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

To Be or Not to Be… Kind

Dear Christian Counselor,

My boyfriend just told me that I was getting on his nerves by saying, “Justin Bieber is cute, oh Usher is amazing,“ a couple of times to make him smile and laugh. And it’s normal for girls to say that kind of stuff. But instead he said I hurt his feelings again. I don’t know what to do.

Emily


Dear Emily,

I think your boyfriend has been pretty clear about what he would like you to do. The real question is why you don’t want to do it. When someone you care about asks you to stop hurting them, the kind response is to stop. What do you care about MORE than your boyfriend which makes you tease him this way? Is it being cool, knowing he is jealous about you, keeping some distance in your relationship or something else? Once you figure out why you don’t want to be kind to him, then you need to make a decision about whether that reason is really more important than he is. And if it is, then you probably shouldn’t be his girlfriend.

Everything Happens to Everyone

Duke Divinity Professor and public Christian, Kate Bowler, was only thirty-five years old and a new mother when doctors made the terrifying discovery that she had Stage IV colon cancer spreading through her abdomen. When she published an account of her faith and ongoing medical battles in The New York Times, she received responses telling her, among other things, that her cancer was caused by unconfessed sin or that acai berries would cure her. Her book, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I Have Loved, is her attempt to answer those well-meaning critics, to answer that universal, human question when faced with tragedy: Why? Kate Bowler’s answer is that there is no why, there is no order or reason, and we had better put our energies toward enjoying the good we have today.

While I sympathize with her response, and I agree with her outlook on present blessings, I have another perspective, forged in a similar fire: everything happens to everyone, and it happens for a reason.

No, I don’t mean every tragedy and every blessing possible happens to each and every person on the planet. What I mean is that you cannot single out Christians and say they get more blessings (or curses) in their lives than the average Joe. Just look around you. Christians and non-Christians get cancer in the same proportion as everyone else (though outcomes may be slightly better). They lose children in the same proportion as everyone else. They get divorced in the same proportion as everyone else, and that’s a behavior-related problem! If they didn’t then someone would have noticed, and surely everyone on the planet would be calling themselves a true believer. Christians also get rich, attain their dreams and live long lives in approximately the same proportions as everyone else. You cannot look at a person or their beliefs and predict or explain what happens to them. Everything happens to everyone. 

In contrast to Dr. Bowler, however, I believe these statistically random events do happen for a reason. I can’t tell you that reason, not beyond a generic response such as, “for God’s glory.” And I suspect the individual reasons may be many and varied. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. We can examine any story in the Bible and find there are reasons for the tragedies therein. Joseph was sold into slavery and accused of a crime he did not commit so as to put him in the right place at the right time. Jonah was nearly drowned because of his disobedience (there’s a behavior-related problem for you). Mary and Martha grieved the death of their brother so the faith of many, including Mary and Martha, would be supernaturally strengthened. Paul and Barnabas had a bitter fight so that many more churches could be planted and discipled. Jesus died on the cross, an innocent man crucified like the lowest of criminals, so that all His brothers and sisters could live forever.

To all who struggle and hurt, who crave answers, who might even be willing to suffer if you knew it meant something, here is what Scripture says to you:

  1. God is in control. I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things (Is. 45:6,7).
  2. God has His purposes. I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose, calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.’ (Is. 46:9-11) 
  3. For you who love the Lord, those purposes are good. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).

Because we can’t, at times, understand the last point, we tend to doubt the others. Some might even call it heresy, profaning God, to say that a young mother with cancer could, in any sense, be good. I don’t pretend to understand it, either, and I am not trying to give you the answer. I am just repeating God’s assertion that there IS an answer. If God could take the greatest disaster that ever occurred (the murder of His only Son) and turn it into the greatest good that ever happened (the eternal salvation of all who believe), then, surely, He can do that for our little tragedies, too.

Most of the time we must wait our turn for a personal audience before we can “know as we are known,” but occasionally, we do get glimpses of God’s glory shining through the darkness. In my own case, if I had to do it all again, to live through years of cancerous gloom in order to get to the place of faith and ministry where He has brought me today, I would do it willingly, gladly. I truly believe there is a similar happy ending to all the stories, even the ones where young mothers aren’t healed, but faith means believing that without seeing it.

We serve a God who does not discriminate in the gifts and catastrophes He allows upon the earth during our era of brokenness. But we also serve a God who controls the sparrow in the sky and the hairs on our head with love and with purpose. Everything happens to everyone – and it happens for a reason.


Related Material:

Why Me? – Dear Christian Counselor
When God’s Sovereignty Scares You – The Gospel Coalition
On God’s Sovereignty in Painful Times – John Piper
A Few Examples of Reasons We Suffer – Focus on the Family
Kate Bowler’s Original Article – New York Times