Living with Chronic Pain


John Kennedy. Renoir. Benjamin Franklin. Lucille Ball. Herod the Great. These are just a few of the individuals throughout history who have suffered great pain (some of them coped better than others). Even today, pain affects more people than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined, and chronic pain is the leading cause of long-term disability in the U.S., affecting one out of every four Americans. I am one of those people, having experienced some degree of pain from the time I was twenty-two. Physical suffering is also a spiritual and a psychological issue, famous for making people ‘stronger,’ and famous, too, for destroying lives. The next few blog posts will feature some reflections on pain and some practical suggestions for living with it. I would love to have your feedback and ideas along the way, especially if this is a problem you face.

Let’s start with some medical and theological basics.

The presence of all kinds of pain is a direct result of the fall. Both Adam and Eve are condemned to suffer pain (See Gen. 3:16, 17), which is probably a sign that all of us will struggle with some form of pain in our lives. It will be our curse until the day all tears cease (Rev. 21:4). We can find examples of pain throughout the Bible, particularly in the books of Job and Jeremiah. Psalms and the letters of Paul speak of pain, too, but they largely refer to emotional pain. Surprisingly, science has begun to show that emotional and physical pain are intimately related, sharing the same area of the brain. (As a result, acetaminophen can actually help relieve sadness!) Physical pain often causes emotional pain, and it can work in the reverse, too. So, it seems likely that many of our ideas about pain can apply to either variety.

Pain is not a punishment. At least, not for those in Christ. Pain is a result of the sin which caused the fall, and that sin belongs to all of us. But what has been decreed as punishment for all has been redeemed for some. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). Sin does have consequences, and we sometimes, though rarely, suffer pain because of our specific sins, but God promises to transform all our pain into something good for us (Rom. 8:28). Punishment comes from anger and says, “I will make you pay.” Discipline comes from love and says, “I will make you beautiful.”

Pain has good purposes. Fire burns, tigers bite and men bleed. Pain is the body’s early warning system, the physical alarm to wake us from carelessness, and woe to those few who cannot feel it. I am alive because a small, troubling pain in one knee alerted my doctors to the presence of cancer while it was still treatable. Pain has been the motivation for the development of many curative medications and procedures, and pain also helps us grow. Without wishing suffering on anyone, it is generally true that the wisest, strongest, most patient people we know are some of those who have suffered. For example, the bravest person I know is someone who faces down many kinds of suffering every day. Pain holds the potential to teach us much about dependence, humility and strength in weakness; it can be a useful tool in the hands of a master carver who is in the business of sculpting beauty from ashes (Is. 61:3, Jer. 18:4-6). We tend to think the breeding ground for discontent is hardship, and pain, but it may actually be a comfortable life.

The same degree of pain can seem to be worse depending on its cause. Pain can feel more severe and be harder to bear when it is maliciously inflicted. Which could you tolerate more easily – receiving a life-saving vaccine or being deliberately stabbed with a large pin by a spiteful sibling? Unexpected pain can be worse than expected or chronic pain. Doctors know that it is important to give patients a realistic description of pain following surgery in order to increase their pain tolerance. Pain is also more debilitating when we do not know its source; it becomes a focus of worry, and we find ourselves sensitively attuned to the slightest changes.

Pain can turn us TOWARD God or AWAY from Him. Contributing to our discomfort is the modern, Western entitlement to physical well-being. When we assume we shouldn’t have pain (physical or emotional), pain becomes a place of frustration and anger. The story of the Bible calls us each to follow Christ in our own way, to enter “the fellowship of His sufferings” according to that which is given us. Christ has shown us how to bear great pain and has promised to be with us in all circumstances so that our suffering can draw us closer to Him in intimate relationship. When the pain has chased away every other succor from our conscious existence, then it has driven us straight to the cross. In my very real experience, God is the only thing which can co-exist with overwhelming pain because He is indeed everywhere and in everything, having overcome every tribulation of the world by His own suffering (John 16:33).

If Christ is our example, then pain is to be born in humility rather than anger or entitlement. Certainly, we should seek out the remedies available to us, but when God has not made an effective therapy available, we must look differently at the life He has given us. Where are the opportunities for grace? Where can we find wisdom, strength and love in a different degree than we might know without our pain? Where is there room for service, worship and the gifts of the Spirit inside the circumstances we would shed in a heartbeat?

We do not have a choice about struggling in this life. The thing we do here which cannot be done in Heaven is struggle, so it must be that we need it. We will all suffer in various ways, and we cannot choose to avoid all of it. We can only choose whether we do it with God as Great Physician, Friend and Comforter – or without Him.


The box quotes throughout this post have been contributed by real sufferers. Please contribute your own thoughts and ideas, especially if you live with chronic pain, by clicking the “Reply” link at the top of the page or the “Comment” box at the bottom.

Next blog in series

I Will Not Forget You

The following post is a letter to my children which I have included with my will and other end-of-life information.


Elderly manLong after Alzheimer’s disease ravaged my grandfather’s confidence, his humor and his past, it finally drained his body of breath and life. Once he died, his wife began the same, slow descent, and I went to her, hoping to comfort her with Christ while she still knew me. However, in human terms, it was already too late; a sweet, vacant smile was her only response to love or logic. So I left her with a Bible, which has now come back to me, unmarked and unruffled, and she left me with a new struggle of my own. Can God’s word sustain those who are beyond words? Does His Spirit indwell those whose spirits are vanishing? Because I became a Christian as an adult, the specter of returning to childhood, of forgetting the best news I ever heard, weighs heavy on my mind. There are a thousand losses in that possible future.

 

Yet, if I should experience the slow, sad leave-taking which is Alzheimer’s, I would not wish anyone to grieve over-much for my sake. Whatever else it may be, the disease is surely a metaphor.  It leaves behind what cannot be taken forward. As perception, kindness, the fruits of faith, a loving heart and the twinkle of an eye fade from our sight, they cannot be lost. Those are the elements of a child of God which will never be lost but will be infinitely improved. Just out of sight, those pieces wait for the final exhalation of the last remnant of a soul which has been yearning toward God all along. We will all leave behind a dry husk of flesh and sin, a seed “sown in dishonor.” It is no necessary thing for us. A thousand years from now, will it matter if I shed my skin more slowly than you shed yours?

 

Psalm 139 speaks eloquently of the omnipresence of God not only in the world, but in all the days of our lives which are ordained and written in His book. Are some of the pages blank?  If they are, it must be those pages that I have wasted on myself, taken hold of and shared with no one, refusing the difficult prose of God. Those are the meaningless pages, the ones that will burn in the fire of salvation. The pages which God alone has written with His own finger, like those days in my mother’s womb, those nights of mysterious slumber, those years which may be lost in confusion or delirium, must not be waste. The script on those pages is gibberish and foolishness to the wisdom of this world, but waits like mirror-writing to be revealed in the perfect light of grace. He who is familiar with my going out and my lying down will write on all the pages just as He wishes until that glorious morning when I arise to His call and behold the glory of His face. (Ps 17:15)

 

I do not wish to forget my children or my parents or my husband. I do not wish to drop my sword while still on the field of battle. But I will be yielded to His will and used to His purpose. And even if I forget God, He will not forget me. Having forgotten that there is hope or life or a beautiful God, I will still wake one day to the most breathtaking of all surprises: to hope and to life and to my beautiful God.

 


Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!  See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands. Isa 49:15-16

When a Child Has Special Needs

Miranda already had three young children when her son, Bobby, was born with Down Syndrome. Miranda would tell you that Bobby was a welcome addition to the family, that everyone loves him and that her life is richer because she has a child with special needs. What she might not tell you – what she might not say even to herself – is that the extra demands Bobby puts on the resources of the whole family have brought them to tears and conflict on more than one occasion. Miranda’s husband travels a lot and though this was a sacrifice before Bobby came along, now it is a strain.  Miranda’s second child has always been extremely shy, but she’s recently developed the weird habit of wandering off with motherly strangers. Miranda herself is overwhelmed and wonders if she might be depressed.

 

Studies show that when one child in a family has special needs, the whole family is under more stress than other families around them. There is no way to avoid this because of the extra time, responsibility and worry that come with any new situation. It is best to recognize the challenges and meet them head on. For a family to be at its strongest, happiest and best, it’s important to pay attention to how well it’s working and where the edges might be fraying. Parents lead this effort by taking care of themselves and making family care a priority. Our new handout on this topic will give you some practical suggestions. Use it to take stock of your family’s health (even if you don’t have a child with special needs) now and regularly in the future. Parents and older children could discuss these ideas at a family meeting. I’m including the handout below (which you can download directly), and it will also be available on our Resources page.

 

Download the PDF file .

 

Make it your goal to love for the long haul, to work together as a family, to rest well and to encourage others to do the same. It’s not selfish to make sure you have a strong foundation – it’s a necessary blessing.

 

I’d love it if you would share your ideas and experiences in the “Comments” section.