Entering Pain

I once had a very wise doctor who taught me an important lesson about pain. At the time, he was removing an inch-long metal screw from my hip under local anesthetic. He seemed to be using an ordinary, Home Depot Phillips head screwdriver which rather amused us both. But the novelty of the situation soon gave way to the piercing pain of metal turning against bone. When I began to fidget and moan, the doctor asked me to do him a special favor. He said that he was conducting a research project into the nature of pain and wanted me to carefully describe what I was feeling. I struggled to describe the location and varying pitch of the sensations, whether it throbbed or stung, felt cold or ached or surged. Sooner than expected he tied the last stitch, and I took my shiny souvenir home in a jar.

The funny thing was, he never did compile the results of his meticulous survey. The man had used a benevolent, psychological trick to get me to stop resisting the pain of minor surgery. But in the process I discovered a truth which has been important to me. Instead of panicking and running from the pain, he got me to look at it, even to move toward it. I don’t know that I felt any less agony, but I felt it differently. The pain was less like a monster attacking from the outside than it was a peculiar part of my own being which could be touched and explored. I found the same kind of meditation very useful in other situations, including the natural delivery of two children.

Pain, like other difficult circumstances in life, can be fled or it can be explored.  One can fight and flail against the inevitable, or one can accept and even find peace inside the dreaded cavern. In her beautiful book, The Scent of Water, Elizabeth Goudge describes depression as a dark cave. But she points out that many scholars believe the stable where Christ was born was a cave, and also the tomb where He was buried. If depression is a cave and pain is a cavern, they are inhabited by One who is well acquainted with the layout. 

Christ dwells wherever we do, at the bottom of the ocean, the end of the world or the darkest pit. He offers us His companionship and strength. When we stop running from all our pain — emotional, spiritual and physical — and explore it to the edges, we can find many truths inside it. It is Christ in you who paints the ceiling with glowing crystals. It is Christ’s arm which keeps your foot from slipping in the dark. It is the presence of Christ which turns cold desperation into peculiar fellowship. And it is Christ’s love which places daily treasures for you to mine. God can sculpt the stalagmites of your grief into monuments of His glory. It is a trick of the mind to stop fighting the pain; it is a truth of the heart to find God inside it.

Not only the comfortable, good and happy walk with Christ. In fact, they mostly ignore Him. The next time you feel the walls of pain closing in on your soul, try taking a good look around in there. You might be surprised at what you find. Or Who you find.


This is the third in a series of blogs about chronic pain of all kinds. Go back to the first one here.


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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

Gentle and Quiet, Honest and Brave

Free Happy Woman Enjoying Nature. Beauty Girl Outdoor.According to the Apostle Peter, a woman’s beauty is supposed to be most evident in her gentle and quiet spirit (1 Peter 3:4), this prescription from a man whose aggravating and endearing outspokenness was a key quality of his personality. Jesus Himself showed us that one person can, without sin, be both bold and humble. In trying to capture a similar combination, modern theorists have come up with the term “assertive” as a midpoint between “passive” and “aggressive.” But the word has been applied to everything from requesting a well-deserved raise to the latest political brawl. How can Christians decide whether assertiveness, which often means voicing one’s opinion, concurs with Peter’s prescription? Can assertiveness and quietness coexist?

If you read my last post, then you understand there are ways in which a caricature of meekness can be harmful to human relationships. A gentle and quiet spirit cannot mean extinguishing God-given gifts or an attitude of deceitfulness or a birthplace for bitterness. It does mean, from the Hebrew, an unpretentious and settled spirit. So let us consider a description of biblical assertiveness which includes humility and honesty, leaving room for the dignity, passion and courage which Scripture also promotes.

Biblical assertiveness is:

…a quality of the mind. In the Bible this aspect of assertiveness is generally called wisdom, but it is also referred to as assurance or confidence. This is not a confidence in some quality of self but in the eternal connection of our soul to the King of Everything. When we understand our worth as determined by God alone, we neither need to hide our light under a basket nor crow with self-centered pride. Wisdom takes joy in knowing what kind of instrument God has crafted – so that you can play the trumpet you are, for example, rather than the harp you thought you were supposed to be. Jesus’ wisdom grew from intimate knowledge of His Father and of the role He had been given. Cultivate this wisdom through deep familiarity with Scripture, seeking God in prayer and making a real effort to understand and appreciate the unique and beautiful ways you have been shaped for His use. (Here is a free resource to help you.)

…a quality of the heart. Jesus displayed every human emotion from temptation to grief to compassion to anger. The psalms teach us that all those emotions can be directed toward God in worship. When we accept our feelings as part of God’s image in us, we can express them in ways that honor Him and promote good in the world. Every feeling has a good purpose as well as a destructive dark side. For example, anger, the one most people fear, is meant to motivate us to change things, to right wrongs or protect the weak. Jesus got angry when His Father’s house was desecrated and when the unsuspecting were led astray. Jesus wasn’t afraid of His own heart. He took care of it, seeking solitude, allowing Himself tears and surrounding Himself with family and friends. When we accept our own emotions as He did and learn to express them appropriately, others will feel more comfortable with us and with themselves. They may even know God better. Get to know your own heart through close attention and journaling, and cultivate at least a few relationships which are safe and encouraging places to express it, including your relationship with God.

…and a quality of the will. The will is the seat of actions and choices. Much false meekness, the kind that makes people uncomfortable (see previous post), comes from misguided choices of the will. Refusing to acknowledge real emotions or real truths, declining to speak because of guilt or fear, is not Peter’s settled spirit. To speak the truth in love (i.e., to speak the truth in relationship) is a Biblical admonition. We do not speak from a motive of anger or punishment or self-protection but out of the assurance that we have submitted ourselves to Christ first and are loving others well with our words. Making godly choices means knowing God’s values and our own. Jesus did not answer every question put to Him, meet all others’ expectations or hesitate to reveal unpleasant truths when necessary to honor His Father. He knew when to remain quiet and when to use His voice. Our will, like His, enables us to control our responses and actions rather than having them control us. When you feel emotional, consider how God might want to use that – and when and where and with whom. When you have something to say, ask Jesus to give you bold and loving words.

A gentle and quiet spirit is not agitated or abrasive, but it may be funny or convincing or brave. A person with this attribute exhibits confidence without arrogance, born from a sense of identity rooted in the love and acceptance of the King of Everything. A person at peace imparts that sense of tranquility to others. I know a gentle and quiet spirit when I find one because I am at peace in her presence. I neither need to protect her nor read hidden signals for her mood or preferences. She is able to say what is true, to own what is real and to do what is right – without nagging or contention or guilt or defensiveness. Because, at the end of the day, she looks into the face of her Beloved, and no other, for approval. It took Peter a long time to learn what that meant for his own life. I don’t expect we’ll get it overnight, either.


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Faith and Assertiveness by Blaine Smith

Gracefully Assertive by Chelsea Cote

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