1 Chronic Pain And the Christian Life

Notes from the furnace.

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Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials,knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” – James 1:2-4

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For the past fifteen years of my life, I have suffered from chronic and at times debilitating physical pain. Hundreds of injections and several surgeries have only made things worse. Having pain that will not go away is like living with an octopus whose tentacles reach into every aspect of your life. Some days its grip is more relentless and unyielding than others, but it is always present.

And while I realize I am not alone, it is estimated that in the U.S. nearly 70 million people suffer through some form of constant or intermittent chronic pain, anyone who experiences it will tell you that it is a very isolated and lonely feeling. While there are days in which it is manageable, there are other days which feel like marathons; where life becomes a test of endurance and hope seems as faraway as the fading light from a distant star. Of all of the effects that chronic pain has on one’s life, perhaps none is harder for me than the spiritual effects.

Some suffering, such as that which comes about as an inevitable result of our disobedient or dangerous actions is easier to understand. Actions have consequences, some of them extremely painful.  The problem for me lies in those unexplained and seemingly unwarranted experiences of suffering. I believe in a God who is loving and good. I also believe in a God that is all-powerful and omnipotent. In Matthew 19:26 Jesus states, “with God, all things are possible.”

It is when I try to merge these two things: my view of God and my personal experience with pain, that I run soul-first into one of the profound mysteries that has plagued mankind throughout its existence. If God is, indeed, all loving, he would not wish his children to suffer. And if God is all-powerful, he is most certainly able to take our pain away. In mathematical terms the equation might look something like this:

Desire + Ability = Action.

In other words: God is loving and God is able, so His love compels that He take our pain away. 

Trying to resolve the spiritual conundrum that the continued presence of chronic pain introduces into this equation might lead us to one of two possible conclusions. Either God is not all-loving or he is not all-powerful. In the case of the former if we conclude that God is not all loving, we must deny God altogether since John 1: 4 clearly states, “God is love”. This indicates that love is not simply an action that God displays; rather it is His character; His very essence. While the evidence of suffering may cause countless people to conclude there is no God, reason guided by experience has led me to conclude otherwise. I not only see evidence of His hand in the world around me, I have experienced Him in my own heart and soul in ways I cannot deny. The second conclusion, summed up by Rabbi Kushner in his best selling book “When Bad Things Happen To Good People”, is that, despite His best intentions, God is powerless to control the world he created. On one hand God lacks the desire; on the other He lacks ability.

But perhaps there is a third option – that our definition of love is much too narrow and limiting. In this case, we become like children who might say to their parents, “If you really love me you wouldn’t make me do my homework, wash behind my ears, or suffer through a myriad of seemingly torturous difficulties.” The truth is, while the parent dearly loves the child, they also know things about the world that the child does not. The wise parent understands that the world is a very difficult and dangerous place and that certain challenges must be introduced into a child’s life in order to prepare and equip them for adulthood. As such, the parent’s goals are, in most cases, totally different from those of the child. For while the child wants nothing more than to play and live a carefree life, the parent wishes to see to it that their child grow in strength and knowledge and ultimately reach maturity.

I’ll admit the analogy is not a perfect one. In the case of human parenting, the goal in a healthy relationship is to see their child ultimately become independent and able to function on their own. In our relationship with God, it is His desire that we become totally dependant upon Him. Total spiritual maturity brings about total dependence upon God and total dependence upon God is not a condition we come to easily and effortlessly. Suffering strips away the sense of self-sufficiency that would keep me from needing Him.

And so, my journey through pain has brought me closer to God, closer than I would ever have gotten in times of comfort and ease because it has driven me to truly search for Him, desiring much more than a mere casual knowledge. For that reason alone, while not always happy, I have learned to find joy through the pain – tiny nuggets of gold hidden in the barren, brittle earth.  And I am truly thankful that, as one who has put his complete trust in the work of redemption Christ accomplished on the cross, I will one day stand in His presence free from all suffering. On that day everything will be made clear and the reason for all things revealed.

I believe, however, that on that glorious day, those things will pale in comparison to the fact that I will see and experience God, the One for whom my weary, homeward-aching heart so constantly yearns.