Processing Suffering, Pt. 1

job-suffering
This image is from The Misery of Job and The Mercy of God by John Piper

About 4 or 5 years ago I was afflicted with an odd disease. This disease causes a lack of movement (flexibility) in the specific affected limbs, weird hardened red patches on my skin (seriously they feel like plastic), occasional swelling, often severe nerve pain, and constant muscle fatigue. Sometimes I have to use a cane and walking any significant distance is always painful. Oddly enough, I feel privileged to be afflicted. You see, I know the God of the universe and He has seen fit to give me the delight of non-debilitating suffering (but that is for a later blog). I’ve learned more about people, patience, empathy, and leadership than I know what to do with. In all that time I’ve been comforted by some, annoyed by others, and surprised by my own heart more than I care to admit. My feelings about this struggle are often convoluted and confused. Sometimes there is a moment of clarity and in an effort to process those moments I’m going to share here. Hopefully my clear moments can help you in some of your cloudy moments.

The most common question I was asked by pastor friends after being diagnosed was, “what are you learning?” Although well meaning, this question often frustrated me. In the moment, I couldn’t tell you why this frustrated me… it is a very reasonable question, especially to ask a Christian. As I have pondered why this bothered me I’ve come to a few conclusions.

  1. This question spiritualized what is real physical suffering. While these good men meant well, they asked a question that seemed to dismiss the chronic pain that I was struggling to deal with. Pain that would probably come and go the rest of my life. This question reduced my pain to a set of life lessons and assumed that all suffering is something you must be able to learn from. In truth, sometimes life just stinks and there is nothing to learn from it. Sometimes you’ll be covered in boils or experience death for no other reason than the fact that sin and death exist. Indeed, I have learned a great deal. But I cannot reduce my suffering to measured bites for you to chew on. What I was feeling was real, painful, and constant. What they were asking me to do was to reduce that to a set of expressible truths that could be packaged for them to understand.
  2. This question seemed to dismiss the pain I was struggling to overcome. Asking someone who is dealing with chronic pain to open up about what they are learning is kind of like asking someone if they can take dictation while riding a horse. They’ve just figured out how to stay on the horse and now you want them to write a letter? What God reveals to suffering people is often so overwhelming that it is difficult to process and even more difficult to explain to people who don’t or haven’t suffered. If you want to help, take a note from Job’s friends… just be around, don’t say anything. It is when we start to talk that we get ourselves in trouble.
  3. This question assumed that I was at a point in my journey where I was ready to learn, or at least be pushed to consider deeper truths of suffering. However, chronic pain is not like a text book. You don’t simply read the chapter and assimilate the knowledge. You will constantly walk up-hill learning through exhaustion and exasperation. You will take a thousand steps before you realize the correct method of handling your pain. You will struggle to maintain… this is suffering with chronic pain. It stinks and it is long.
  4. Finally, this question makes me feel abnormal or like I am supposed to be something more. When suffering becomes common place and chronic in someone’s life, the one suffering must realize that this is now normal. Chronic pain becomes a part of everyday life and at some point you simple learn to ignore it. I remember sitting with an elderly man who struggled with chronic pain. I told him about my issues and when he shared with me what it was that he dealt with, I said, “That sounds annoying.” He shrugged and said, “it is what it is.” That is exactly how I feel! I know I should have some tremendous insight and lofty wisdom about glorification. However, in reality… I’m a normal guy and it is what it is.

Ok, so this question irritated me. So how do we help each other process pain then? Just four simple things.

  1. Just be around. Suffering people don’t need prodding or advice or wise sayings to hang on to, we just need you. Come, sit, and be with those who are suffering.
  2. Tell me what you are learning from Scripture. Seriously… read your bible and grow then show me.
  3. Laugh with them. This is critical. Suffering people need to laugh. One of the greatest delights I have had when suffering is when someone led me to think on unrelated humorous things. To laugh, this is the greatest medicine.
  4. I have a small group that prays for me constantly. They have prayed for years that the Lord would remove this thorn and for years I have kept it. Yet, their prayers for me are a dear reminder that I am not alone in my suffering. I have people around me who care and long to see me better.

I intend to share more about my personal journey so this is titled part 1. I have no idea how many parts there will be. So… we’ll see.

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