives. Because otherwise, we’ll be waiting for Him and He’ll never come through the door. He’s there, in the house, in our room, next to the sick bed, where you’re suffering in your despair—He’s there. It’s important for us to understand how the Lord manifests Himself in the life of every person.

Let’s summarize. According to Holy Scripture and the Holy Fathers, God didn’t create pain. What did He do? When Christ was faced with some kind of evil, He corrected it. Remember the Gospel. He met the sick man, the bleeding woman, the desperate father, the paralytic, and He transformed him, healing him not only physically, but he also changed him, because it’s important to not only treat your leg or arm, but to be healed both physically and spiritually.

St. Porphyrios says:

“Don’t pray to be healthy, but pray to become kind, because if you become a good person, that is, if God makes you kind, it means He’s going to change your whole life.”

This is our goal—to find the meaning of life, to understand why I’m alive. Then, as St. Porphyrios said:

“If you find the meaning of life, if you find God, joy, if you understand why it’s worth living, then everything, even the endocrine glands, all the hormones, your whole body will begin to function harmoniously. This is important for our lives.”

The Lord transforms evil wherever it occurs. You get sick, and God takes your sickness and turns it into an opportunity for you to make sense of your life.

How many people come and say:

“Father, cancer has come into my life, and I can say that it has saved me. Because I began to appreciate what I didn’t appreciate before; I began to see what I thought was self-evident.”

These are small, simple, everyday things.

One girl from Thessaloniki told me:

“After I had cancer, I started rejoicing even at the wind on the seaside streets in Thessaloniki where I would go for a walk—the wind caressing my cheek.”

It’s such a simple “detail,” but who has ever appreciated this?!

At New Year’s, what’s the most common wish? For long life, happiness, and most of all, health! Isn’t that what we wish for each other on New Year’s? But this is a great deception. It’s a lie, because we desire health but do everything not to be healthy. We wish for each other to be healthy, but none of us are happy that we’re healthy. We’re healthy, but we’re unhappy. You may object:

“We’re all sick with something.”

Yes, but I’m talking now about serious diseases. Why are we unhappy? We’re healthy, but unhappy. We’re constantly looking for who to blame for our troubles and constantly “gnawing” each other. This is the greatest lie we tell each other all the time. This is why the Lord permits a sickness that will be the cause for your whole life to be transformed; He allows you to get into a car accident so that several years later you look back and say:

“Thank you, my God, for ‘destroying’ me. Glory to God that I got into this accident: I found myself.”

Pain, in and of itself, has no metaphysics, and someone might say:

“Father, I know people who experience pain but without becoming any kinder.”

Of course, pain has no metaphysics in and of itself. What I’m saying doesn’t mean that someone who’s in pain becomes a saint; it doesn’t mean someone in pain becomes a better person. Pain, in and of itself, can’t do that. Of course, one man may become kinder, repent, and change, but there are people whom pain makes crueler, breaks their hope, knocks them to their knees, and even makes them atheists. It’s important what meaning you give to your suffering. You have to find the meaning of your suffering. Pain doesn’t ask you for permission to come. Imagine a man who has a disease somewhere in his body, and you give him a scalpel to operate on himself. The instinct of self-preservation and self-defense, our narcissistic “I” doesn’t allow us to go beyond the threshold of pain. As soon as you start to feel pain, you’ll stop cutting your diseased organ. But pain doesn’t ask you, it doesn’t say:

“May I come in?”

It doesn’t say to you:

“Can you withstand me?”

It comes without an invitation. Therefore, pain takes you where you would never have gone yourself. It’s important to understand that pain is an opportunity for our spiritual development.

Part 2

Fr. Charalampos Papadopoulos
Translation by Jesse Dominick

Sretensky Monastery


Jonathan6/20/2024 10:49 am
An important article. Pain doesn’t ask us for permission, it takes us where we would not go, it makes us appreciate the smaller things in life. I liked very much the idea of holiness, the presence of God, being something internal, a feeling, a sensation.
Jennifer (Nina)6/19/2024 2:11 pm
“Don’t pray to be healthy, but pray to become kind, because if you become a good person, that is, if God makes you kind, it means He’s going to change your whole life.” Amen. Lord, have mercy.
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