2nd Year Moore College student, Peter Hynes, explores how the church family can care for and lift up those who are enduring the physical, emotional and spiritual distress of chronic pain.
Serving Silent Sufferers
At church, we have a godly elderly lady who has been suffering with chronic pain for many years. In her thirties, she lost her job as a nurse because of it. However, she told me that the hardest thing for her was when she had to drop the thing she loved most, serving God in a Christian youth camp.
Her story isn’t unusual among believers, nor is the struggle to find acceptance in the midst of such constant pain. As Christians, we are all called to support one another. How can we help those suffering with chronic pain on their journey from denial to acceptance?
In this short article, we will look at some of the specific problems afflicting people with chronic pain, at how the Bible helps us understand such pain, and at some practical applications for ministry.
Living with pain
For people with chronic pain, simple things become mountains to climb. Chronic pain sufferers describe it as living with a reluctant body or like being trapped in a cage. Their body stops them from doing many of the normal things other people take for granted. It is even worse when their pain has no easily identifiable cause or treatment, as is often the case.
All of this often creates a discontinuity between past and present—between the healthy self that the sufferer once was, and the incapacitated self they see in the mirror. What they took pride in or was dear to them gets taken away: job, independence, hobbies, relationships. This is often devastating for someone’s sense of personal identity. Over time, chronic pain sufferers often feel helpless and trapped in negative cycles.
To make things worse, as they are forced to adjust to a less active and more dependant life, they feel a degree of shame. Self-esteem plummets, guilt sets in, to the point where some start even hating themselves. Strain is put on every relationship, inside and outside the family.
The biblical background to chronic pain
The Bible has a lot to say about suffering. Suffering can be as (1) a consequence of sin, either personal sin or (2) because of the fall. It can also be because of (3) persecution, or as (4) a means of discipline.
Suffering as a means of discipline is a category that stands separate to the others. Like suffering because of persecution, it is specific to the people of God, (Heb 12:5-12). God does indeed use suffering as a means to achieve his goals. That is why we need to maintain the right attitude of submission as we face suffering (1 Peter 5:6). God may be shouting to us in our sufferings, to rouse us out of our deafness, he may be teaching us to cling all the more to him, to be more dependent upon him (2 Cor 12:7).
However, we need to be careful of applying this too quickly to chronic pain—as if we might know what God is specifically teaching us through our ongoing suffering. As demonstrated in both the story of Job, and of the man born blind (in John 9), it is a mistake to quickly or glibly draw a conclusion or a lesson from someone’s suffering. In fact, it can be a way of spiritualising or relativising the evilness of suffering by giving it a purpose that may not be there. The motivation to jump to this conclusion is that it is not suffering that destroys a person, but suffering without a purpose. And so we look for a specific purpose, even though that purpose is not revealed to us.
Chronic pain is best thought of as being one of the ongoing consequences of the corruption and decay of our world (Rom 8:18-27). It can teach and discipline us, as all pain and suffering can, to turn to God and put our trust in him, even though we may not be able to discern any particular cause or purpose for our suffering.
In all of this, the best comfort is Jesus Christ. In the Gospels we never hear that he suffered from the natural consequences of the fall. Rather he walked among people afflicted by pain and suffering of all kinds, showing compassion towards them. He not only healed the unclean, he touched them. The pain he suffered in his body was all the consequence of other people’s sins. The suffering servant in Isaiah 53 shows the extent of what happened. He knew what sickness is, because he knew what sinless creation was. He knew what pain and sickness were because he carried ours himself. The solution to man’s crisis of hopelessness, helplessness and despair lies in the crucified Christ, who suffered precisely the same helplessness on our behalf (2 Cor 5:21).
Ministering to people with chronic pain
We must first recognise that everyone is different in their response to grief, and chronic pain sufferers go through similar predictable stages. The stages vary but move from denial to acceptance. Our task is to accompany them along this difficult journey. We must give space and time for weeping, help the sufferer to trust in the face of profound mystery and never stop praying.
One thing we must continually remind the afflicted is that Christianity offers the greatest and most satisfying basis for hope. We believe in a personal God who gave himself for us. We have the hope of the resurrection to true life.
We must be strong on the theological issues that are under attack; the goodness, the sovereignty, the justice and the love of God.
We also need to deal graciously with any sentiments of guilt. This may arise from the loss of capacity. The desire to serve may still be strong but the body won’t cooperate. Guilt may also arise (quite rightly) from sin, such as seeking relief in the wrong places. When living in constant pain one can be lured into temptation by an offer of short relief. Grace doesn’t come cheap, and we mustn’t ignore sin. However, God does freely forgive the repentant sinner, and longs for his return.
What many people find particularly hard about chronic pain is not only the apparent purposelessness of the suffering but also its open-endedness—not knowing when (or if) it will end or where relief is to be found. As such, pain is a vivid reminder of the reality of hell (Luke 16:19-31). Although relief should be sought wherever it is possible, suffering can draw us closer to God. We grow in love and thankfulness as we become aware of what we have been saved from (Luke 7:36-50).
It is here that we experience our greatest treasure. By nature, we seek our identity in the things we do or have. When these are stripped away, we are left with what is our only true identity, the only one that really counts; our identity in Christ. While we may be feeling that God is abandoning us, Jesus experienced the real absence of God for us.
As Christians we have a great and sure hope in eternity. Yet we mustn’t neglect shorter term hope either. God will restore the sufferer. It may be in this life time (John 5:5-9) or in the life to come (Rev. 21:4). Hope can be found in searching the promises of God and helping people find their worth in him. Although it is also encouraging to help chronic pain sufferers by helping them set goals and find new areas of ministry, we mustn’t forget to give them assurance that God will keep them (Rom 8:31-39), that he will not let them be tempted beyond what they can bear (1 Cor. 10:13). This means that he promises to give strength for today (2Cor 12:9-10).
We conclude with what Martin Luther so insightfully saw— that when we look at the appalling spectacle of Christ dying on the cross, we are forced to concede that God does not appear to be revealed there at all. And yet, is there anywhere in history where God was more intimately involved in his creation?
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