(This blog is in two parts. The first, below, makes three observations about pain in the life of a believer. The second will comment on how my community encourages me to live and worship well in the midst of my pain. Spoiler, they’re awesome at it!)
It happened again. Another dear friend or family member asked if I was in pain. It always perplexes me how to respond to this. You see, I have a disease (scleroderma) that comes with some odd side-effects. The side-effects are not debilitating, just mildly painful and irritating. They’re simple. A lack of mobility in my limbs, pretty regular sinus blisters on the inside of my nose and sinuses, and a pretty constant sense of dry, tight, and cracked skin on my left foot. So… in one sense, I’m always in pain… but that’s normal. Is that what this compassionate friend is asking? Maybe. Then there are days when a sinus blister pops and bleeds, or my foot flares up in severe pain and I can’t walk without a limp, or I can’t grip anything in my hands and keep dropping things, or I’m laid up with a massive migraine and feel as though I can’t move. Those days are painful and the answer would most certainly be, “wha? Can you turn off the lights? Can I just cease to exist until this passes?” Typically, people don’t ask if you’re in pain when they see you writhing on the floor or wincing in pain. They ask if you’re in pain when your left eye doesn’t open quite as far as your right one. They ask if you’re in pain when you struggle to keep up in a conversation. They ask when they feel as though you’re not yourself… I am often not myself.
Having dealt with a kind of chronic pain for the last 8 years, I’ve come to some simple realizations I’d like to share. These are by no means exhaustive. They are generalizations and might not ALWAYS fit the circumstantial suffering of everyone. But, here goes:
- For the believer, pain is good.
- For the cripple, pain is normal.
- Pain is annoying, but not defeating.
1. For the believer, pain is a good thing. I have heard many preachers cry out that God does not intend for believers to go through pain or painful circumstances. These declarations seem grounded in Scripture as they often follow a verse like Jeremiah 29:11. However, verses such as this can be misconstrued as saying that there will be no suffering for those who live right or those who simply have enough faith. Yet, this interpretation rips these powerful statements from their context and avoids the equally prevalent promises of Jesus such as John 16:33, which promises “tribulation” or “suffering.” The reality is not that we are removed from pain and suffering. Rather, we are placed above it. 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 explains that though we suffer, we are not overcome by that suffering. Indeed, pain is natural and Christians are to use it to our benefit. There are many benefits to suffering/pain… below are three of them.
- Suffering drives us to community. In Galatians, Paul reminds us to cling to community during our suffering (Gal. 6:2).
- Suffering makes us long for glory. (Romans 8:18-25)
- Suffering matures us. (Romans 5:3-5)
2. For the Cripple, pain is normal. I once sat with a godly man who has cerebral palsy. He told me about how often people will apologize to him for his condition and attempt to sympathize with his struggle. He tilted his head and said, “I don’t understand, this is just normal for me.” People who struggle with chronic pain and disease often are simply living in a new normal. While they may occasionally lament the pain, they are existing in a new normal. For the cripple, this is just life. Thus, it is a difficult question to answer when someone asks about pain. Do we say that we are always in pain? Do we suggest that we are not in pain? Are they asking if we are normal right now, or are we especially different at this moment or are they asking about our normal state?
3. Pain is annoying, but not defeating. Chronic pain is annoying but it does not defeat the Christian. While the first point in suffering may lead to our maturity, do not assume that all pain is somehow purposeful. We live in a sin-filled world and sometimes pain just is. Pain is simply a reality of life. It does not require a purpose to exist… It needs no permission from you… Sin exists and therefore suffering exists. Annoying and present, but not victorious. One of the most profound sentiments about suffering was articulated best when a man said, “God does not always take you out of suffering. Often, He places you on a rock ABOVE it!” You see, the suffering is still present. The circumstances are still there, but you have been made to live above the circumstances. Consider Job, who sat in ashes suffering for a great deal of time while waiting on the Lord. Consider the New Testament saints who endured suffering with much rejoicing in the “sharing of Christ’s suffering” (2 Cor. 1:5). Consider further the saints who came after the New Testament, the faithful martyrs of the faith and even the pastors in your own life experience. Pain is not ALWAYS purposeful, but the Christian will always strive to grow through pain.