Pain Slows Us Down

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.

Join the Conversation

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:
fadlingAlan 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.  
    • Thank you Alan. I thought this was very insightful and helpful, especially J.B. Phillips’ quote. I am also glad your wife’s pains subsided. Someone in chronic pain or experiencing chronic sickness is really in need of God’s presence and care.

      • Appreciate your comment, Marlena. I’d love for many to rediscover the Phillips’ book. May God’s grace continue to encourage and energize you in your journey…

    • Steve

      Suffering, mine or those I love: I have had cancer, surgery, and a month of healing. I have also suffered a punctured lung and broken ankle in a rock climbing accident, and went through six months of painful healing and physical therapy to walk again. My wife has had a few surgeries, with only days of pain, not months. She also has migrains that cause her to vomit for hours at a time, but usually only for a day. Cheryl has also had a horribly broken ankle that required surgery and four months to heal. She has endured a fair amount of pain. I have had friends die from lung cancer, which is a terrible way to die. Cheryl and I have experienced a friend’s baby die after a month long ordeal with a blood infection following heart surgery. As a pastor I have been close to a number of people and families in the midst of tragedy. My own father attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head, and he had five brain surgeries in five days, followed by three more months in various hospitals.

      Even after all this, I have Romans eight. In this world we do groan. This is a sin cursed world. This is not our home. Jesus is my life and my future. He is the lover and guardian of my life and soul. He is my peace and joy. He is the source of the only true and pure and eternal love. Jesus is my rock and my fortress. When I am weak, He is strong. Nothing separates us from His love. Not pain. Not death.

      And in the midst of pain, there are no easy answers. Pain is pain, and it becomes the center of the universe that everything else revolves around. In the midst of the pain I cling to Jesus. I know He understands pain, and torture and agony far better than I. Pain reduces us to ash. In God’s compassion He makes His love new every morning. He gives hope when there is none. He breathes new life into bones crushed with death. In my darkest moments, Jesus shined His light.

      Sometimes pain is overwhelming, and there seems to be no hope. But, it has been my experience that Jesus and His compassion and grace and mercy always have blessed me in those times of my worst fears and pains. There is no magic fear or pain removal trick. But Jesus has entered into my pain every time, and when I could not hold on, He has held me.

    • Steve – thanks so much for taking time to share your journey with pain..and with grace. Grateful to be sharing the journey with you, brother…

    • Alan, thanks for sharing your “own immature God images” that were revealed through Gem’s suffering. It is amazing how I typically consider suffering to be the BIG thing, when in reality my false perception of God is the truly BIG thing. Most pain and suffering passes, and eventually we experience new forms of pain and suffering. Our false images of God, however, stay with us through each new form of pain and suffering if they are not transformed. This is the place where real healing must take place.

      • Mark – Appreciate your thought that the bigger issue is our distorted images of God. May God continue to enlighten our hearts to see Him more and more as He really is.