Category Archives: Health

When treasure fails

Black and white portrait of a very sad old womanHer husband died a couple of years ago, after a long, lingering illness. Left alone in her advanced years, she quickly lost her grip on reality. She tried to drive places, got lost, and was taken back home by the police. She frightened some of her neighbors as they swerved to get out of her path when she careened through the neighborhood. She began verbally abusing her neighbors, shouting and accusing them of stealing her food, her clothes, her mail. She taped threatening notes to their doors, telling them her lawyer would be contacting them soon about those missing clothes.

When the county was alerted by the police, Senior Services came to investigate. She told them sweetly that her neighbors were taking good care of her, and they went on their way. But her neighbors shied away from her abusive nature, instead of “taking good care” of her. Some did try. They brought soup over and shoveled her driveway. But for the most part, they stayed away. Can you blame them?

The story gets worse. Neighbors called her son, who was living in another state. Come and take care of your mother, they urged. But the son, emotionally paralyzed, was unable–or unwilling–to do the right thing. And can you blame him?

His story was told to neighbors by the woman’s husband before he died. The woman was mean, abusive. She abused those around her, all her life. Her son couldn’t get away from home quickly enough once he was grown. Her husband shielded the world from her nasty, abusive temper. His kind, gentle nature was the buffer that everyone saw, and no one suspected what was going on behind closed doors.

But once her husband was gone, that buffer was also gone. The son, paralyzed by his years of torment at the hands of his mother, couldn’t bring himself to deal with his father’s death, nor could he attempt to manage the estate his father had left behind so that his mother could be cared for.

So for a couple of years, the old woman began drifting farther from reality, continuing to shout abuse at her neighbors. She began hallucinating about a big black dog in her house, calling people to say that she was cornered in her bedroom closet, because the dog had chased her there.

Finally Senior Services had done enough research and decided that, because no one was able to take care of her, she would become a ward of the state. She was taken to a nursing home.

The house stood empty until the state took over and put it up for auction–the house and all its contents. The proceeds would go toward her care.

On the day of the auction, the neighborhood was packed. Someone set up a concession stand with hot dogs and water, chips and soda. All the house’s contents sat on tables lining the driveway. The furniture inside was also up for auction. And bit by bit, all the accumulations from the past 30 years were sold off.

“And this box of Tupperware. Who will get the bid started? Two dollars? One?” The auctioneer named the pieces from the home–a porcelain pig. A few cross stitch patterns. An electric fondue pot. On and on, for two hours. And then, finally, the house itself was auctioned.

How sad, how very tragic, that this woman’s life was taken apart and sold, piece by piece, to pay for her long-term care. And even more tragic–the son, who couldn’t bear to bring himself to take care of those details himself, still paralyzed by the abuse he endured all through his childhood.

15 Pile of GutsThe piles of her household goods, sitting on the driveway, reminded me of a few trips we had taken to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf States. One by one, houses were emptied of their contents and left on the curb for disposal, mountains of furniture, clothes, books, and treasure laid bare for everyone to see. Though we were the ones to gut many houses, we averted our eyes from the mangled, moldy contents, such a pile of personal treasure completely ruined. We saw the grief in their owners’ eyes as they watched the years of accumulation reduced to garbage when two weeks of high water destroyed everything.

When what you value in life is ripped away, what is left? When the buffer between you and the world is taken from you, who are you?

The ancient book of Job describes just such a scene. This wealthy man, with many grown children, an abundance of livestock, servants, and treasure, had everything stripped away from him. He was afflicted with pain, illness, and sores all over his body. As he sat on an ash-heap, his wife scornfully advised him, “Curse God and die.”

What would you do? What would you say, if you were Job? He did moan; he groaned aloud, nearly paralyzed by grief and pain. “Has not man a hard service on earth, and are not his days like the days of a hired hand?  Like a slave who longs for the shadow, and like a hired hand who looks for his wages, so I am allotted months of emptiness, and nights of misery are apportioned to me.  When I lie down I say, ‘When shall I arise?’ But the night is long, and I am full of tossing till the dawn. My flesh is clothed with worms and dirt; my skin hardens, then breaks out afresh. My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle and come to their end without hope” (Job 7:1-6).

But Job, even sitting on the ruins of his lost fortune, and grieving the loss of his children and betrayal of his wife, and suffering physical pain as he was, had a deep assurance that there is something–Someone–more, and he invested his trust in that.

Oh that my words were written! Oh that they were inscribed in a book! Oh that with an iron pen and lead they were engraved in the rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me! If you say, “How we will pursue him!” and, “The root of the matter is found in him,”  be afraid of the sword, for wrath brings the punishment of the sword, that you may know there is a judgment. (Job 19:23-29; emphasis mine)

Life is hard; cruelties abound. Experience proves that we cannot rest our faith in our treasure, and that people will let us down. So when all around you fails, where do you place your trust and your faith? Job declared out loud that his faith was in God, and his faith never wavered, even in the midst of the worst kind of horrors. Be assured that there is only One who keeps His promises (“I will never leave nor forsake you,” Joshua 1:5) and who will never leave or forsake you, if you have placed your trust in Him.

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Talk to me.

Talking with someone who has a chronic health condition

I hurried past the pastor’s office, where I could see him sitting at work. I was there to meet my husband, who was working with the worship minister on a Saturday morning.

“How’re you doing?” the pastor called.

I gave a little wave, hurried past his door, and said what I always say: “Okay!”

He called even more insistently. “Come in here and tell me how you REALLY are.”

I am one of those people with chronic, nearly-unremitting pain. It’s exhausting, grinding, mind-numbing pain. But I don’t often share with other people how I’m feeling. I resist mainly because it’s a long story. I hate seeing the look of sympathy in other people’s eyes. I don’t want to bore anyone, nor do I want to draw attention to myself. So I give a pat answer.

But the pastor was not interested in that. He was genuinely concerned, and I walked in, sat down, and answered his question in more depth. And afterward my day went a little more cheerfully.

A few days later I sat down with a friend over coffee. She has a chronic health condition and is frequently in bed all day with pain. She and I don’t need to talk much about how we feel. We understand that it’s not our favorite topic, and we both hurt a lot of the time, so we talk about other things. The nice part of this friendship is that if one of us cancels on coffee because of pain, the other truly understands!

This brings up a topic I’ve read about here and there, and it bears repeating. How do you talk with someone who has a chronic health condition?

  • Though our illnesses may vary, we still live among healthy people who may or may not really care to hear the full story when they are asking, “How’re you?” Thus the reason we may breeze past you with an easy “I’m okay.” If you honestly do want to hear how I’m feeling today, take the time to look me in the eye and ask, “How are you REALLY doing today?” I appreciate it when you pause to listen. I don’t judge you if you don’t.
  • When you propose some activity and I turn you down–even again and again–it probably isn’t because I dislike your company. It might actually be that the activity will drain me of my last energy reserves for the day or the week. It’s why I don’t commit to regular activities, like weekly Bible studies or book clubs. If I do, I usually end up canceling often, and that comes off as inconsiderate. (I hate letting people down.)
  • This blog contains a great story by a woman with lupus, who found a way to express to a friend how she must carefully consider her energy every time she must do something during the day. I like the analogy she uses, and I believe it’s appropriate for anyone with a chronic condition and with limited energy reserves. A couple of my friends understand the spoon analogy, and all I have to do is tell them I’m out of spoons for the day. They get it.
  • Just because I look okay–meaning I am dressed, have makeup on, my hair is brushed, and I’m walking–doesn’t always mean I am well today. But I am here, and participating in life, and glad to be doing it. (You might not know that I nap when I get home. But at least I was there!) I still carry around a burden of pain, nearly all the time, every day, even though I don’t always show it. (Remember that although we have a chronic health condition, we still love to laugh, shop, go to movies, take an occasional walk. Getting out and about doesn’t mean I am suddenly healed. It may very well mean I have a few spoons left today.)
  • “What can I do for you?” some may ask me. Sometimes I honestly don’t know. You can’t fix me a meal, because I have several dietary restrictions, and I feel like that’s too burdensome for an unsuspecting person to take on. So if you have a good idea, run it by me and I’ll tell you what I think. It might mean you can pick me up for a trip to the store or vacuum my floor. The little things help.
  • I wish I had a dollar for every time some well-meaning person approaches me with a story of a friend or relative who has a chronic condition. They will tell me about a new exercise, treatment, dietary supplement, or doctor. Really, I DO know that your story comes from a very caring place. It’s just that I have probably heard that before, or have already tried it, or have read that the treatment you mentioned is just a bunch of hokum. For the most part, I’m not going to run out and try your theory (I’m not going to run anywhere…), but I might look it up if I haven’t heard it before.
  • Please understand if I don’t want to talk about it. Sometimes I just want to cry, and I’d rather not make such a mess of myself. If I tell you I don’t want to talk about it, I really don’t. Understand that this might be a very bad day, and I’m doing my best just to keep it all together.
  • Sometimes you might see me on a particularly bad day, when it’s hard to keep it all together. Give me a gentle hug if you want–but please make it gentle, since everything hurts. Offer me a smile and mention me in your prayers. If you must, buy me some coffee (decaf, since I also have chronic fatigue) or chocolate (if it works with my diet), or loan me a good movie.
  • Look me in the eye and tell me you care. It lifts my spirits and helps me when I am low.

 

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On dealing with pain

puppyA walk with my dogs gives me a picture of two opposite ways to view the world. Digory, the oldest, a terrier mix, is fearful and neurotic. He’s just a mess. Dobby is our cockapoo puppy, just learning how to walk on a leash. I can read their minds.

Digory: “Your feet are scary. Scary leaf. Scary water in gutter. Yikes–a dead squirrel! Eek–another dog. Scary sticks. Watch out for rocks. Ack–a car!”

Dobby: “Watch how fast I can stay ahead of you! Oh boy–a leaf to chase! Mmm, green water tastes great. Mom! Can I take the furry, stinky chew toy home? Look, look–a new friend! Wait for me! I’m tasting this rock! Oooh–a stick! Can I chase this big car?” He found a tennis ball on one of his walks and wouldn’t let me pass it by. Digory has seen many of those fuzzy round green monsters before, since our walk takes us by two tennis courts, and he makes a wide path around those scary things. Not so for Dobby.

Not to wax philosophical for too long about dogs with very little brains, I can see how their human counterparts can tend toward similar, widely disparate responses. My poor neurotic terrier (he really is a sad case) greets every challenge with fear and worry. And the little puppy finds adventure (and things to chew) around every corner. To him, as with many humans, even dark days have a few bright spots.

I’d like to think I’m like the latter, even though I am far from my puppy days. I don’t like dwelling on the negative for long, I don’t carry grudges (not very many of them, anyway), and I’d rather focus on the positives than reinforce the negatives. And in every situation, no matter how grim, I like to find the bright spots and remind myself of them from time to time.

It’s been two years or more since a huge spike in pain from fibromyalgia sent me on a round of doctors, including the Mayo Clinic, to seek answers. I’ve learned so much about pain and about myself. I rarely like to dwell on the negatives, but if my experiences can help a few people, so much the better. This ongoing “journey” through pain–because it hasn’t ended–might be a helpful bit of instruction for someone else. And it might help you to find the positives dotting a landscape that might be full of dreariness.

Pain does a strange thing to the body. Neurologists can tell you better than I, but my experience showed me that when a person’s physical pain increases, it affects all sorts of other areas. The brain may not be able to process it all. My memory suffered, my vocabulary shrank (I often couldn’t find the words), I didn’t sleep very many hours at a time, and I couldn’t work. I was dizzy from reactions to medicines (the journey to find the right meds is a whole other story); I became anxious and depressed. I couldn’t hold a pen, carry my purse, lift a laundry basket.

So what did we do about it? One doctor after another threw their hands up in the air and sent me on to other doctors. This taught us to be careful in choosing a doctor, asking questions up front about what they know and are prepared to help with. Some, but not all neurologists are prepared to help. Some, but not all rheumatologists are able or willing to help. Some, but not all chiropractors have a holistic view of fibromyalgia. And so forth. Because fibromyalgia exhibits differently in different people, doctors need to help assess the best path for each patient, and it might not look the same for everyone.

So let me give you a list of what helped me through my “journey.” (I really hate that word. Let’s try to find another.)

1. Carefully search for the doctor who is prepared to help. Ask whether they have many fibro patients, and whether they’ve been able to help many of them. Ask whether they are willing to consider natural methods as well as chemical. I found relief from chiropractics and from a method proposed by the Neurologic Relief Centers. (Anything I recommend medically comes to you with no guarantees. I’m just telling you about what has worked for me.)

2. Some fibro is relieved by eliminating certain foods, and you may want to experiment by using an elimination diet. For me, avoiding wheat and corn helps not only with the digestive issues common to fibro (not-so-pleasantly referred to as Irritable Bowel), but with some level of pain control–some of the time. Living gluten- and corn-free is not easy, but it’s definitely doable, especially when the alternative is painful. One doctor told me that most grains and dairy foods are rough on fibro patients. I can handle some dairy, sparingly.

3. Find a good psychiatrist. Fibromyalgia is often closely related to depression. I don’t know if it is a chicken-and-egg situation; did depression come first, or is it an effect of fibro? At any rate, many fibro patients need an anti-depressant to help manage the pain and depression. While a family doctor can help with some ailments, he or she may not know all the ins and outs of medicines related to depression. Interestingly, my psychiatrist experimented with different pain management meds in combination with anti-depressants, to find the right balance for me. I will not go into the meds that caused me more trouble than they helped, because everyone reacts differently. Just keep working to find the right balance, and find someone who will listen and who is willing to work with you.

4. Find a good counselor.  Sometimes fibro sufferers have emotional pain that exacerbates the physical pain, or vice versa. Talk with a counselor who can help you work through whatever has caused you to suffer emotionally.

5. Read up on fibromyalgia. It’s helpful to find other people who can talk to you about how they manage their condition. The Mayo Clinic has some educational information on their web site. Some organizations like the National Fibromyalgia Association have  newsletters with articles by doctors and fibro sufferers, so you won’t feel so alone.

6. Sleep. Chronic fatigue syndrome is also linked with fibromyalgia. (Isn’t it a delightful condition?) A good psychiatrist will help you with that as well. I learned that long naps are not so helpful, because they will mess up my nighttime routine. But a 20-30-minute nap will refresh me if my pain is running a bit too high.

7. Be willing to say no. I have a tendency to take on too much, whether work, or volunteer, or travel/tourist activities. Learn from your mistakes. Don’t plan on too many things at once. Allow yourself to decline invitations or even say no to other people’s expectations of you. Build some resting times in between the activities. I have to admit, this is the hardest one for me right now, because I have always been a pleaser. I hate disappointing people. So I’m preaching to myself right now: stop thinking you have to do everything/be everything. Say no, and be okay with it.

8. Find rest for your soul. This is the most important point, and I probably should have led with it. You can find all sorts of articles relating to “spirituality and pain” on the internet. But I want to go farther and emphasize that it is God alone–God the Father, the creator of the universe–who provides the answers to those suffering from pain. I encourage you to seek Him, run to Him, and find rest. Psychologist Phil Monroe at biblical.edu encourages sufferers in the following manner:

“The chronic pain sufferer who grieves well

  • asks God for relief
  • stays in community with others
  • seeks relief through human means yet has an attitude of waiting on the Lord, and
  • explores and confront[s] hidden sin in self that the pain may reveal.”

I can’t agree enough with this. Find someone who can pray with you, read Psalms to you, take you to church.

Learning how to wait on the Lord is not the easiest thing. For a very long time I tried to figure out what I had done wrong. Surely, I thought, if I pray the right prayer and show God that I have done all He wants me to do, He will find me worthy and heal me. I finally understood that there’s nothing I can do to seem more worthy, or to heal my spiritual self. My broken condition is also the human condition. Nothing I can do or say, no prayer of mine, can save me or heal me. That’s the bad news AND the good news, all at once, because the other side of the coin is that God alone saves; it is He who sets the captives free, and there is nothing I can do to save myself.

What has this got to do with my chronic pain? Everything. When I learned that I cannot save myself, I also began to learn how to wait on the Lord. The process of waiting isn’t yet another thing to do on a list I can check off. It’s a daily walk–praying, meditating on God’s word, and resting. Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29 ESV). It’s discovering God will hold you, hide you from the storm that’s raging: “For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock” (Psalm 27:5). You can read a couple other blogs of mine that address this attitude of waiting on the Lord, here, here, and here.

So there may be something to that earlier analogy of the dogs’ views of the world. Will I choose to focus on the dark and scary side, or will I find the bright and promising side? In all things, even in this long, painful storm, I see promise and hope, and I want you to also.

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Looking to myself for healing

Not to be overly dramatic, but pain has been my companion for most of my adult life. It has gotten immeasurably worse in the past year, and finally I have a diagnosis of fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. The name doesn’t do much to improve my healing, but at least I know it’s nothing else, and I can focus on how to live with what the doctors call a “neuro-muscular” disorder.

The pain, on a scale of 0-10 where 10 is unspeakable, knock-you-unconscious, reached an 8 at times. The mind can only take so much pain before it becomes confused, trying to cope with so much input. I couldn’t think straight much of the time, lost my words and my concentration, could not read or finish sentences when talking.

And I became depressed. My mind began wandering into unhealthy and unhelpful patterns of thinking. Friends and family had to remind me that I was ill, that this was not my fault, that it was going to get better. I couldn’t think past the pain or the idea that somehow I had brought this on myself.

Some of my unhealthy thought processes cycled around on the theme of “gotta pull myself up by my boot straps and make myself—force myself—to get well again.” That was futile thinking, and perhaps even damaging thinking, to imagine that I had brought this on, and I alone could make this go away.

Suffering from pain on and off for much of my adult life, I had been under the impression that I could bring myself out of this pain, if only. If only I prayed differently. If only I could find the unconfessed sin in my life and repent of it. If only I had a closer relationship with God. Those, I learned, are lies designed to keep me imprisoned in my own feelings of guilt and inadequacy—looking to myself for my healing.

Yet these were some of the things good church-going people were telling me, and those thoughts stem from prosperity gospel preaching. “Name it and claim it” preaching teaches that if you pray the right prayer and believe that you were meant to receive all the good things God has stored up for you on earth, you will get all those things NOW. I may be oversimplifying, but this is the teaching of many popular preachers (Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, TD Jakes) these days, and it has crept into the evangelical church.

In that way of thinking, then, I can state that I will be well, and pray the right prayers, and believe that it is true, and I will be well. If I do not get well, then, it is my fault. What a harmful, damaging lie! Yet this was ingrained in me.

My background is filled with this kind of experience. Of people quizzing me about how I am praying and what I pray for, perplexed as to my continued pain since there were so many prayers. To continue in pain, then, is obviously my fault, because I did something wrong, or didn’t do enough of the right thing, or didn’t pray the right prayer. Yes, I was even told that I wasn’t praying right!

Pastor Russell Moore talks about the heresy of the prosperity gospel, and I paraphrase here: “If you want to know whether you are following Christ, look to your life. So says the prosperity gospel. The problem is that all who preach the prosperity gospel, as well as all other human begins, will end up dead one day. Some will fall ill and suffer.” Then where is their gospel?

Is it my fault, then, when the pain comes back? This has taken me on a path to explore what I know to be true about God. He is sovereign. He does not need me to DO anything in order to receive his blessings. There is no formula to follow—only believe. I don’t need more faith. I have faith. I don’t need to pray a formula in order to gain more prosperity or more health or blessings. I don’t need the Prayer of Jabez or some other prosperity fad. I need God’s sovereignty.

The job of healing me is God’s, if he chooses. And if he does not?

Then God, being sovereign, will provide for me in every way he sees fit. In this I identify with the Apostle Paul, who found himself with a physical illness or pain. “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12: 8-10).The power of God is greater than my pain.

And here is the vital point: in this experience God got my full attention. This pain is teaching me much more about myself, and my faith, and my God, than I would have learned free from pain. My life may be poor in health, but it is still very rich in blessings.

So if I do not get healed in this life—if my pain continues for the rest of my life on earth—is this my fault or because of my inability to fix my condition? No: God is sovereign. He is good, rich in mercy, and has saved me not because of me, but because of him. And I know that the final healing will come, when I see my redeemer face to face.

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Lessons from Job

My signature has changed.

That may not sound like much, but if you think about it, it’s pretty significant. I have lived with such tremendous pain for several months, that several physical changes have resulted.

Some are (I hope) temporary. Like the long-term dizziness and brain fog I’m experiencing. The fog kept me from reading too much at one time, or even finishing my thoughts completely. My family and friends have begun to finish my sentences for me in conversations.  (I actually typed a partial sentence here and couldn’t remember what I meant to say…)

The dizziness keeps me from walking too much, too quickly. Does pain make you dizzy? I guess it does, because drugs or no drugs, my head spins at unexpected times. That is ebbing away this past week, so I hope that the worst of my dizzy days are behind me.

Now for my signature. Chronic pain changes so many things. My strength is gone; stamina too. Holding a pen or pencil is an exercise in pain. When I need to sign a form at a doctor’s office or a charge at a store, I notice how jumpy my signature is. I no longer have the ability to control that pen the way I used to, and I do not recognize my own handwriting. Take notes in church? Forget it. This from the woman who is a writer, who has lived with a callous on the middle finger of her writing hand since high school. Pain has changed nearly everything. Nearly.

On those forms I need to fill out for each new doctor I visit, I must answer myriad questions about what my pain is like. Has your appetite changed? Your sleeping habits? Your temperament? Are you depressed? Talk about writer’s cramp. I could say a lot, but since I can’t hold a pen long, I must be brief.

Nearly everything has changed, as I said. I’ve lost a lot of weight, about which I do not complain. I had been only sleeping 1-2 hours at a time, until the doctor relented and gave me some drugs to help me sleep. Now I can make it until pain wakes me up at 5 or 5:30.

Depressed? Indeed. Wouldn’t you be depressed if you lived with unrelenting pain, 24/7? Depression is something I never thought I’d succumb to, but here I am. I can identify with Job, who lamented the day he was born. He sat in the ashes and scraped his sores, feeling sorry for himself. And who could blame him?

As for the temperament question, I asked friends and family if I had become irritable or if they had noticed my mood changed. No, they all agreed, but you are low in spirit. Again, who could blame me? But I am glad I haven’t given in to beating up on the people I love the most. Nor have I cursed God. Job’s wife told him to “curse God and die,” something he never gave in to.

Job lost everything. First his property, then his family, and finally his health. In all of it, Job never lost his faith. He lamented loudly, cursed the day he was born, wished that God would just end his misery (but never contemplated ending his own life), and debated with his friends over the cause of suffering. Yet he knew, in the depth of his soul, that God is good and that God is his redeemer.

As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, And at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, Yet from my flesh I shall see God; Whom I myself shall behold, And whom my eyes will see and not another. My heart faints within me! (Job 19:25-27)

I began learning from Job when I was 15. Then my dad was in an irreversible coma, and we existed in a black wasteland, awaiting word that his body had finally given up. I lamented, naturally, and a family friend told me to read Job. Not many people can tell you that Job saved them, but I believe that God put me right in the middle of Job again and again over the next few years. He strengthened my faith while I watched Job’s tormented cries. He reassured me when I read God’s answer to Job and his friends. I loved seeing Job hang tenaciously on to his faith, despite what his friends said or did, and despite what state his tormented mind and body was in.

I’m reading Job again, which should not surprise those closest to me. This time I’m digging into the footnotes and commentary in the Lutheran Study Bible. Luther said something amazing:

When faith begins, God does not forsake it; He lays the holy cross on our backs to strengthen us and to make faith powerful in us… Where suffering and the cross are found, there the Gospel can show and exercise its power. It is a Word of life. Therefore it must exercise all its power in death. In the absence of dying and death it can do nothing, and no one can become aware that it has such power and is stronger than sin and death.

Again, another footnote from the Lutheran Study Bible, regarding Job 3, provides some encouragement:

Even the most optimistic people will reach despair when overwhelmed by pain and suffering, as the examples of prisoners of war demonstrate. The mind snaps just as bones do. Scripture does not teach that death is a friend to those who suffer–death is always an enemy (1 Cor 15:26), but one overcome by the Lord. Commend those who despair to Jesus, who likewise cried, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46) and rose from the dead to say, “Peace be with you” (John 20:21).

So just as in my teens I found solace in Job, and agreed with him that “my Redeemer lives,” and in my 20s when I lost a baby and despaired, now in this stage of my life when I am living through the most difficult pain I have ever experienced, I can still say with Job, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” (Job 13:15). Why can I say that? Because I lean on a verse from my other “favorite” book of the Bible, John. “I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:28). I am His, firmly in His grip.

So my signature has changed. Many things have changed for me. Maybe I won’t be able to live the same way I had before this chronic pain has taken over. But one thing I know for sure: my God is good. “The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness. ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I have hope in Him.’ The LORD is good to those who wait for Him, To the person who seeks Him. It is good that he waits silently For the salvation of the LORD” (Lamentations 3:22-26). I have learned that my suffering is not all about me; this is not my story. It is God’s.

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Learning from pain

For a few years now I have lived with chronic pain. As it has gotten worse lately, I have had the opportunity to observe some things about living with pain. I am still learning to embrace what I’m observing, but it seemed like a good time to share them.

Living in pain messes with your mind, blows up your perspective. I don’t share this as a bit of wisdom; this comes from realizing that prolonged periods of pain cause me to think in ways I wouldn’t normally think. For example, I begin to doubt myself and question myself much more. I am much more given to despair.

Thus the need to remind myself–and for friends and family to remind me–of the truth. If I am doubting or despairing, I know I need a few things: a nap, a cup of tea, and some time with God’s word. I read the Psalms and Job and the Gospels for comfort, and often find myself in Ephesians or Corinthians for encouragement. Nothing like a good dose of truth to set my mind right again.

Pain is part of living in a fallen world. Sin affects everyone and every thing in this world. Romans 8:14 reminds us that all of creation groans, a result of the Fall. That means sickness and pain, sin and storms, poverty and wars happen all around the world, and they will keep happening until Christ returns. Knowledge of this doesn’t necessarily make my pain any easier to face, but it is the truth, and when in pain it is good to know it’s common to humans.

Chronic pain–pain that does not end–makes me want to hide. However, one friend asked me, “Where do you run to?” People have a tendency to run to drugs, alcohol, anger. They push away the very people who love them the most. Where do I run? When I am devastated, in pain, and I want to run, I open the Psalms. In the third Psalm, David cries out about his enemies all about him. However, he reminds himself: “But you, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. I cried aloud to the LORD,    and he answered me from his holy hill” (Ps 3:3-4). Somehow the picture of God putting a finger under my chin and lifting my head gives me great comfort when I am in terrible pain.

Pain sometimes screams so loudly that it is the most important thing in the room. So I occupy myself with something else. An old (funny) movie, a light-reading book, a puzzle or deck of cards will distract me well enough that soon I am thinking about something other than this dratted pain.

Pain has taught me to accept help. This may sound odd, but I am very good at giving, but not too good at receiving. Are you ill? Need a meal? Need me to sit with you? I’m there. But when I need help and someone offers, I am embarrassed or insistent that I can do it myself. However, a good friend has patiently taught me to sit still and accept the help that is offered. In fact, allowing myself to be served is allowing the body of Christ to do what it should be doing.

Here’s what a pastor just posted to his blog about suffering and pain:

Another purpose that trials can serve is preparing us to comfort those who will suffer in similar ways in future.  Paul writes in 2 Cor 1:3-4, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.  Pain trains us to help others who suffer.  Who can serve a parent who has lost a child better than another parent who has lost a child?  Who can come alongside one enslaved to a besetting sin more effectively than another who has struggled with the same issue?  When we go through that training ground, we are actually getting the same instruction Christ did – He is able to help us because He endured all the trials and temptations of we have.  When [we] use our experience to help others, we follow in His footsteps.

Most importantly, I learn how to cling ever closer to my Lord and Savior. I cannot heal myself. I don’t know if I will see an end to my pain in this life–I hope I do. But I know who is my Redeemer, and I know that He will restore me one day. And I can share that knowledge with others who suffer too. Somehow pain doesn’t scream so loudly when I focus on someone other than myself.

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Filed under Biblical Worldview, Health, Pain and suffering