I have lived a relatively pain-free life so far, at least physically. (Writing about emotional or spiritual pain would be a different subject…and post). But three years ago, my wife suffered what we came to call the “summer of pain.” One day she was leaning over to make a bed, a few weeks later she was crumpled on the bed in overwhelming sciatica pain. Watching someone you love endure great pain is its own kind of suffering.
I remember taking her to almost daily chiropractic appointments (since we were trying to avoid the uncertainty of surgery). I remember having to creep along with her as each step sent shooting pain down her leg. Our lives slowed down to a snail’s pace because Gem couldn’t move any faster (if she could move at all). We were living our lives at the pace of pain.
Sometimes, she would be awake in the middle of the night because she was between pain pills. I would walk back and forth around our bed praying psalms aloud, if only to try to distract her from how much her lower back and leg was hurting. Sometimes it helped. Sometimes it didn’t.
At about that time, I bought a copy of the classic book by J. B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small. One day while I waited for Gem’s daily therapy, I read this in the introduction (and forgive the male-focused language that reflects the times in which this was written):
“It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday-school age, unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life. If, by a great effort of will, he does do this he will always be secretly afraid lest some new truth may expose the juvenility of his faith. And it will always be by such an effort that he either worships or serves a God who is really too small to command his adult loyalty and cooperation.” (p. 7)
Gem’s pain and my powerlessness exposed my own immature God images. The pain in Gem’s body drove me to wonder aloud about God’s actual care and God’s real presence with us. I felt His apparent absence more often than His obvious presence. I wondered in the darkness of that season, “How long, O Lord? How long does Gem have to hurt? How long until You bring comfort and relief?”
After a few months of this, Gem’s pain began to subside and she began to recover strength and freedom of movement. As hard as that season was and as much as our trust was stretched, it didn’t come to the breaking point. In the time of her suffering, we really didn’t care much about an intellectually satisfying theodicy. But the pace of pain became for us the pace of God’s love and grace. We discovered that what we wanted most was simply to know that God was with us.
When have you experienced someone close to you suffering? How did you feel? What surfaced in your conversational relationship with God? How were you driven to God? How did resistance to God surface?
Alan Fadling serves as Executive Director of The Leadership Institute in Orange, CA, training Christian leaders to integrate spiritual formation and leadership development. He serves as a frequent speaker and consultant and is the author of An Unhurried Life (IVP, 2013). He is a certified spiritual director living in Mission Viejo, California, with his wife Gem, and their three sons.