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Gospel Q&A: What is the Purpose of Pain in God’s Plan?

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Gospel Q&A is a series from LDS Daily that strives to answer important gospel questions from readers. Today, we answer the question, “What is the purpose of pain in God’s plan?”

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In many ways, humans are hard-wired to avoid pain. Traumatic experiences are often more vivid and lasting than happy ones—our brains are designed to protect us from further harm by remembering what hurts.

So, it may seem a contradiction that pain often plays such a defining role in our sanctification as disciples of Jesus Christ. What is the purpose of pain in God’s plan for His children? Is pain actually a sign that He doesn’t love us or His nature is uncaring and unfeeling?

While pain is deeply personal and can be caused by a number of factors and circumstances, gospel truths can help us understand what we can learn from these experiences.

The Spiritual Pain of Sin

Just as physical pain is a sign that something is wrong, spiritual pain can occur when we transgress or sin. Feelings of guilt and pain as a result of sin aren’t supposed to shame us into inaction. Rather, this sort of pain is an immediate indicator that we need help and should turn to the Master Healer.

President Boyd K. Packer taught, “Physical pain is nature’s warning system that signals something needs to be changed or cleansed or treated, perhaps even removed by surgery. Guilt, the pain of our conscience, cannot be healed the same way.”

“We all make mistakes. Sometimes we harm ourselves and seriously injure others in ways that we alone cannot repair. We break things that we alone cannot fix. It is then in our nature to feel guilt and humiliation and suffering, which we alone cannot cure. That is when the healing power of the Atonement will help.”

Even when we have worked hard to remain free from sin’s cruel grasp, we may still feel what Elder Neal A. Maxwell called “divine discontent,” or an acute awareness of the gap between where we are and where we’d like to be on our spiritual journey. When we experience divine discontent, we may feel uncomfortable. If framed properly, it can help us grow spiritually.

Sister Michelle D. Craig said, “The prophets have taught that as we climb the path of discipleship, we can be sanctified through the grace of Christ. Divine discontent can move us to act in faith, follow the Savior’s invitations to do good, and give our lives humbly to Him.”

Though repenting and progressing spiritually can be complex, there is a comforting sort of simplicity to the way we understand this type of spiritual pain. There is cause and effect. There is some sort of recourse we can take. If we sin, we can repent. If we feel like we’re falling behind, we can become more intentional in our discipleship. The purpose of this type of pain seems reasonable. It makes sense.

But what about the pain of pain that is unreasonable? The traumatic, tragic pain. The pain caused by unfairness and evil in the world. The suffering that is unrelenting and unimaginable.

Where is the purpose of that?

Intimacy With Christ Through Suffering

Agony in the Garden - After Franz Schwartz by Darin Ashby
Art after Franz Schwartz by Darin Ashby

Jesus called for discipleship by saying, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.”

I believe we sometimes underestimate what it means for us to take up our crosses. We seem to have the idea that the more righteous we are, the less we’ll need to experience what Christ did. The less we’ll need Him and His Atonement.

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught, “As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. To endure the cross is not tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ.”

Paul continues this idea and helps us understand this death of sorts is what will lead us to eternal life. In Philippians 3, he teaches, “I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him…that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death.”

Conformable is defined as being made similar in form or nature. Pain’s ultimate purpose is to help fulfill our greatest test—to freely choose God and take upon ourselves the divine attributes of Jesus Christ. To become like He is.

Elder Maxwell once said, “How can you and I really expect to glide naively through life, as if to say, ‘Lord, give me experience, but not grief, not sorrow, not pain, not opposition, not betrayal, and certainly not to be forsaken. Keep from me, Lord, all those experiences which made Thee what Thou art! Then let me come and dwell with Thee and fully share Thy joy!”

A Note About Consecration

It’s important to note that it is often more appropriate to look for the ways God can consecrate our pain for our good, rather than assign a necessary lesson to a specific situation. For example, I don’t believe that the evils of the world are necessary and prescribed to us by God as if to say, “This person needs to be raped, or this village needs to be destroyed, or this child needs to be beaten in order for them to grow spiritually.”

While God’s ways are not our ways and we don’t have all the answers about why certain tests and trials befall us, we need to remember what President Packer taught: “Do not suppose that God willfully causes that which, for his own purposes, he permits. When you know the plan and purpose of it all, even these things will manifest a loving Father in Heaven.”

We should be careful in the language we use when we console others. It may be more helpful to ask them how they are drawing closer to Christ in a certain situation rather than what lesson they think God wants them to learn.

Ultimately, Elder Robert D. Hales poignantly summarized some of the reasons why we suffer in this life:

“We realize that the purpose of our life on earth is to grow, develop, and be strengthened through our own experiences. How do we do this? The scriptures give us an answer in one simple phrase: we ‘wait upon the Lord.’ Tests and trials are given to all of us. These mortal challenges allow us and our Heavenly Father to see whether we will exercise our agency to follow His Son. He already knows, and we have the opportunity to learn, that no matter how difficult our circumstances, ‘all these things shall [be for our] experience, and … [our] good.'”

Disclaimer: While all of our answers will use scriptures and/or words of modern prophets, we do not represent The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We don’t believe any of our answers are comprehensive.

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Aleah Ingram
Aleah Ingram
Aleah is a graduate of Southern Virginia University, where she studied English, Creative Writing, and Dance. She now works full time as a marketing and product manager, writer, and editor. Aleah served a mission in California and loves baking, Lang Leav poetry, Gaynor Minden pointe shoes, and Bollywood movies.

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