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Not Giving In: A Redemptive Look at Chronic Pain

By Ronald G. Albury

Media advertisements make us all aware of the great number of easily available over-the-counter pain relievers. Additionally, to ease their discomfort, many people use prescription pain relievers. The experience of pain is not pleasant, and understandably we try to avoid or manage it in some way.

Most people have, at one time or another, experienced physical pain. It might be a brief experience of fleeting, but extreme, discomfort; or, it could be a constant and never-ending hurtful condition. Perhaps it is a combination of both — frequent, stabbing pain against a background feeling of steady, annoying misery.

Some sort of persistent or chronic pain often plagues those who have passed the half-century milestone in their lives. If it isn’t that old villain “Arthur Itis,” it is some other recurring or permanent condition that makes them miserable. It seems to go with the turf. But pain is not only for those who are chronologically mature. It can strike anyone at any time. Physical pain is a regular visitor to the lives of many people.

The old adage is true: It is not so much that we have pain that is important. It is how we deal with it in our lives. Of course, a prime example of this mindset is found in Job’s handling of his tribulation in the Old Testament book which bears his name.
A word of caution might be noted here. Different people have different thresholds of pain. We should not be judgmental of those who seem unable to manage their pain with “the patience of Job.” They are not necessarily hypochondriacs or whiners. Their level of pain may be different from ours.

For some people pain is a constant and excruciating condition. Many of these folks live their lives heroically, all the time. For others the pain is milder in form and less steady, but it is still difficult to handle. Of course, there are all sorts of intensities in between. It is important to realize, however, that life doesn’t end for us when we hurt. Our pain can actually improve the very fabric of our lives and bring us closer to God. In that sense, it is a blessing.

Susie, a dedicated lay person of the parish in which I serve, was bitten on her right hand by a cat six years ago and developed a disease called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (called more recently Complex Regional Pain Syndrome). Ever since she was bitten, the back of her hand has been red, shiny, swollen, and stings “like a million bee stings.” She says it feels like “hot molten lava from a volcano is slowly oozing down my right arm ... and spreading everywhere. It hurts and it burns, and yes, I want to scream at the top of my lungs. Over time this sensation has slowly spread down my chest and leg. I have hot molten lava rolling down my leg into my foot. My flesh is on fire and my internal organs are burning as well. It has transferred into the left side of my body, but not nearly as severely as the right.”

What keeps Susie going? “My church and my friends who pray for me,” she responds. “Every time the pain increases or gets out of control, or when I have to go to the hospital for a procedure, or when they change the narcotics to help with the pain, I can picture in my mind the army of prayer warriors talking to God on my behalf, asking him to really help me out that day and to watch over me and to help the doctors and nurses to do the right things in the right ways and not to overlook anything or to forget anything. I am able to put my whole trust in the people of the parish to pray for me when I am in trouble. ... I have wonderful friends and a church that prays and the power of the Holy Spirit that heals.”

Recently Susie has demonstrated that she will not allow pain to control her life. With upbeat enthusiasm she has successfully organized in her parish a chapter of Daughters of the King, a religious order for women that is dedicated to the extension of Christ’s kingdom through prayer, service and evangelism. Another woman who is known to this author and who endures a high level of pain serves her parish by using her artistic abilities to create large chancel hangings and banners. There are many people who are not willing to give in to pain.

Along with the resurgence of interest in the church’s healing ministry has come the consideration of pain support groups within the local parish. One church, which has come to the attention of this writer, is planning a pain support group for persons suffering with chronic pain. As of this writing, the group includes a trained therapist (who happens to be a parish member) and three or four parishioners (including the therapist) who are regularly in serious pain. It is planned that weekly meetings will include group therapy, meditation, and prayer. Publicity outside of the parish (probably on bulletin boards in hospitals and/or doctor’s offices) is in the planning stage.

We hear a lot these days about “attitude adjustment.” Some people learn early with their acquisition of chronic pain that there may be a need to examine their attitudes. To wallow in their discomfort only tends to make them more miserable. On the other hand, a more positive attitude may not only help them to heal more rapidly, it can actually lessen pain, and certainly make it more pleasant for those around them. This is not to say that those in pain should become “martyrs.” It is only to suggest that they try to become more upbeat in their approach.
When the mother of an old friend had recurring pain in her later years, she would tell people who empathized with her discomfort, “That’s OK. I’ll be feeling better tomorrow.” The realization that pain cannot be easily controlled gives us the awareness that we must develop an increased measure of patience. We may have always thought that we were in control of things. As we experience pain, we realize that God, who is always in command, will, in his good time, provide what is necessary for us. He will always be with us.

There is a definite link between chronic pain and spirituality. This is not to fall prey to the oversimplification that says that our adversity is a result of our disobedience to God’s will. Jesus expressly repudiates this view, popular in his time, which made suffering the direct result of our sinfulness (Luke 13:1-5 and John 9:12ff).

The connection between pain and spirituality is found in the way we relate our spiritual nature to our physical nature. When we look at our pain and suffering through the eyes of our spirit, we see that the important thing is not the pain itself, but rather it is found in the way that we deal with it.

A close friend of mine, who is also a retired priest, fell from a ladder while cleaning his gutters and broke both of his legs. That was a number of years ago and he still experiences a great deal of pain. He observes that, “through prayer and meditation we are empowered to bear up under more adversity than we could under normal circumstances, and we can rise above the increased level of pain.”

In conclusion, perhaps the supreme example of how we should deal with pain is found in Christ’s suffering on the cross. “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience through what He suffered” (Heb. 5:8).

Furthermore, we can join our fellow Christians who, through the centuries, have experienced pain and yet have felt compelled to express their response in the age-old words of the Doxology:
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow!”

The Rev. Ronald G. Albury is a retired priest who resides in Medford, N.J.

From The Living Church, June 25, 2006. Used by permission.

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