How Pain Can Lead us to God

Picture: Nicole Gillan, from Unseen Footprints

Part 2 of an article and podcast series based on my book Unseen Footprints: Encountering the Divine Along the Journey of Life. You can find out more about the book here or order it here.


I don’t think there’s one person who has ever lived who didn’t say, ‘This isn’t working. I need something else’.
Douglas Coupland

For a number of years the West Australian newspaper ran an interesting column called Alternatives Today. It recounted the stories of people who had ditched their materialistically-dominated life and set out for a more spiritual path. When I lived in Perth, Western Australia, I started collecting these columns for research. What did they say about today’s spiritual ‘seeker’?

Aching Hearts

I clipped almost all of those Alternatives Today columns, collecting the stories of people like:

  • Maureen, a grandmother, who was diagnosed with cancer and given two years to live. She had begun attending psychic development classes to try and make sense of it all.
  • Paul, 31, who had a drug addiction and a failing business when he began searching for answers by consulting spirit guides.
  • Martin, who couldn’t cope after his relationship breakdown and was now spending hundreds of dollars each month for the advice of his ‘life coach’.

The stories piled up – person after person whose interest in the spiritual had been catalysed by an experience of physical or emotional pain.

Dissatisfied Souls

Still, I knew of others who had experienced no such trauma yet had still gotten ‘spiritual’:

  • The author of a globally popular book who wondered why his success didn’t satisfy his longing for significance.
  • A twenty-something man who had joined a psychic tour of the United Kingdom hoping to find some answers to life and the nature of the unseen world.
  • A mid-forties woman wandering around the Mind-Body-Spirit festival in her city, yet was still searching for the book, seminar or experience that ‘clicked’ for her.

Physical or emotion pain wasn’t part of the story for these folks. But they still felt a ‘pain’ of sorts – the ache of an empty soul. Like Douglas Coupland, they had come to the point of recognising something was missing – something they needed – despite the good health and prosperity in their lives.

There is an irony to this, of course. For many, the existence of pain is the very reason why they can’t believe in God or spiritual things. (As the phrase goes: ‘If there is a good and loving God, why is there so much pain in the world?’) This is a significant issue and one not to be dismissed. Yet, for others, pain is the very thing that gets them searching for spiritual reality in the first place.

Searching for ‘something more’.

Searching for God.

Pain has a purpose. It alerts us to the fact that all is not as it should be. As I say in the book, ‘Pain grips us by the shoulders, looks us straight in the eye and screams, “You cannot ignore me! You must deal with the questions I am raising.”’ Or to put it in the more eloquent words of CS Lewis: ‘God whispers to us in our pleasure, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts to us in our pain; it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.’

And perhaps God uses pain to rouse a deaf world to start contemplating another world – a world where aching hearts and dissatisfied souls will be fully healed and fulfilled.

Perhaps God uses pain to draw us to him – the healer and fulfiller.

Exercise: Your ‘Inciting Incident’

One of the projects I have in the new edition of Unseen Footprints is a series of exercises to help you write a spiritual memoir. One of the components of this is describing the event that brought you to want ‘something more’ out of life. In script-writing terms this is called the ‘inciting incident’ – the event that propels the lead character into their quest.

What has been your spiritual inciting incident?

  • When did you first get interested in spiritual things? Like Maureen, Paul and Martin, was an experience of physical or emotional pain involved?
  • Or was your ‘pain’ the ache of an empty soul? Did you have ‘everything’ but still feel unfulfilled?
  • Perhaps you’ve believed in God, gone to church and prayed since your youth. Was there an experience, though, that forced you to own this faith personally? What was it?

There are three good reasons for recalling your spiritual ‘inciting incident’: a) it may reveal a moment when you encountered God (his ‘whisper’ calling you to him), b) it may help you understand subsequent spiritual experiences, and c) it may help you see if you’re avoiding the issue. As Douglas Coupland says, almost no one gets through life without realising they need something more. But that doesn’t stop us seeking diversions and distractions for a while. Often to our detriment.

In the Podcast

In this 11 minute podcast you’ll hear more stories from Unseen Footprints about pain as the catalyst for spiritual searching.

Listen below, or right-click here and ‘save target’ to download. The Unseen Footprints podcast is also available on iTunes.


Q: What was the event or experience that prompted your search for God? I’d love to know. Share your comment now.


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