Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Pain Becomes the Pearl

We had a productive discussion at church last Sunday about Emmylou Harris's song "The Pearl" from her album, Red Dirt Girl. It is one of my favorite songs, and if you are unfamiliar with it, you can listen to it on YouTube.

For me, the essential lyric comes at the end of the song:
Like falling stars, from the universe we are hurled
Down through the long, loneliness of the world
Until we behold the pain become the pearl.
I think that Harris was acknowledging that life can be painful, but she looked forward to that pain serving some better purpose, in the same way that a pearl started out as a painfully irritating grain of sand. Harris's metaphor has a powerful effect on me every time I hear the song. I hope that there is meaning to the suffering that I see. This problem is the central struggle in my concept of faith.

What purpose does suffering serve in a Christian worldview? Or, put another way, in a universe with a Christian God, why is there suffering? Or, setting aside the question of Christianity for the time being, why is there suffering?

Obviously, smarter people than I have wrestled with this question, and there is no risk that I will be the first to stumble upon the answer. C.S. Lewis's book The Problem of Pain is a good place to start thinking about this issue. Nevertheless, this discussion of "The Pearl" prompted us to identify some possible justifications for suffering.

The first possibility is the least satisfying to me. It could be that we suffer because we are being punished. This explanation only works up to a point. Certainly, if I drive drunk or recklessly and hit a tree, then my injuries will have reasonably and foreseeably resulted from a conscious decision that I made. Yet, we can think of examples of suffering visited upon innocent people. Their suffering could not be any just punishment.

Another possibility is that this suffering is supposed to teach us something. Lewis thought that we learned from suffering to be compassionate toward one another, to help one another, and to strive to end suffering. Someone at church suggested that we become stronger by enduring hardship. Perhaps suffering causes us to grow, to be better people.

Someone else pointed out that Thomas A Kempis wrote in The Imitation of Christ that there can not be two heavens. If life in this world were perfect, then we would have no need of heaven. Bringing the discussion back to Harris's song, then, the pearl would be the life to come in heaven. But why is it necessary to endure such pain to get into heaven? I can not see how or why that would be required.

How do you answer this question? Why is there suffering?


  1. I can't answer the question in general but can make a feeble attempt from a Christian viewpoint. Christ Himself chose suffering as the means to redeem the world. His sufferings are much greater than mine; there must be some value in it I in my limited, human capacity can't understand.

    A recent blog post by a writer I like:

  2. Thank you for pointing out that article; it was thought-provoking. The idea that we share in Christ's nature when we share in His suffering is a particularly Catholic one, is it not? I do not understand how that would work, but, as you point out, we are not supposed to understand everything perfectly. However, I think that the meaning of suffering is the one question that every religion must answer if it is to have any credibility.