Five. Long. Years. One. Long. Headache. This was my burden. Many of us have experienced, or are experiencing, various versions of chronic pain for varying periods of time. In many cases, it doesn’t make sense and there seems to be no explanation.
We have suffered through morning and night, day after day, pretending to feel fine so as to not make those around us uncomfortable. We go about our daily tasks and responsibilities because, well, somebody has to. We feed our families, we work a full day doing whatever it is that we do, we are intimate with our spouses, all with the background haze of pain.
We have felt the discouragement of not getting better. We have fumbled blindly, looking for that light at the end of the tunnel. We have endured the questions, and the empty encouragements. There truly seems to be nothing more disheartening and miserable than not feeling well 100% of the time.
In the midst of all this misery, is there really joy to be found?
My husband would say no! He is currently experiencing his own version of chronic pain, another without answers or a seeming end in sight. He gets angry at the word “joy”, confusing it with superficial happiness. He envisions a forced smile hiding a resentful heart. He can’t seem to tear himself away from the idea that he is expected to be happy with his pain.
But this is not what true joy is. At least not the joy that comes from above. Chronic pain is miserable. There is no question about it. Nobody enjoys feeling hurt and uncomfortable. So then, where does the joy come from?
This is the word that nobody wants to hear. If you are not familiar with Christian-ese, the word may not be familiar to you. The term “sanctification” is used to define the work that God does in your heart as you grow closer to Him. It is similar to the refining process a goldsmith uses to purify the precious metal. He burns off the rough, dirty edges and removes any impurities, leaving behind a finished product without blemish or abrasion.
Chronic pain, like many other of life’s struggles, is one of those furnaces that we might have to endure to soften out those rough edges.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.James 1:2-4
According to the devotional study, “James: The Steadfast Life”, written by Kristin Schmucker from the Daily Grace Co., “We can trust that God is working even in the midst of our trials. He is working to build our endurance or steadfastness which will result in our spiritual maturity. As we set our hearts on knowing the Lord, we can find joy even in our trials because we know that they are growing us to be more like Him.”
For me, I learned patience and endurance. I learned to ask for prayer, and how to be vulnerable and honest about my circumstance with those close to me. I learned how to pray for myself with the same enthusiasm and commitment that I might pray for others. But the most important thing that my years of pain did for me was to prepare me for my husband’s pain that came shortly after mine was subdued.
I typically tend to be lacking in the compassion and empathy department, getting irritated at others who I see as seeking attention and sympathy. If it weren’t for my previous pain, my response to my husband would be to suck it up and get over it. I’m still a far cry from the model wife in this department, but I do know that God used my own suffering so that I can better support him in his.
God’s Glory Can Really Shine
We have all heard somebody tell us at some point, that God will use this for His good and for His glory. But what does that really mean? And do I really have to suffer so that God can shine?
Here’s the thing, when I feel that I am capable enough (and to be honest, I feel this way a lot), I don’t think to lean on God. I barrel forward on my own strength, and it might turn okay, but I miss out on the blessing of seeing Him work.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul says the following about his own weakness:
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”2 Corinthians 12:7-10
From childhood, one of my favorite events in the Old Testament has always been Gideon’s army defeating the Midianite camp. If you aren’t familiar with this recount of history, you can find it in chapter 7 of the book of Judges. In a nutshell, God tells Gideon to take a small group of men, armed only with trumpets and torches covered with clay jars, and surround the Midianite camp in the middle of the night. Once Gideon called the signal, the men all blew their trumpets and smashed the clay jars. The Midianites hearing the sound and seeing the torch light surrounding their camp erupted into chaos, killing each other in the confusion. God used Gideon’s army to defeat the camp without lifting one sword!
When I was young, my starry-eyed focus was always on the battle scene (which, by the way, was pretty incredible), but about a year ago I went through Priscilla Shirer’s study on Gideon, and through it I gained a perspective I hadn’t thought of before. My focus was shifted away from the great battle and defeat, to the beginning of the chapter where God whittled down Gideon’s army.
He began with a mighty group of 32,000 men. But God said there were too many, and sent 22,000 of them home. Then God said there were still too many, so He sent home even more, leaving only 300 men left to face the Midianites. Now the chapter does not say exactly how many were in the Midianite camp, but it does say that they were “as numerous as locusts; and their camels were without number, as the sand by the seashore in multitude.” Judging by that description, I would say they were quite an intimidating foe.
So why did God send home perfectly good fighting men? Why did He bring Israel to its knees in humility before sending them into battle? Wouldn’t it make more sense to build up their confidence before sending them in to fight? The answer is that He did this so that there would be no question over who won the battle. We can easily get distracted by wanting to accomplish things on our own and desiring that recognition and pride of success for ourselves. In her devotional, Shirer says, “You may not be particularly happy with the 300 you’ve been left with……But according to 2 Corinthians 12:9, ‘Power is perfected in weakness’. The 300 is our secret weapon. It’s a showground for God’s strength. It’s not ‘more’, but it is better because it’s what God will use to bring victory into our lives……Gideon’s previous weaknesses had literally become exchanged with the strength of God. He was filled with the power and the very person of God Himself. He was now ready to be a tool operating according to Yahweh’s will.”
When we barrel on ahead in our own strength and capabilities (which again, seems to by my go-to in life), we miss the blessing of seeing God in action. We can find joy in our chronic pain because it gives us an opportunity to not do things on our own. We learn to patiently wait on the Lord, and in doing so, can be blessed beyond anything we can imagine.
There is no greater joy than seeing God perform a miracle. And what greater miracle than being used to accomplish great things when you know that you are not able on your own.
Chronic pain is awful. It is miserable. And it can bring you to your knees in weakness. But because of our merciful and mighty Savior, we can find joy in the process of refinement, and we can find joy in seeing His plan play out even when we are unable to operate at our full capacity.