The Problem of Pain & Suffering

When pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all. ~ C. S. Lewis

photo by Liza Summer

As we finally begin to welcome a few clear, crisp days of autumn in our area, my personal pain level rises as the temperatures lower. It’s nothing new; fibromyalgia and arthritis don’t like cooler temperatures, despite my love for this season. The majority of us take pain as a personal insult, especially when it becomes chronic. Pain, whether physical or mental, is a problem.

An interruption…and definitely not on the schedule.

There would be various answers if you were to interview a group of people who live with chronic pain or ongoing mental anguish. However, the majority would likely tell you that this type of pain is a game-changer,

a dream-thief,

and a life-stealer.

Unfortunately, for 20.5% of Americans – or 50.2 million people, pain is a daily reality.

photo by Ron Lach

Effects of Chronic Pain

Many studies have shown the far-reaching effects of chronic pain on the body, brain and emotions.

Sadly, chronic pain is often associated with other health conditions such as anxiety and depression, resulting in a low health-related quality of life.

Living with daily pain is physically and emotionally stressful. Chronic stress is known to change the levels of stress hormones and neurochemicals found within your brain and nervous system; these can affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Disrupting your body’s balance of these chemicals can bring on depression in some people.

photo by Cottonbro

Chronic pain can also have long-lasting effects on the brain.

When you have acute pain, your symptoms stop when your injury heals. This happens naturally because your peripheral nervous system stops sending pain signals to your spinal cord and brain.

If you have chronic pain, however, your pain receptors continue firing. With all of the constant messaging, your brain becomes overwhelmed, causing changes in both emotional and cognitive areas of your brain:

  • thalamus remains open to keep routing the pain signals, which can lead to more intense and heightened feelings of discomfort.
  • The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain responsible for managing social behaviors, personality, and emotions. When it experiences excessive activity in response to chronic pain signals, neurons in this region can die, causing this part of your brain to shrink. As a result, you can experience higher states of anxiety, fear, and worry as your prefrontal cortex becomes unable to manage these emotions properly.
  • Your hippocampus is a small structure in your brain responsible for forming new memories, learning, and emotion. Living with long-term pain can shrink this important area, causing increased anxiety and problems with your memory and learning.

Consequently, pain like this can be equated with a deep, dark hole of physical and emotional darkness.

photo by Liza Summer

Emotional Fall-Out

As mentioned earlier, people who live with daily pain, especially severe pain, are highly susceptible to anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. In fact, nearly half of the people who see doctors for chronic pain report emotional health problems, as well. Therefore, it is extremely important to address these issues as soon as they arise.

Remember that you are not atypical, oversensitive, or weak for experiencing emotional distress because of pain. These are normal, reasonable responses to physical suffering and its associated limitations.

It’s a vicious cycle. Hurting people see their doctors for pain relief, but fail to tell them of their depression. The undiagnosed depression can lead to lack of appetite, sleeplessness, lack of energy, which all make the pain worse. And so the cycle goes.

Be completely honest with your doctors, my friends. Get ALL the help and relief you need.

Another Perspective of Pain & Suffering

But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

C. S. Lewis, The Problem Of Pain, p. 83

Truly, when our lives are running seamlessly, we have little need of God. Oh, if we’re practicing Christians, we likely go through the rituals and routines of Christianity, but when we are satisfied with our lives, it’s secretly difficult to think that there is something to surrender to God, isn’t it?

If the first and lowest operation of pain shatters the illusion that all is well, the second shatters the illusion that what we have, whether good or bad in itself, is our own and enough for us. Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well with us. We “have all we want” is a terrible saying when “all” does not include God. We find God an interruption. As St. Augustine says somewhere, “God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full…”

C. S. Lewis, The Problem Of Pain, p. 85

At times, the upside-down kingdom of heaven is difficult for us to grasp. In order to shatter our illusion of self-sufficiency, our Father is willing to allow pain into our lives, for it is indeed a bugle call. Notice that I said allow, not cause because there is a vast difference.

photo by Steven Arenas

Why Pain & Suffering?

When I worked as a hospital chaplain, I was often asked the “Why” question: Why did God let this happen to my loved one?

I don’t possess existential answers for individual situations, but I do know this with all my being. When sin entered the world in Genesis, Adam opened the door to suffering and death for all of mankind.

Our Father doesn’t cause the pain – that is a consequence of the Fall – but He will use it at times. Furthermore, Jesus suffered and died that He might know personally what we endure. He, therefore, is able to walk with us and comfort us as no other can. When we find ourselves neediest, we are more willing to seek Him.

photo by Karolina Grabowski

Pain, Suffering, and Our View of God

For centuries, non-Christians have used suffering and evil as their argument against a loving God, and Christianity in general. In fact, pastor and author Tim Keller said:

At the heart of why people disbelieve and believe in God, of why people decline and grow in character, of how God becomes less real and more real to us—is suffering.

One common misconception is that our suffering is related to personal sin. This is called retribution theology. However, this theology was for those living under the Mosaic Law, not for those living under the new covenant. Moreover, Jesus corrected this mistaken theology several times, (see John 9 as an example.)

Writer and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright asserts that there are no simple answers to why there is evil and suffering in the world. In his book, Evil and the Justice of God, Wright tells us:

…the Old Testament tells us first that the problem of evil begins in our hearts, second that God is sovereign and there is no tidy philosophical answer for it, and third, that God will resolve the problem of evil through his own intervention.

In addition, Wright says the New Testament teaches us:

The New Testament shares the story of a God who does not just stand back from evil, but who intervenes. And yet his intervention isn’t as we might expect. Jesus heals those broken by evil, he seeks out sinners, he confronts those who believe they are righteous…The cross defeats evil, not because it defeats something out there, but because it defeats the grip of evil and death in our own hearts.

I can recall so many instances in the New Testament when Jesus entered into the suffering of the people and comforted or healed someone. He isn’t a God who stands back from us in our suffering and pain.

God defeated evil and suffering through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He will remove evil and suffering totally from our future world, (see Revelation 21-22,) when every tear will be wiped from our eyes forever. That is our future and our hope.

For now, He is Immanuel, God with us – through every trial, in every painful day, even on days when we wonder if life is worth living…

God. is. with. us.

Lament: Another Way To Deal With All The Loss

 

photo by Liza Summer

Like you, my family hears news every few days of friends who are being impacted by the Delta variant of Covid-19 or some other tragedy. A mom in her 40’s died from Covid-19. A teen is fighting for his life. One local family lost their 6 year old to a rare form of meningitis.

How do we deal with all the grief and loss we have experienced in the past eighteen months?

It just keeps piling up…like the bills from lost jobs and higher prices due to inflation.

photo by Nathan Cowley

What is Lament?

Mark Vroego, the author of Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, (https://amzn.to/2VWbTNY), explains that we enter the world wailing. Truthfully, tears and sorrow are part of being human. Yet, lament is more than crying.

But lament is different than crying because lament is a form of prayer. It is more than just the expression of sorrow or the venting of emotion. Lament talks to God about pain. And it has a unique purpose: trust. It is a divinely-given invitation to pour out our fears, frustrations, and sorrows for the purpose of helping us to renew our confidence in God.

Furthermore, more than a third of the Psalms are laments. Jeremiah’s book of Lamentations is entirely written as a lament over the destruction of Jerusalem. In addition, Jesus lamented in the Garden at the end of His life.

Ultimately, lament is based in trust in the character of God. It is a form of praise and prayer with the intent of drawing close to God in times of great suffering and pain.

photo by Cheron James

Steps of Lament

To be honest, the practice of lament is not natural for us. Why? According to Vroegrop, because every lament is a prayer, a statement of faith. Moreover, we are also wrestling with the paradox of suffering and the promises of God’s goodness.

Taking our direction from the Psalms of lament, let’s look at the main elements of a lament.

  1. Call on God – We don’t direct our words to our pain, our suffering or our enemy, but to God. Examples: Psalm 13:1; Ps. 22:1; Ps.77:2-3
  2. Tell Him your complaint – be honest and open about your anger, frustration, or pain. Ps.3:1-2; 57:4; 86:1, 14
  3. Request help from God – be clear in your request. Ps. 6:2-4; 25:2, 16-17; 28:1-4
  4. Express trust or praiseThe destination for all laments is an affirmation of trust in God. Gut-level, honest prayers provide a pathway for hurting people to move through their pain. Laments are not cul-de-sacs of sorrow, but conduits for renewed faithPs. 6:8-10; 28:7; 57:7-11

To make it easier to remember, let’s break it down into four words:

  • turn
  • complain
  • ask
  • trust

To pray in pain, even with its messy struggle and tough question, is an act of faith where we open up our hearts to God. Prayerful lament is better than silence. (Vroegop, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy.)

photo by Inzmam Khan

Avoidance of Lament

Sadly, during times of trial, we often turn away from God rather than toward Him. The circumstances of our lives feel overwhelming. We don’t understand why this thing is happening. In anger and frustration, many sink into silent despair.

Despair lives under the hopeless resignation that God doesn’t care, he doesn’t hear, and nothing is ever going to change. People who believe this stop praying. They give up. (Vroegop, pg. 32)

Actually, I think our reasons to turn away in times of pain go even deeper. In 1993, Dr. Larry Crabb wrote Finding God, (https://amzn.to/3xL8e2Y). In the book, Crabb pointed out that our natural inclination is to doubt God’s goodness. Like Adam and Eve, deep within, there is a gnawing kernel of belief that God is holding out on us. Therefore, when suffering enters our lives, many rage against God for not doing enough to protect us from it.

Perhaps God isn’t a good God, after all.

However, that false belief is completely contrary to what the Bible tells us. Throughout Scripture, God invites us to bring our complaints, our sorrows, and our pain before Him. The Psalms, in particular, are full of examples. In Isaiah 1:18, God invites Judah to a conversation, in spite of their sin: Come, let us reason together. He often pleaded with Israel to return to Him so He could restore them.

Silence before God will kill your soul. Therefore, we do not need to fear lament. Run to Him; pour out your fear, your anger, your pain. In addition, pray your questions and your struggles. He invites it.

Discomfort of Lament

The full-throttle cataloguing of pain sets the context for the call for God to remember. However, it has been my experience that many Christians are uncomfortable with the tension of the long rehearsing of pain combined with the appeal to God’s grace. We tend to hush the recitation of sorrow. However, restoration doesn’t come to those who live in denial… (Vroegop, pg.144)

As a culture, we have become strangled with an oversized political correctness that has leached into the Church. Unfortunately, we have mistakenly placed the nice pc language onto God and His image. However, a read through the Old Testament or Paul’s letters to the churches would soon relieve us of that notion.

Jesus wasn’t nice when He threw the moneychangers out of the temple. Nor was Paul gentle when he wrote of the sexual sin in the church of Corinth in 1 Corinthians chapter 5.

As a result of our distorted beliefs concerning God, the raw language of lament is uncomfortable to those who see Him as unapproachable or unconcerned. Lament invites boldness, questions and honesty about everything we are feeling. Therefore, lament is challenging if you’re not accustomed to being genuine with God or others concerning your thoughts or feelings.

In fact, despite our societal love affair with violence in entertainment, we don’t know what to do with people who are truly suffering or grieving a loss. Moreover, we would rather they simply move on as quickly as possible due to our discomfort.

What if, instead, we offered the valuable gift of talking to God about their pain?

photo by Liza Summer

The Gift of Lament

Lament is seeing and trusting that God enters our pain with us. It is, as Vroegop wrote, the song we sing in the space between pain and promise. At times, it is a raging song. At other times, it is a song of sorrow and tears.

I have sung these songs in times of pain and darkness. Sometimes those songs lasted for weeks, months. Thankfully, my Father never left me, but rather held me close and let me, metaphorically, beat His chest in anguish. In the end, however, I know He is who He says He is…whether I understand it all or not.

What about you? Will you lament your losses?

 

Healed: What Happens If You’re Not?

The word healing brings with it a kaleidoscope of feelings. Many experience complete freedom from former disease or pain. For others, like me,  the idea of healed body became a distant memory. What happens if you’re not healed?

At a time when a career I loved was taking off, my body betrayed me. I had had an intense few years leading to this point: the last two of our three children married in one year

Dad had suffered with cancer for seven years and ultimately died.

Mom had had mental problems all of my life and dad’s death escalated those. Our  hands were full in our attempts to help her.

My husband was diagnosed and treated for cancer.

During all of this, I was completing a master’s degree and an internship in chaplaincy. But it was ALL behind me and I was experiencing success and fulfillment. These were joyful days, even in the midst of an oncology center, which is where I worked.  Those courageous patients taught me more about living life than I could have learned anywhere on earth.

A weight lifted; my life was in a good place.

My husband was in remission. We had an empty nest. Each of us enjoyed fulfilling careers. Our daughter and son-in-law had given us 2 young granddaughters whom we adored.

The Road of Suffering

At some point, pain in my legs began waking me up at night.

Although I wore Dansko’s, the shoes were no longer helping my legs. The pain worsened and became coupled with fatigue. I attempted to ignore it and plow ahead…

Until one day after work, fatigue overwhelmed me after walking from my office to the ground floor exit. I thought I may not make it to my car. It was parked a half block from the hospital. I could not ignore the stranger within me any longer.

For eight months I saw various doctors and specialists attempting to discover what was wrong with this body I had called home. Finally, a pain management doctor told me I had fibromyalgia. Not long afterward, the migraines, which are often associated with fibro, began in earnest.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, life as I had known it, was over.

Without healing, life can feel hopeless.

“The deep meaning of the cross of Christ is that there is no suffering on earth that is not borne by God.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

What Happens Now?

Many of you have a similar story, experienced similar losses. You could be writing this yourself. You’re well acquainted with the grief associated with loss. You’re familiar with the stages with which I cycled and grappled…

And continue to cycle during dark seasons of my life. My go-to emotion is anger. It feels more powerful than the grief that can drown me.

I wondered how God could use me, now. I questioned if He had even called me to ministry in the first place. A body wracked by pain and fatigue seemed useless to me or anyone else, for that matter.

Can you relate?

A quick Google search will reveal that we are a nation, and yes, a world in pain. In 2015, in America, medical scientists were sounding an alarm that 11.2% of the population was reporting chronic pain. By December 2020, the number had jumped to just past 20%; that equals to approximately 50 million people. In a 2021 study, the UK reported 38% of adults with daily pain.

These figures don’t touch the number of people living with debilitating diseases. Each of those statistics represent a face, a person whose life was upended by pain or disease. Every one of those people have had to release their dreams and goals. Too many have falsely believed they no longer have purpose.

A decision must be made. The next step is crucial.

The Choice

It’s embarrassing to admit, but it took several years for me to make my choice. I’m still making it, actually. Initially, at least, making the choice requires making it daily, sometimes hourly.

 I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,

Deut.30:19, HCSB

Choosing life sounds like a no-brainer. But when the life God wants me to choose is different from the life I had and loved, the choice can become less clear.

Sometimes we may need to simply choose life. It is possible to become so attached to something or someone we have lost that we move forward blindly, looking over our shoulder to the past rather than before us to what lies ahead. The Bible tells us that as she looked back, Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt. I suspect that many of us have had this happen to us without our realizing we have become frozen, trapped by the past.

Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Naomi Ramen

I was trapped by my past. In my stubbornness, I didn’t want to look ahead to future possibilities with God. However, until I stopped dwelling on my former life, I would never be released from the self-made trap of grief and anger.

Gradually, and with humility I came to a place where I chose life.

 

Healing: What happens if you're not?

 

Healing

Healing looks different for each of us. Many pray to be healed. A few even demand physical healing, (whether in “Jesus’ name” or by their own virtue.) Others hope for it, but don’t expect it. Still others seek healing continually, going from doctor to doctor or faith healer to faith healer.

Certainly, I have prayed for healing. I have asked others to pray for me, too. After so many years, however, I find that I have accepted that I will not be healed, physically. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped trying new medications or stopped seeking wisdom from my heavenly Father concerning my suffering.

But my wrestling and anger is mostly gone, now. I wish I could say with the apostle Paul that I give thanks for the pain, but most days, I’m not there. However, the healing I have experienced is in my soul. Ever so slowly, with the help of a therapist, I’m learning that God doesn’t love me only when I’m in ministry or serving. He loves me regardless of what I do.

That’s a hard lesson for someone who was teethed on “doing,” both at home and in the my denomination.

Miracles

Approximately two thirds of the miracles Jesus performed on earth involved healing. It’s safe to say that it was important to Him. However, if you read the passages describing each healing miracle, you will find that there is usually a lesson being taught by the healing, (John 4:43-54; Matthew 9:1-18; Luke 6:6-11).

Healing isn’t the main point.

Oh, it always is for us, at least in the beginning of our affliction.

But, there is so much more to glean from these ailing bodies than physical health. When Jesus touched the leper and told him, “Be clean!” (Mark 1:40-45), Jesus was modeling compassion. The main thing was not the physical healing, but that He did the unthinkable. Jesus touched a leper with love.

With Him, it’s always about the miracle of the heart.

What miracle do you need today?