I have recently been through a period of intense discomfort. I have had them before for various reasons, but even so I was really surprised by my response to this episode and it caused me to reflect on how pain can change us.
My first response was survival mode – just get through the next hour or so, rest, take the painkillers, see if anything helps the pain subside. It was only afterwards that I realised I hadn't made use of the time in the way I know some with chronic illnesses do, spending time reading books they have meant to for ages, or spending more time 'soaking' in God.
In fact I was quite shocked to realise that I hadn't done more than cry out to God to alleviate the pain. So often I encourage those I know who suffer greatly to lean into God to receive His comfort. Realising afresh that that simply hadn't been on my radar I pondered three things:
• I can be quick to judge those that are struggling with long-term issues – my patience obviously wavers a lot more quickly than God's! I complained in my lowest moments – asking God whether He was using my pain to remind me that I need to be more compassionate and, if so, asking why on earth He couldn't just have spoken to me about it. However, it did make me pray for more of His compassion for those around me.
• I mustn't allow guilt to get hold of me now I've clocked my response. I know that depression can be a side effect of pain, and I have certainly felt more down than usual. I have also felt guilty about my response. But I know that God does not judge or condemn me. In the midst of the confusion and hurt He simply longs to be my comforter and friend – not to point out how badly I failed to include Him in my harder moments. Which means I need to let myself off the hook too, otherwise I'm keeping hold of another painful side effect.
• The importance of the support of friends and family. There were moments when I felt total despair. In those periods simply knowing I was surrounded by people who cared for me and were praying for me seemed to strengthen and 'hold' me.
Don't underestimate what that text, email, phone call, visit, encouraging word or verse can do for someone who is struggling. We sometimes forget that not only are we God's hands and feet to reach out to the world around us, but we are often the way He ministers to those in our congregations, friendship groups and families too.
I know that my pain was temporary – we still don't know what caused it and I'm waiting for a hospital referral for more tests – but I'm feeling a lot better than I was. But there are many who rarely get any respite from pain. I have learned a lot from reading the insights of some wonderful writers online who deal with it on a daily basis.
I have asked Joy Lenton, who has had a major mental health breakdown, antenatal depression and SAD, and for over 20 years has had ME, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia and hypermobilty syndrome, to share some of her coping mechanisms. This is what she shared about how she includes her faith even in the midst of her darkest moments:
- Pain is a reality for you, even if it's invisible to others
- Learn to listen to and heed its message
- Determine cause and source, and treat accordingly
- Seek support as required
- Stoicism is admirable but it's okay to cry sometimes
- Be gentle with yourself, especially on the bad days
- Learn how to ride the waves to avoid being overwhelmed
- Distraction is a great therapy but prayer is our best weapon
- Try not to ignore the pain or press on regardless
- Focus more on what you can do rather than on what limits you
And here are some spiritual insights that have helped her:
- Jesus is in the boat with us
- He will love us through every hurt
- Pain unites us in our shared humanity
- It will prune us if we let it – rest rather than resist
- It draws us into deeper dependence on God
- Pain strips us of our self-sufficiency
- Our suffering can give birth to greater empathy and compassion for others
- A positive, faith-filled mindset helps
- Saying short breath prayers like, 'Jesus, I choose to seek you in this moment' reminds us He is with us
- Sometimes the most holy thing you can do is take a nap.
Joy also talked to me about the importance of staying thankful, allowing pain to make you better not bitter as you maintain an attitude of gratitude. Even with the intensity of pain she deals with on a daily basis she encourages us all to 'Anticipate healing to come while seeking grace to cope with how things are now.' I love what she said next: 'Pain may refine you but it doesn't define you.'
As Joy reminded me: 'Only God has the final say on your life and He brings beauty out of ashes, births hope from despair.' In the midst of pain and difficulty, it may be all we can do to cling to such truths but it does make a difference if we remind ourselves of them regularly.
I so admire Tanya Marlow's gut-wrenching honesty. Tanya is housebound most of the time, as she also suffers from ME as well as Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome. I asked her how she copes with her situation, and want to leave you to ponder her response: 'When I am in deep pain, all I can do is breathe and get through it. The only emotion I feel is despair or anger at the pain. There's just not any energy or emotion left over after that. I groan – and that is all.
'However, I am comforted that I am not the only one who groans. God the Spirit groans, and intercedes for us in our pain and weakness (Romans 8:26). God the Son groaned on the cross (Matthew 27:46). And Isaiah 42:14 tells us that God the Father groaned and panted like a woman in labour. To be groaning in pain is to enter into the experience of the divine. That's all I've got, in those moments of agonising pain – the thought that God is groaning, too.'