Christ and Chronic Pain

Like many things, chronic pain was something that I thought I understood by proxy. I had watched my grandmother suffer under the weight of her increasing affliction. As years passed, she hunched over, more and more; finding less and less relief. Sometimes, I relive the progression with photographs.

My grandmother suffers from chronic back pain, I would say to a member of my congregation, as I sat next to them in a chair during coffee hour, or perched on the edge of their hospital bed.

I can’t imagine your pain, I would always follow up. I said that, because I knew it was the right thing to say. How could I really know anyone else’s pain? But, of course, deep down, I thought that I knew. I thought that I knew chronic pain, because it had come so close to me. I thought I understood it, because I witnessed how, slowly and cruelly, it had taken someone whom I loved away.

I knew nothing. To say that I could know chronic pain vicariously is to say that you could know chocolate by reading about it. You could think that you knew what chocolate tasted like, but when you took it into your mouth, when it melted on your tongue for the first time, you would realize that you’d never known it before.

The first time I experienced nerve pain was several years ago. It was in my back. The doctor said it was shingles, and gave me medication to help it go away. Months and months passed before it appeared again. And again. Always in the back, sometimes in the ribs. For days at a time – a twinge here or there. I didn’t think it was chronic pain, because I always assumed that it would go away.

Then, this past winter, it came and never left. It was weeks, and then months. I couldn’t run or bike or work out anymore – that only made the pain increase. I had trouble sleeping at night. I lost weight in the way that feels like wasting away. I became irritable and less interested in everything. When I was not working, I was sleeping. Even to walk around the block felt like too great exertion.

Tests revealed nothing. Scary hypothetical diagnoses came and went. Each time, I gave thanks for the illness I did not have, and each time, I also grew increasingly frustrated. If not X, then what is it?

A neurologist shrugged his shoulders at me, and referred me to a pain clinic that is now closed due to COVID-19. He encourages me to take more and more of the nerve pain medication. It has yet to provide consistent relief. Most of the past 96 hours have been a wash. It seems like there are more and more periods of time like that. Last week, I finally admitted that I have lost hope of ever getting better.

Well, at least you’re clear about that, a colleague said, in response to my “hopeless” announcement. I couldn’t help but laugh. I am prone to the dramatic, and understatement is one of my favorite types of humor.

Of course, I said, this would be the week that I need to preach on hope.

Of course, she replied. God’s funny. I was to preach on 1 Peter in particular: Always be ready to make an accounting for the hope that is within you.

How can I account for the hope which I do not have? I asked her.

This question is the beginning of my understanding of chronic pain. Because while I have experienced other types of pain in my life (ie viruses, infection, gallbladder pain, etc), I have always endured with hope. I have often cried out to God, Help me get through this. This prayer was only possible, because I believed that the pain was finite. All I needed was for God to help me to endure, so that I could get to the other side of the affliction.

To have chronic pain is to stand on the edge of a river too wide to cross. I think of my grandmother again, hunched over, with a hand on her lower back. I think of how she grew more irritable, year after year. I think of how she was increasingly reluctant to leave her home. Now, I have drawn closer to understanding the spiritual desert of her predicament. When I have a nerve pain attack (as of late, all over my body, even my face, and lasting for days on end), I feel that I am apart from everything that I know and love. I see the way my life used to be; but from an impassable distance. And I look at where I am now, feeling that nothing beautiful will grow in my life again.

How do I account for the hope which I do not have?

Hope is not contingent on your accounting, my friend said. Hope does not begin with you. Hope exists beyond you.

Her words resounded like an echo, because I have offered those very words to others before. I have spoken those words to people who were in pain; as a gift of comfort and care. I confess that at times, I have even been proud of those words – as if I invented such a profession of faith myself.

Now, in regards to hope, I have more questions than answers. Can hope be found here, in this desert? Is hope somehow present, even when I do not hold it in my own hands? Can others carry hope for me when I cannot carry it myself? Can I speak to hope in the midst of uncertainty? In the midst of grief?

Yes, my friend said. You can, because this is what hope is. This is what Christ is. If I had to explain what Christ means to a non-Christian, and I could use just one sentence, I would start with this: None of us walks alone.

And that means even me, and that means even when I am in pain. And that means God can be at work in the midst of it. Because it is only since I have known chronic pain, that I have come to this new knowledge of faith. For Christians, faith is defined as hope in things unseen. I do not see the end of my pain, and perhaps that is where my new faith begins. Can I trust that others will carry hope for me? Can I trust that even in the desert things can bloom? Can I trust that in my darkest hour, when I feel most alone, I am never truly abandoned; by God and by those whom I love?

After several days in pain, I felt some relief yesterday evening. I went out into our backyard, and slowly began to tend to some projects. I turned on the radio. I brought our puppy outside to keep my company. It was sunny, but with some clouds in the sky. It smelled like a storm was coming, but it was still warm as the rain began to fall. It was most unusual for Northern California. It felt more like spring in Western Pennsylvania.

I remembered being in my grandmother’s backyard. I remembered how her hands smelled like tomato plants. I remembered that even chronic pain could not take away the joy of the days when she was well. I remembered that even in the midst of chronic pain, beauty is still possible.

I laughed as our puppy jumped up in the air, trying to catch raindrops with his teeth. And in that moment, I accounted for the hope in me – the hope that proceeded me, the hope others have carried for me – and I gave thanks to God.

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