Meditations on Suffering Through Chronic Pain5
"Chronic Pain". Just the words conjure up images in most people's minds, whether they suffer from it or not. It is unfortunately still a very weird and uncomfortable topic to talk about the church and to be honest, I find it weird that it is still weird for so many to have an honest conversation about and I find it unfortunate that so many get so 'judgy' when the topic comes up.
This article is my contribution to try to make the conversation less weird and off-limits. I do not have a outline or direction, and much of this may just come across as ramblings, but I feel like it is a conversation worth having. Hopefully, I don't make an already weird topic even weirder through my meager contribution. It is something that I usually try to keep to myself, with varying degrees of success, but I go through seasons where I am in constant, mind-bending chronic pain and seasons where I rarely give it much of a thought. Unfortunately, this is one of those seasons where it is occupying more of my mind than I wish. But fortunately I just "happened" to be in Psalm 31 today and I am a guy that believes that we do not just "happen to" do anything but we are children of a Sovereign and Benevolent Father who loves us and feeds us what we need at the moment. So these are my reflections on life and Psalm 31.
Chronic Pain Defined:
I looked for several definitions of "chronic pain" since it is a bit of a tough term to define. The most repeated and referenced definition I found was:
Chronic pain is often defined as any pain lasting more than 12 weeks. Whereas acute pain is a normal sensation that alerts us to possible injury, chronic pain is very different. Chronic pain persists—often for months or even longer.
Pretty generic right? I kind of like it that way. Chronic pain is one of those weird topics where people are prone to "size one another up" and evaluate their pain against other people's pain. Can we just agree that this is a weird thing to do? It works two ways. Sometimes people who have extreme chronic pain can become judgmental toward others who "suffer" from what they deem to be "lesser" degrees of pain. As if they are not "qualified" to use the "chronic pain" moniker. It also works the other way. People who have been experiencing long-term, chronic pain look at the most severe cases and say, "Well, what right do I have to be upset? At least I am not going through that".
That's why I used the most generic definition I could find. Can we just agree that ALL chronic pain stinks? Do we really need to waste time qualifying it? All of it is a result of the fall (Genesis 3). All of it has a purpose in Christ (2 Corinthians 12). All of it will be done away in glory (Revelation 21:1-7). With that being said, too much time is wasted "qualifying" and "defining" the conversation and not nearly enough time is spent "having" the conversation.
This is the weirdest part to write about. Even as I contemplated writing this, I thought, "Someone will think that I am just looking for attention or sympathy". Well, quite frankly, that is a joke. Most chronic pain sufferers that I know, and I have gotten to know MANY over the years of being blessed with the ministry of pain want ANYTHING BUT having attention or sympathy. Most of them just want a normal day. Most of them don't want to be asked about it. Most would prefer to not think about it at all if they had that luxury. So, I feel like I can be confident that this article is anything but some weird attention grab. Honestly, I'd prefer to not even be writing it, but I hope that my ramblings might help someone along the way.
I feel no need to share what my "pain(s)" are for the sake of the article. Only to say that it has been with me since childhood to varying degrees and in recent years, I've been on the side of medication and surgery and been on the side of "trying the natural path". Right now, I am electing to go the non-medicated route, not because I think that it makes me more spiritual but because its what I feel led of by the Spirit. I only throw this in because it is one of the most difficult aspects of thinking through "options" for most who suffer with chronic pain and they will know the mental anguish quite well- deal with the side effects, consequences and judgment of those who don't understand why you'd need the meds or deal with the grit of pain without. Lose/Lose.
Lately, there are a lot more hard days than easy days. I say "hard vs. easy" rather than "good vs. bad" because many of us have learned to have good days and not let our day be defined by the pain. That takes quite a bit of mental gymnastics and even more reliance on the indwelling of God's Holy Spirit.
While we are on the topic of "not being defined by pain" there is a reason that I chose the title of the article to be "Meditations on Suffering through Chronic Pain" rather than "Meditations of a Chronic Pain Sufferer". My name IS Christian. My name is NOT "Sufferer". My identity is NOT pain. My posture IS joy and dependance upon Christ. The reflections are on the suffering.
Though you may suffer, your identity is not that of a sufferer. Always remember that. Your identity is Christian.
This may sound like semantics, but let me assure you that it is anything but. When your identity becomes pain, it is a very very difficult hole to dig out of. When your identity is Christ and you are grappling with pain with full view of your identity, it is the most paradigm shifting aspect lens that you can possibly view pain through.
*I have ONE HUGE caveat to add to this. It deserves its own article and it will get one. There is an extra special pain that those who watch a loved one suffer go through. This is not an obligatory tack-on. Again, it is through tears that I write these words. They suffer with a helplessness that goes beyond what the the person suffering with the pain is actually going through in many ways. If you've ever loved someone in pain, I do not need to explain this. But it can be a very lost and lonely place. You can see it in the eyes of your loved ones as they look at you and it is a dagger in the heart. Pray for, check in on, ask questions to the loved ones of those who suffer with chronic pain. They suffer mightily and often have very few venue's to share it.
Reflections on the 31st Psalm
In the first 6 verses, David is recounting the character of the Lord. This is foundational. When you lose sight of God's character you can begin to believe that He is mean or vindictive. You can begin to think that pain is some sort of self-atoning. You can easily believe that God is punishing you for something. Are there cases of God afflicting someone because of sin in Scripture? Sure. But that is not what I am talking about here. Many of the folks that I have known that are suffering are some of the godliest "Jesus-smelling (2 Corinthians 2:15)" folks that I have ever known. So, suffice it to say we are not talking about some sort of "Divine Retribution" here. Soaking yourself in God's character is the greatest medicine and Psalm 31:1-6 is a great reminder of this.
In Psalm 31:6 you start to see trouble brewing
By the end of Psalm 31:7 you see David starting to make his prayer and pain be known. This is not because God does not know. It's because "Lord, to whom shall I go (John 6:68). By the time you get to Psalm 31:9-13 there is a full on supplication and crying out to the Lord.
It reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend and with my wife last night.
I asked her, "Have you ever been in a place where you are just leaning into Christ with everything you have, but not because you are super-spiritual, but just because you have no other place to turn and Christ is the only thing you have?"
Its kind of a scary place to be, but its kind of beautiful as well. It's really odd. Perhaps I am being too self-abasing (it is certainly a struggle of mine) and maybe there is more "spirituality" involved than I am giving credit for, but it certainly does not feel very spiritual. It just feels like clinging. That's all. There is no other way to describe it. Just stripped bare-clinging. I do not type this as a "tough man" in any way. I type this with tears streaming down my face making it difficult to see the computer screen. Not trying to be overly raw, just being honest.
Guess what? David was in that same spot. Many others have been in that same spot. But most importantly, CHRIST was in that same spot and He suffered and made satisfaction on my and your behalf so that we could be confident that a). we are not alone and b.) we are not in this forever. It might feel like forever, but in reality, this life is a vapor compared to eternity (James 4:14).
Verse 14 turns the corner with such sweet and precious words.
"But I trust in you, O LORD;
I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hand;
WOW! If you suffer from chronic pain CLING to that verse. It is balm for the soul. While we're at it, cling to any and every verse that looks at the plight of chronic pain and then puts "But..." and pay close attention to what comes afterwards. David does a few things here. He declares WHO his trust his in and he submits himself into the Father's Hands, and asks his Daddy to rescue him. Is there anything more precious?
Due to the length of this already long-winded blog, I will wrap up the final 8 verses in one swath. The beauty and relevance of Psalm 31 vs many other similar passages is that David does not really ever stop struggling. There are many Psalms that follow the pattern of: Acknowledge God. Share Struggle. Acknowledge God is greater than the struggle. They are AWESOME!
But this one is different. David acknowledges God but still points out that the struggle remains. But now, he does not struggle independent of God. He brings the struggle to God. He is steadied by the character of God. He realizes that by God's strength, he can fight another day.
And there it is folks. The messy, not-perfect, but still somehow really beautiful recipe. Acknowledge who God is and delight in His perfect steadfast character. Be honest with the struggle. Go back to acknowledging who He is as many times as necessary since we are chronic-amnesiacs. Be strengthened in your weakness by the power that He supplies. Rely on His mercies. Repeat.
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