It’s 2:30 a.m., and I have a packed-out day ahead of me. So why am I still awake at this hour? Yet again, my joint pain is getting the best of me and making sleep impossible. I suffer from multiple chronic illnesses, including a degenerative form of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis. Since my diagnosis, I’ve spent many sleepless nights trying to find a position that might give my spine some relief long enough for me to fall asleep. Although I’m fortunate to have found medications that have spared me from much of it, chronic pain has become a constant companion to me.
It’s easy to focus on the negative aspects of chronic pain; at times, it even seems that there are only negative aspects of chronic pain. It’s constant and all-consuming. Sometimes it becomes the only thing I can think about. Yet in the midst of the overwhelming negative reality of living with such pain, I’ve held tightly to one positive truth about my pain. This positive came to me one night from the depths of my illness.
When I was a sophomore in high school I became suddenly and mysteriously ill. The onset of the illness was the culmination of a year and a half of silently suffering through deep depression. I didn’t know how to ask for help, so I bottled it up for too long. My body could no longer cope with my constant state of mental and emotional distress.
The physical breakdown started with an inflammatory disease in my eye. A week later, I began vomiting. I was unable to keep any food down for five weeks. Within those five weeks, I was also diagnosed with arthritis. Although it primarily targets my spine, within two weeks of that diagnosis I felt the pain spread through every joint in my body.
It wasn’t evident at first whether the vomiting was related to the arthritis. I was a mystery to each of the countless doctors I saw. With every passing day, I grew weaker and thinner. No amount of testing or procedures revealed even the tiniest hint of what had gone wrong with my body. After the first five weeks of vomiting I could keep some food down, but the improvement was marginal. It also took several months before I could begin treatment for my arthritis. Between malnutrition and arthritis pain, I was unable to walk long distances. I frequently passed out on the short walk between my bed and the bathroom. I was wasting away.
Angry with God
A month or two after the onset, I was lying on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night. I had been vomiting all night and was too weak even to crawl back to my bed. My back felt like it was on fire—the inflammation in each individual vertebra of my spine was the worst it had been. After lying there on the bathroom floor for some time, I had a heated conversation with God. I looked back on my dismal, black, year-and-a-half of depression and realized I was deeply angry with him. It was an emotion I had never expressed to him before.
I was angry because he had caused a lot of painful things to happen in my life, and I couldn’t understand what he was doing. Every plan I had for my future had been whisked away in one blow. I felt like I was treading water in the middle of a vast, dark ocean. Even worse, I was trying to reconcile the bad things that had happened in my life with the picture of the good and loving God I had always been taught. It seemed only pain had come from following him. I’d felt deep loneliness since moving away from my hometown; I felt even more lonely stuck at home day after day, unable to explain to my peers what was happening to me. And I was desperate for answers that doctors were unable to give.
So I laid on the bathroom floor, paralyzed by physical and emotional pain, and I yelled at God. I cried, and I yelled. I accused him of causing all my pain, and eventually I had nothing left. No tears, nothing more to say, just a broken body on a bathroom floor. It was his turn to talk.
With the eye of faith, I saw Christ on the cross. God, in a human body, taking on physical pain far greater than my own. Thorns in his head, blood dripping down his face, nails in his hands and feet, love in his face. I felt his pain in my own body, the fire in my spine intensifying as I looked at him. But I also felt him holding me like a child.
I knew in my heart in that moment that nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:39). I was completely overwhelmed with the knowledge that my God not only knows what’s wrong with my body even when no human doctor does, he also knows my physical pain more intimately than anyone else ever could. The loneliness of suffering and the frustration of not having answers were taken away in an instant. I felt a physical burden lifted from my body and my heart.
Until that moment, I had never understood the relevance of Christ’s death on the cross to the details of my daily life, my pains and my joys. Only in the light of the cross could I make sense of my own suffering. This reminder is the positive result of my pain. In moments when I feel overwhelmed, I remember Calvary. I thank God for the precious gift of my salvation, because on some (small!) level I have begun to understand the cost of my salvation.
Chronic pain is a constant reminder that my life is not my own; it has been bought with a price.
- The Paradox of Chronic Pain (Jeremy Linneman)
- Working When It Hurts (Kara Bettis)
- Certain Hope amid Chronic Pain (Kristen Wetherell and Sara Walton)
- Joni Erickson Tada on Finding Jesus in Your Gethsemane (Betsy Childs Howard)