Dr. Paul Brand (1914-2003) made it his life work to immerse himself in the problem of pain. A doctor who specialized in treating leprosy, his story is both humbling and inspiring. We often think of leprosy as an ancient disease, but it still exists today. Dr. Brand cared for lepers tenderly and with dignity, turning down career offers in more prestigious settings.
“I thank God for pain,” he once said, “I cannot think of a greater gift I could give my leprosy patients.” Each of us has a sophisticated pain system that protects our bodies. For us to feel pain on the soles of our feet, we need firm pressure and a very sharp needle. The cornea of our eyes, however, senses pain when a speck of dust brushes the surface. The pain in these instances is a gift, protecting us from hurting our foot or scratching our eyes. Leprosy is a disease that leaves people without those pain-sensing nerves, causing them serious injury because they can’t feel pain—something most of us take for granted.
There’s a powerful analogy here that goes beyond the physical pain of this world. We lament over the tragedies, diseases, and injustices of this world—as we should!—but in the heaviness of such pain, we often ignore the good surrounding us. Can we learn to both praise and lament at the same time, without one drowning out the other? Is it possible to hold both joy and sorrow together?
Dr. Brand led a life illustrating it is entirely possible. He practiced gratitude for the things he could see and trust for the the things he could not. He modeled the way of Jesus to trust the goodness of God, in spite of the suffering around him.
At the end of his life, Dr. Brand reflected, “It’s strange—those of us who involve ourselves in places where there is the most suffering, look back in surprise to find that it was there that we discovered the reality of joy.”
I wonder where that leaves you today? The world is full of heartbreak. I’ve had my share. You’ve had yours. It can be easy to let the sadness weigh us down. But perhaps, as David Benner says, “Unwelcome circumstances… are not gifts. But they may contain a gift.” Let’s dare to rise to the challenge of holding both the joy and sorrow together.
Jesus, we cry out to You, the “Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3, ESV). You never shy away from the pain of the world, but instead draw close. May we have the courage to do the same.