One of the attributes unique to humans is the ability to suffer. You may think the words “suffering” and “pain” are synonyms, but they describe different things. The difference between pain and suffering demonstrates the uniqueness of humans.
Pain is a physical characteristic of almost all living things. It is easy to show that when a nervous system experiences a violent stimulus, it produces an electric signal. For animals, the nervous system is connected to a muscular system that frees the organism from damaging stimuli. This design is present in all members of the animal kingdom to protect them from being wiped out by predators or destructive environmental agents.
The difference between pain and suffering shows us that suffering is a different response and serves a different purpose. Romans 8:16-18 tells us that Christians are joint heirs with Christ and that Christians will suffer with Christ. This means that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory which shall be revealed in us.” It is obvious that not all Christians have been physically crucified as Jesus was.
In 2 Corinthians 1:5-7, Paul writes, “For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so … we endure the same sufferings … for your salvation and our hope for you is knowing that you are partakers in the suffering.” In Philippians 3:8-10, Paul says that he has suffered the loss of all things and refers to the fellowship of His sufferings. In Colossians 1:24, Paul talks about his sufferings for the church in Colosse. Hebrews 2:10 refers to Christ enabling his followers to be made perfect in their salvation through sufferings. Christ himself, according to Hebrews 5:8, “earned obedience by the things he suffered.” This theme is repeated in 1 Peter 1:11, 4:13, and 5:10.
The context of all of these passages is clear. There is a difference between pain and suffering. We are not talking about physical things like being burned, scourged, tortured, or beaten. The early Christians did endure those things, but that is not what the passages above describe.
The simplest example of the sufferings described is what we endure when we have what we call a broken heart. Having heartbreak does not refer to something physical. Most of us who have had our hearts broken would be glad to take a beating instead. A physical beating does not last long. I have had physical pain from a beating, but that pain is a distant memory. The heartbreak of watching my wife die is still heavy upon me, even though it happened more than a decade ago.
Being a Christian in today’s world shares some of the sufferings that first-century Christians endured. Some of us have suffered being rejected and disowned by family. Others have lost good jobs because of their faith. Speaking out in favor of Christ and Christianity, in general, can result in verbal abuse, ridicule, ostracism, exclusion, and rejection. This suffering is real and scars you emotionally and sometimes spiritually.
Animals do not show any evidence of the kind of suffering we have described. Animal behavior is based on food and instinctive drives to reproduce. Guilt, empathy, and sympathy are not part of animal behavior. Claims of grief in animals such as elephants may or may not be real. If it is real, it is based on the social structure of the pack or group and not because the animal is suffering from the memory of a loss that will extend for the rest of the animal’s life.
We can see the difference between pain and suffering in humans because we have a unique spiritual makeup that allows suffering and enables us to relate to the suffering of others. Because we are created in the image of God, we can understand how an agape type of love is possible. That is why Christianity is the one hope the world has for the peace of all people. Your soul suffers, and this suffering can last a lifetime. We need to help animals avoid pain, but human empathy is what may someday foster world peace. That hope is always before us and is unique to humans.
— John N. Clayton © 2022