“Sin causes pain. Evil is causing someone else or yourself pain.” On the second day of philosophy class, Keith’s definition came as a personal affront. While his definition presents a valid viewpoint, I had just gotten sensation back after surgery, and nerve resurrection is really painful. I raised my hand. “Healing hurts,” I insisted. After some back and forth, Keith conceded the point (maybe it was the crazy opioid eyes), but that thought stuck with me. I set out to explore the relationship between pain and sin, and I found the most detailed explanations in the Bible and the writings of William Blake.
I was raised in a very religious home, so we have to start with scripture. In the Bible, human pain falls into two main categories: the consequence of sin, or a chastening to encourage righteousness. Humans suffer pain because of sin; sinners should cultivate gratitude because divine chastisement leads to repentance and a reunion with God. The New Testament and the story of Jesus tend to minimize any pain because mortality is such a small part of the larger eternal whole.
Pain as a consequence of sin starts with Eve. In Genesis 3:16, as punishment for eating of the forbidden fruit and getting Adam to partake, God tells Eve that “in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” Eve, and all women after her, will have pain in childbirth due to this original sin of disobeying God and eating the forbidden fruit. Pain is a punitive action by God as a result of breaking his law.
The concept of pain as the consequence of sin is so deeply ingrained into the fabric of the biblical society that Job continually assumes that he has sinned and prays for forgiveness. “I have sinned; what shall I do unto thee, Oh thou preserver of men…. Why dost thou not pardon my transgression, and take away mine iniquity?” (Job 7:20-21). The fact that Job hasn’t sinned at all is beside the point: Job assumes that he has sinned, for he cannot conceive of another reason for his pain. This is made explicit in that same book when Job 15:20 states that “the wicked man travaileth with pain all his days.” Wickedness itself is the cause of pain, or as Ezekiel 30:16 so succinctly put it: “sin shall have great pain.”
While sin is the primary cause of pain, so too is it a method whereby God calls His children to repentance. In the book of Job 5:17-18, Job’s friend Eliphaz counsels him: “happy is the man whom God correcteth: therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty: for he maketh sore, and bindeth up: he woundeth, and his hands make whole.” Eliphaz interprets Job’s current situation God’s benevolent reprobation leading to Job’s repentance. Job should be that happy man, chastened by God; for once an individual acknowledges God’s compassionate correction, God can heal all pain.
The story of Jesus seems at first glance to contradict the idea that pain is God’s punishment or God’s way to guide His children. Jesus was without sin, so His punishment cannot be a consequence of sin; Jesus’ punishment cannot be a way to bring about repentance because He has nothing of which to repent. The story of Jesus is a notable exception that must be excluded from this analysis because, while it is indisputable that Christ did suffer pain, both in Gethsemane and on the cross, His wasn’t human pain. Many interpretations of the Bible maintain that Christ’s painful death and glorious resurrection were redemptive; however, since Christ was God and the Son of God, His suffering is unique in its divinity. Jesus’ anguish cannot be generalized to our more mundane mortal pain.
The only application to human pain in Jesus’ story comes from His victory over both pain and death. Since Jesus’ sacrifice redeemed mankind, the pain suffered in mortality does not signify in the scope of the eternities. The redemption that He made possible highlights the ephemeral nature of physicality. Above all things, pain is as temporary and transitory as this mortal life. Revelation 21:4 states that in the millennium “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” Both Christ’s sacrifice and the New Testament’s view of the Second Coming show how mortal pain does not matter, except and unless it is a method whereby men are brought back to God.
Whenever I am in pain, I always have to get past my first impulse to think that I am being punished for my sins, or that God is chastening me. As a current cancer patient, I find the biblical explanation for pain and suffering particularly unsatisfying; we have laws to prevent fathers from using corporeal punishment to enforce obedience, but many people accept this biblical view of God. As a self-proclaimed evil apostate, I no longer believe in the great leveler of the afterlife: pain on this earth does not lead to some divine purpose or an eternal reward. Fortunately, philosophical writing about suffering has progressed beyond the Bible (and so have I!).
William Blake has echoes of biblical language and values throughout his work, but in his mythos, he goes beyond the biblical definitions of right and wrong and so too the biblical conceptions of pain as punishment or redemption: pain becomes multifaceted. In “the Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” he states that one of the proverbs of Hell is that “joys impregnate” and “sorrows bring forth” (ln 54). His words harken back to the biblical Eve’s punishment that in sorrow and pain she will bring forth children, but this proverb goes beyond to imply that sorrow can be a catalyst for creation. The biblical Eve’s pain and sorrow is a punishment; in Blake, sorrow or pain can be a genesis.
“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” further states that “the roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man” (ln 52). In this way, anything that is “too much” for human understanding is just a portion of the vast infinity encroaching on everyday life. This follows the early Romantic idea of the sublime; awe, danger, and pain evoke the strongest emotions from those who experience it, and individuals should chase those transformative glimpses into eternity.
While Blake’s poems in “Songs of Innocence” largely maintain the Bible’s conception of pain, the “Songs of Experience” work to move beyond the biblical explanations of suffering. In the “Songs of Innocence,” the pain of the Chimney-Sweeper is transient and doesn’t matter because the goal of the chimney-sweeper is to be a good boy and go to heaven. The poem maintains that God is always there for the pain and tears, and that the “good” won’t suffer, just like in the Bible. However, in “Songs of Experience,” we get a more detailed explanation of pain as a catalyst for transformation. “Little Girl Lost” and “Little Girl Found” tells the story of seven-year-old Lyca who wanders away from her parents. She has no concern for her disorientation; her only worry is for her parent’s reaction: “How can Lyca sleep / If her mother weep? / ‘If her heart does ache, / Then let Lyca wake; / If my mother sleep, / Lyca shall not weep”. She then beds down, and the animals all watch over her. Her ignorance and sweetness protect her, and the wild animals care for her. Even in a potentially painful situation, Lyca can avoid suffering.
Her parents, meanwhile, spend a week in agony, worrying over their child and trying to find her. “Tired and woe-begone, / Hoarse with making moan / Rising from unrest, / The trembling woman pressed / With feet of weary woe; / She could no further go. / In his arms he bore / Her, armed with sorrow sore”. The parents encounter a lion at when they are at their weakest and most vulnerable. Their first instinct is escape, but they cannot physically do so because they are too exhausted. The parents are literally brought low when they are borne to the ground by the lion. Instead of savaging the humans, the lion is transformed into a “spirit armed in gold” who leads the parents to their safe sleeping daughter.
Nature is initially frightening and unpleasant, and the parents suffer while looking for their daughter. In contrast, Lyca is full of wonder for the birds’ song and the warm day, and she is cared for and safe. Lyca’s youth and innocence allows her to effortlessly see the good around her and nature responds by protecting her. Her parents, however, must be in physical pain before they can see the lion’s transfiguration. This experience informs the remainder of the parents’ lives, and they can thereafter live free of the fear of the wilderness. Without the physical hardship, Lyca’s parents would not have either waited for or been able to experience the transformative experience that freed them from fear of the natural world.
Blake’s “Little Boy Lost” shows pain as the consequence of sin, but instead of a natural and just consequence of sin, as the Bible would have it, pain as a punishment for sin is regarded as unnecessarily cruel. First, the sin is a childishly innocent observation about the love of others versus the love of self. For the child, love of self is concrete, and love of others is more abstract. For this imagined heresy, the priest takes the child by the hair to be publicly burned. The poem condemns the priestly zeal and questions the civilization that allows such punishments.
The weeping child could not be heard,
The weeping parents wept in vain:
They stripped him to his little shirt,
And bound him in an iron chain,
And burned him in a holy place
Where many had been burned before;
The weeping parents wept in vain.
Are such things done on Albion’s shore?
Pain, in the poem, is not a divine consequence of sin; pain is inflicted by an overenthusiastic intermediary, and the poem condemns the punisher, not the punished.
Most importantly, perhaps, is that no one hears the weeping parents or the weeping child. There is no God chastising them for their sins; there is only the human priest causing harm. Further, there is no greater purpose to pain; pain just exists. The line “the weeping parents wept in vain” is repeated twice: once to underscore the absence of sympathy in the priest and again to emphasize the absence of a higher power.
Blake’s acknowledgement of the futility of pain reflects the societal move away from religion and God as the final arbiter of right and wrong; Blake gives that power instead to individuals: either personally or in the collective form of the state. There is no appeal to the divine and no surprise for God’s absence. Blake acknowledges that pain is an unavoidable condition of mortality, both for the boy at the hands of unscrupulous ecclesiastical leader, and the boy’s parents, helpless against the power of religion.
I embrace Blake’s view of pain, both the meaninglessness and the transformative. Ultimately, I create the meaning that I want from the pain I experience (and the selections that I read). I see pain as an unavoidable human condition in Blake because pain is unavoidable for me right now. I had to go through chemo/surgery/radiation, and treatment HURTS. This isn’t divine retribution or an atonement for my sins. I see that in Blake, pain can be a transformative experience, because if I reject the biblical notion of pain as a chastening by a loving (if non-existent) God, then my pain has no meaning outside what I create. In Blake’s time, the failures of the state as the overreach of the priests; today, failings in the health care system manifest as diseases in the population. “Disease-caused pain” is just a part of life in the early 21st century, just like “burning to death for heresy” existed in 18th century England. Pain is not evil or a manifestation of sin, as Keith’s definition would have it. Pain is a dispassionate, inescapable condition of life, and any deeper meaning can only be constructed by those who endure it.