Chronic Pain Touches More Than Your Body — Vaneetha Risner

(Photo: Unsplash)

Chronic pain, illness and disability can take over your life. There are just so many facets to it. Many of you reading this post know the debilitating nature of physical pain much better than I do – so I’m writing faintly from personal experience and mostly from what friends who live with relentless pain have taught me. Here are four struggles of chronic pain and illness that readily come to mind:

First, there is coping with the sheer pain, fatigue and weakness, which vary from person to person. There’s also managing our emotions when nothing seems to help, and we wonder when or if it will ever improve. Then there’s the impact on people we care about, who take on additional responsibilities because we can’t. Not to mention the relationships we lose because our world has shrunk, and we can’t physically get out the way we once did. And then there’s the fear of being judged or misunderstood, which makes us hesitant to tell people how we really feel, compounding the loneliness and isolation.

The Physical Pain:

Some pain is so all-consuming and overwhelming that it’s hard to even isolate what hurts. Everything hurts. All you can do is breathe and try to make it through the moment. Because life really becomes breath by breath, moment by moment. Fatigue, illness, and weakness can be crushing too, where the simplest tasks feel monumental.

My friend Barbara Brand, who deals with profound pain, once said that when her pain floods over her, “it is like being in a dark tunnel with three things: God, pain, and me. I don’t want to ‘go there’ nor do I want to leave.” The fellowship and intimacy with God when we’re in pain can be life-changing. Joni Eareckson Tada, who is a quadriplegic who lives with biting, relentless pain and my hero in the faith, said, “Somehow in the midst of your suffering, the son of God beckons you into the inner sanctum of his own suffering – a place of mystery and privilege you will never forget.”

The Emotional Hurricane:

Chronic pain can lead to a swirling sense of hopelessness and depression when nothing seems to help. When you go to doctor after doctor, and no one really understands the problem, you resign yourself to never getting better. And even if help is available, it takes time and there are discouraging setbacks all along the way. It’s easy to lose hope in the raging storm.

Yet when we feel hopeless, rather than giving into despair, we have an opportunity to turn to the God of hope. Romans 15:13 says: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”  I find hope in knowing that my suffering has a purpose, that it is not meaningless, but that God is using it in bigger ways than I can see or know.

Joni makes it through the long and mostly sleepless nights by remembering that the angels and demons are watching her, to see how she responds to trials. She says that she sees her life as a blackboard, in which God is chalking lessons about himself in the heavenly realm and she has the privilege of being part of that. Knowing that her life can display God’s worth to the unseen world inspires Joni to endure, knowing that her response to suffering matters.

The Relational Strain:

People with chronic pain and illness depend on others to help them. Some need constant care while others can’t do what they once did, and few can do all they want to do. Dependence and limitation are part of everyday life, and it affects those we love. My beloved husband is amazing and uncomplaining, but I so wish that I wasn’t so needy. I’d rather help him than require his help throughout the day, but that is usually not an option.

Disability and pain shrink our worlds, and we often have fewer relationships because we can’t get out or initiate. Our energy is limited. Energy that is often measured out by spoonsful, which must go to the daily tasks of survival, leaves little leftover for friendships, let alone caring for others. It’s isolating and lonely.

In Walking through Fire, I included this journal excerpt:

“Hearing others say their lives are harder because of me… it all seems too hard to imagine. It seems so unfair. But in your infinite wisdom, you chose this for me … My life is for your glory. Bring something beautiful out of it.

The Financial Drain:

In addition to being time consuming and often discouraging, seeing doctors is expensive. It can drain people’s financial resources, especially with treatments that are not covered by insurance.

Add to that, the struggle and often inability to be fully present in a paying job leaves people without a steady income – underemployed or often unemployed.  Like the woman in Luke 8:43, who spent all her money on doctors, but could not be healed by anyone, we can find ourselves discouraged and often desperate. 

The Inability to Explain:

No one knows what someone else’s physical pain or fatigue is like. They can’t. Explaining is complicated and can sound like complaining, so many of us avoid the subject altogether. We retreat emotionally while we try to push through physically.

We all want to be known and understood, so we want those closest to us to understand what we’re going through. But when we start comparing our suffering to others, as if we need to rate it on a worldwide pain scale, we don’t know how to describe it. How does anyone explain pain?

I love the way one author puts it: “If suffering is so impossible to nail down, then how do you know when you see real suffering?… Each person ‘s pain is as significant as their ability to tolerate it. So I think that’s how we should measure suffering. Not on a global scale, which would be literally impossible, but rather on the amount of trauma a specific experience inflicts on a specific individual.” Yes- each person’s pain is as significant as their ability to tolerate it. It all matters.

No one welcomes suffering, particularly all-consuming physical pain that is unrelieved by sleep. It can be terrifying. Yet even amidst that, God shows Himself faithful — for there is no where we can go that He does not go with us. He goes with us through the dark valleys, through the raging storms and to the uttermost ends of the earth.

When Paul David Tripp went through unimaginable hammering pain a few years ago, he said: “Those hammers on me were hammers of an artist, changing the shape of my heart, so that I would believe in a more deeper, fuller way, what I had preached to others for years.”

God’s “hammering” on each of us indeed is the work of an Artist, changing the shape of our hearts.

 For my March monthly newsletter, I’ve curated resources on chronic pain and illness. It’s exclusive to subscribers- you can subscribe here if you’d like to receive it!