“Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.” (Job 1:20–22)
Every time I think about this Scripture, I have to pause and let the weight of what has just happened to Job, and his subsequent reaction, sink in. Here’s a man who has lost everything. All of his children wiped out in one foul swoop, and how does he react? With profound grief as he rips his clothes and shaves his head. But, notice that he does it with complete trust in God as he submits to and worships HIM. Then comes the sucker-punch at the end, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.” No hasty words, no accusations, no anger or curses, not a sniff of sinfulness in the face of the utmost suffering.
Sadly, I can’t say the same for myself. Most of us have suffered at some point in our lives. If not, don’t worry, it’s coming! Some of us know deep pain for a season in our lives. Some of us know the suffering of loss. Thankfully, it eases with the passage of time, although the ache never goes away. Then there are those of us who suffer from chronic pain, which brings with it endless days of misery without hope of respite.
Chronic pain and I are long suffering ‘friends’ of many years standing and, to be honest, I’m actually not sure I can remember how life felt before we became acquainted. No two people feel pain in the same way but, for me, more often than not there are days when I literally have to will myself to get out of bed. Frankly, I can relate to Paul’s words in Philippians 1:23b, “…having a desire to depart and be with Christ”. The only trouble being, my desire is for all the wrong reasons.
The most helpful description I found of what it’s like for someone living with chronic pain is, ‘The Spoon Theory’ by Christine Miserandino (www.butyoudontlooksick.com). Simply put, it’s tiring, relentless, wearying, and impacts every part of my life. But, strangely, I have been given grace, like Job, to worship God because of it. In fact, at times, I can actually thank him because I have had a particular insight into a pastoral situation. At others, my illness has been helpful for my spiritual life as it brings my sin to the light to be dealt with by the Lord. Being chronically ill constantly drives me back to God.
There are truths many Christians like to parrot to those suffering in pain—be it physical, spiritual, or both. Yes, it is true that God never leaves or forsakes us (Deuteronomy 31:6). Yes, it is true that he works all things together for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). But these truths can be like acid on an open sore if said without thought and care. We must be careful not to churn out trite platitudes because we don’t really know what else to say, or because we’re feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed by the pain and grief of another. The worst, most dreaded (so-called) ‘Christian’ statement has to be: “You just have to claim HIS healing for your life”. This kind of unbiblical thoughtlessness can make people feel that their suffering isn’t important, that it’s pointless and needless, when often God is doing something quite profound in the life and faith of the individual concerned. Often, we inadvertently undermine the work of God in the suffering just because we find it distasteful or hard to understand.
How, then, should we encourage those suffering through chronic pain?
- Keep looking to Christ. When we view our suffering though a Christ-centred filter (hard, I know), then this affects how we interpret and view life as a whole. Persistent chronic pain forces us to look up and not down. We need God every single day to sustain us. We are not like a car that needs the tank filling once or twice a month. We need to fill up on his love, grace, and mercies, which are new (and available to us) every morning. As we look to Christ daily, we learn to rely on him, find our comfort and strength in him and, somehow, find what we need to keep on going in him. In the midst of the darkest days I have to remind myself of God’s sovereign control, even over my pain, as I return to the source of my help and my strength. The suffering Christ is faithful to his suffering servants! “If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction.” (Psalm 119:92)
- Fight temptation and allow the Holy Spirit to work on your sin. It’s hard to call a suffering person a sinner. I know this might not sound like encouragement on the surface, but God uses situations like this to bring sinful heart issues to the fore so that he can deal with them and we can grow more like Christ. We cannot allow chronic pain to be used as an excuse for anxiety and a lack of trust in God. I know my own heart is lazy and, to be honest, being in constant pain offers me a plausible excuse to indulge in my laziness. I could grumble, whinge, moan, and throw myself the best pity party on the planet, but I still have to face up to, and own, my personal sin. God often uses our suffering to bring to the surface the sin(s) in our lives that need dealing with in order to drive us back to him in repentance and prayer.
- There is a purpose somewhere. I know this to be true, but is it really? Is God truly in control? And if so, why couldn’t he teach me in a less painful way? Why chronic pain? Why not a bit of suffering? For a month, say? Or even a year? I have struggled with these questions in many different forms over the years of my illness. Is it to teach me perseverance? Is it about patience? Is it to strengthen my faith? Is it to, somehow, help me fight temptation? Is it about being a good witness? Does he want me to help others? Is it about refining my character? Why choose this way to work on me? I have asked (and continue to do so) all of the above and more. I may not ever know the answer to my ‘why’ questions, but I am trusting in God’s character. He has a purpose, and I have to rest in that. These questions trouble me now, but will matter not one jot on the other side of glory.
- Looking to the example of others. Psalms 119, 10, 23, 121 are all perfect examples. We can do suffering well or badly. That’s the bottom line. We can’t outrun it. We can’t avoid it. Either way we will still be suffering. The Psalmists never hid their suffering from God. Instead, they opened up their woes to the Lord in searingly honest fashion. Indeed, what we see in the Psalms is the character of God reflected in the way his people deal with the troubles of life. We may see them wrestle and squirm but, invariably, we see God’s strength and comfort reflected in their weakness and suffering. It’s an encouragement to us when we read the Psalms knowing that, likewise, we too can ask God to help us do suffering well and be an example to fellow pilgrims passing through similar pains.
- Suffering increases our tolerance. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2–4)
- Living in the hope of the ultimate salvation. We must learn to live life with the end game in mind. Life isn’t just about the here and now. We need to bring the hope of eternity to bear on our present pain. This hope—the hope of no more pain, sorrow, or tears, helps us to keep today in perspective.
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!” Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, “they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them,’ nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’” (Revelation 7:9–17)
- Finally, Look for God's help in the local church. We can all have a part to play, not only as we pray effectively for those suffering, but by speaking words of encouragement into each other’s lives as a worshipping community. Suffering is painful. It is depressing. It is draining. It is more so if we do it alone. Suffering is, in all truth, a community affair. We can help one another practically even if we can’t speak directly to the pain. We can lift one another’s burdens even if we can’t exactly empathise with a particular situation. We can make life a little easier for one another. The challenge I found, at least in the early days, was taking the help on offer. Too often God sends help and we refuse to take it because of our pride. Yet, we continue to keep on praying for his intervention! How frustrating we must be when we ask for deliverance but we don’t like the packaging it arrives in.
Here is a truth worth thinking about today: our pain may be bringing about a deep healing in our souls over time. It may also be used for the benefit of brothers and sisters in our local church as they find deep hope and blessing in ministering to us. None of it will go to waste. God won’t let one tear fall or one spasm come without an unseen, redemptive purpose.
Grace & Peace.