Physical pain quickly becomes all-consuming to us. We become preoccupied with it. At the moment, intense physical pain chases away all thoughts of joy. But chronic pain, which lasts for years instead of days, can strip away our hope for recovery and rob us of our joy. We might wonder what to do about joy in the face of such crippling pain. Thankfully, the Bible is not silent on this challenge. God gives us the image of Job scraping at his boils with a potsherd.
Some Christians believe the answer to debilitating pain is stoicism. I read about a lady who lost a baby and later testified that God’s grace had been so all-sufficient that she had not shed a tear. I find that troubling. Circumstances may require us to set a firm jaw and soldier on. Still, we should keep a firm handle on the difference between firm resolve and a calloused heart.
God made us physical as well as emotional creatures. We are body, soul, and spirit. At various times, we may experience pain in different body parts – head, neck, back, knees, or elsewhere. Because of the connection between body and soul and spirit, pain in one part of your self can lead to pain in another part. God didn’t make you a block of wood. Those pesky little nerve endings are a part of your whole self. It isn’t unheard of that chronic pain would lead to depression, which can, in turn, cause a loss of joy.
Because we treasure the gift of joy, we should consider when physical pain affects our joy. For this reason, I want to consider a few things towards a Christian approach to physical pain, especially chronic pain. I say these things in hopes that if you suffer this way, you will be encouraged to battle your pain in the interest of preserving your joy. I trust that you will find these things helpful towards recovering the joy you might be missing due to debilitating pain.
First, it is fine to take medicine for your aches and pains.
I have said this before, but it bears repeating here. At the end of your life, you don’t get a medal for staying off all medications. If you can soldier on through the pain, good for you. But if the pain of a broken body robs you of your joy, I hope you will consider judicious use of pain medication.
In this area, I tend to lean towards libertarianism. Please don’t misconstrue what I am saying. I don’t believe you should self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. I would caution you, especially in the use of narcotics or opioids, to be very careful about addiction. But under a doctor’s supervision and following his guidelines, I believe it is lawful for a Christian to use more powerful pain medications to address severe or chronic issues of pain. Just as you may take Excedrin for your headache, I believe that with a doctor’s help, you may also take narcotics or opioids for your aching back.
I would urge you to be cautious with pain medication, especially those with a severe risk of addiction. You defeat the drugs’ purpose if you are too drugged to be mentally engaged with life. Besides, if a brain tumor is causing your pain, masking the pain doesn’t help anything. Strive for that sweet spot between function and pain management — taking enough to manage the pain without destroying your functionality.
Early on in our battle against my wife’s Lyme Disease, a doctor prescribed oxycontin for her pain. A day into this drug, I found her curled up in a ball on the end of our bed. When I would stir her, she would cry. Her doctor told us to give it a few days to get past that, but after a week, I decided that this medicine was worse for her than what it attempted to cure, and we had to get off. So, use discernment and good sense with any kind of pain medication.
When you find yourself in any kind of trial, it helps remember the relationship between afflictions and storms. If you were caught out in a storm, you would make your way to shelter as soon as you could.
We might compare joy to the shelter. The storm batters you and fights against your returning to the shelter. Some storms hammer you severely enough that you lose hope of getting back to safety. A wise Christian heads for cover. He doesn’t pretend that it isn’t a storm.
There is a certain kind of pride that insists on never showing any pain. But you know, we can’t all be Chuck Norris. And who can resist a few Chuck Norris references. I mean, death once had a near-Chuck experience. They had to change Chuck Norris Boulevard because the street was too deadly. Nobody crosses Chuck Norris and lives. Reports say that Chuck Norris actually died 20 years ago – death just hasn’t built up the courage to tell him. Guns carry Chuck Norris for protection. Ghosts sit around the campfire and tell Chuck Norris stories. Chuck Norris doesn’t turn on the shower. He stares at it until it starts to cry.
My advice: Let Chuck Norris be who he is. You be who you are. You might not have his fortitude. Sometimes if you’re sick, you should stay home. It is okay to say, “I can’t do this right now.”
Secondly, the Apostle Paul was not slighting our pain
When he called it “light afflictions which are but for a moment.” Paul experienced far greater pain in his life than most of us ever will. Next to him, Chuck Norris is a wuss. Paul faced his pain without the benefit of pain medication like we have today. That isn’t an argument against pain medicine, by the way. If I need surgery, I will take the anesthesia, whether it was good enough for Paul or not.
But we can learn from Paul how to view our pain rightly, especially pain that disrupts our lives. Paul urged us to look past our pain and see the things that are not seen, to focus on the eternal. And when we do, we learn to enjoy the Lord and be satisfied in Him even in the grip of crippling pain.
For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.
For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
I do not say that this is easy. It isn’t easy. It might be one of the hardest things you will ever have to do. But I do say that it is possible. You can do it. God’s grace is sufficient for you, even with your pain. And you can do all things through Christ, which strengthens you.
When you can look past your pain and rejoice in Christ in the face of it, you will realize that your joy is not diminished by your pain. When you can be satisfied in Christ during intense pain and suffering, you will discover that the pain magnifies your joy.
Philippians 4:7 makes an important point relative to this discussion.
And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Notice: the Bible promises that the peace of God will keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Do you see that? The peace of God keeps your hearts and minds. So then, God doesn’t send us out to guard our peace or protect our peace. God gives you peace, and the peace He provides will act as a shield to you in the face of turmoil. Douglas Wilson described it as understanding the difference between a helmet and a head. The helmet protects the head, not the other way around. Peace is your shield. You don’t protect the shield with your body. The shield protects you. God gives you His peace so that it gets scratched and dented instead of you.
God is our fortress. You don’t run outside to protect the fortress. The fortress protects you. Even so, the Bible also teaches that “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10) Your satisfaction and delight in Jesus Christ and His will (the definition of joy we have used) strengthen you to look past your pain and “rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” By looking past your pain, you are learning the real value of joy; joy strengthens you.
While I may wish you good health now and always, I also know that man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward. I hope that if you find yourself facing a hard providence, you will be encouraged to endure. Pain disrupts our peace and our joy, but the peace of God is what keeps us, and the joy of the Lord is what strengthens us. Remember that.