Herb was in a car accident during college. A few years later he was rear-ended. Twenty years later he fell off a 32-foot ladder. Since that time not one day has passed without pain.
Betty now in her mid-70s, calls her constant back pain “a way of life.”
Myrna has lived with pain for 35 years, the results of various accidents, illnesses, and migraine headaches. She depends on her strong faith and supportive friends to get through each day.
Georgia suffered degenerative arthritis which resulted in terrible back pain that left her mostly bedfast. In her darkest moments she focused on a little angel that said “Faith.”
Leilani developed psoriatic arthritis twenty years ago and lives with chronic permanent pain. She still works a full-time job.
Chris’ back degenerated with age and damaged discs caused severe pain and foot dragging. Severe pain kept him in bed for months, and at times he was suicidal. Two surgeries have transformed his life and he is now nearly pain free.
Sandra cannot remember being without pain even as a child. Prone to bad infections, they worsened the older she got. Gall stones, stomach disease, digestive issues, and endometriosis brought surgeries. Spinal injuries from a car accident produced terrible pain that defies diagnosis. Diagnosed with MS, she temporarily ended up in a wheelchair. Appointments with neurosurgeons resulted in three additional surgeries, but the pain continues. “On a scale of 1 to 10, I have pain that exceeds 10 many times.”
These true stories are from friends of mine. Some are young. Others are old. All have lived with pain. Most still do. All were gracious to share openly with me so I could tell you their experiences. I have not used their real names.
Me? I am a novice and five years of living with pain isn’t much. Compared to what many suffer my pain might be termed more bothersome than crippling. My pain—extremely severe aching—stems from a degenerating spine. I had surgery (laminectomy with instrumented fusion) in October of 2014. It was a success in opening up three critically narrowed vertebrae, but the pain continues and new MRIs reveal multiple problems that age likely will worsen. Injections into my vertebrae have—for now—taken care of the right-leg weakness that brought a cane into my life. I am most grateful. I can manage my pain with medication and stretching—so far. I want to explore this difficult subject because it’s likely my pain will get worse as my back ages and I want to be ready. I want to encourage everyone I can by every means I can and maybe reading this will help someone. And writing it may help me.
Is Pain a Gift?
Years ago I read an arresting article by Phillip Yancey, one of my favorite authors, entitled, “The Gift Nobody Wants.” Mr. Yancey collaborated with the brilliant Dr. Paul Brand, a gifted surgeon who committed his life to those with Hansen ’s disease, formerly known as leprosy. This disease with a gruesome calling card of disfiguration has been a dreaded worldwide scourge until the 1940s when a drug was discovered that kills the disease-causing bacteria. Lepra, a UK based organization (https://www.lepra.org.uk) claims that Hansen ’s disease is now is completely curable.
Why am I bringing up Hansen’s Disease? Because the disfigurement and sometimes loss of hands, eyes, and feet is caused by no pain. The infecting bacteria produce an anesthetization that keeps the infected person from noticing a sliced foot, a burned hand, or an infected eye. Left untreated, these painless wounds allow infection to rage and gangrene to set in, often resulting in amputation. So we can see the reasoning behind Philip Yancey’s assertion that pain is a gift.
Pain is the body’s alarm system that something is wrong. Pain alerts us to a bee sting, a cut finger, a dislocated vertebra, or an infected appendix. Without pain we would not know we need treatment. Usually, the worse the injury or disease, the worse the pain.
Chronic and debilitating pain
While we readily understand the benefit of pain, chronic pain and debilitating agony certainly are not gifts. Millions worldwide live with both physical and emotional pain, enduring indescribable misery at incalculable financial and relational cost. Physical pain often leads to emotional pain, sometimes with heartbreaking outcomes. Chris’s father lived in constant pain from a ruptured disc. He escaped into alcoholism and, at age 50, committed suicide. His physical pain produced emotional damage to his family. Leilani pointed out how exhausting constant pain can be, wearing patience thin and draining hope. Chris confessed that pain affected his ability to relate to God, to other people, and tempted him to think about suicide. Sandra said, “I often thought about what it would be like to shoot myself or drive my car off a bridge.”
We are blessed to live in a day and age when sophisticated diagnosis, treatment, and medications are available. But even with modern medicine, pain persists. What happens when it becomes a fact of life for you?
Surviving the Pain
How we deal with pain is highly personal. We have learned that a positive attitude is invaluable and a strong will to survive carries some people for a long time. Norman Cousins was given a few months to live in 1964. He had Ankylosing Spondylitis, a rare disease of the connective tissues. He was told that he had a 1 in 500 chance of survival. He responded by choosing to live around those who believed he could survive and did not have “the culture of defeat.” Most notably, he watched comedies for hours and claimed that laughter alleviated much of his pain. He died in 1990, twenty-six years after the diagnosis.
It’s normal to respond to long-term pain with anger and frustration. Sandra wrote that, “The longer this journey continued, the more frustrated and angry I became with God. Why hasn’t he healed me? I had family and friends who were praying. I had been anointed and prayed for by my pastor. My dad was anointed for me at his church. Why wasn’t he helping the doctors figure out what was going on? I just wanted to get my life back.” Chris was frustrated by the burden that his pain created for his wife, although she never complained. Feeling trapped by pain also leads to depression or worse.
Some people suffer silently. Others reach out for help. Being proactive is important. Sandra stressed the importance of doing what the doctors said, taking her medicine, and following through on physical therapy. Sometimes the therapy and exercise worsened the pain, but she did what she could. Become an expert on your condition. Knowing what to expect keeps you from being blindsided. Chris found meaning and a purpose to go on by volunteering at a church. I asked my doctor for antidepressant medication (after a four-year hiatus) and my emotional improvement helped me start blogging, which gives me purpose. Stay in touch with friends. Social networking on sites such as Facebook can keep your friends and family connected.
Redeeming the Pain
Those with spiritual resources do far better at managing chronic pain, both emotional and physical. Pain tests you as nothing else can test you. It reveals who you really are deep down inside. An impoverished soul provides little hope. Leilani found strength in the accounts of those who suffered in the Bible. “I think about Paul and how he suffered from a mysterious malady; we don’t know if it was a mystery to him, but it’s a mystery to us. His experience often helps put things in perspective for me. Knowing the severe pain others go through…also humbles me and helps me to remember that, though my pain is chronic and permanent, it is somewhat manageable and less severe than what others have to endure.”
The Bible is honest about pain. Not only that, but God felt it important to identify with our pain by himself coming to earth to live as a human who experienced all of the emotions and pain that some of us know so well. Unlike us, he endured unspeakable torture by scourging, crucifixion, and a lingering death. Christ-followers believe his undeserving death provides forgiveness of sins and eternal life with Him. Hebrews 2:18 explains how important it is to know that we pray to a God who himself experienced pain. “Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested.”
C. S. Lewis famously said, “Pain insists upon begin attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone….” In our desperation to find relief which sometimes doesn’t come, we seek God’s face. Sandra says that her relentless pain opened her eyes to a deep need for God. “God began to show me that what I needed to do, and the most important things I could do, was spend time with Him.” Myrna observes, “It is for me to stand firm that God is in control. These things happen for a purpose so that I may share my faith in a quiet way and to help others in their journey in suffering with pain.”
If we will allow our pain to drive us to discover more about God and magnify our compassion and empathy for those who suffer, does it not make us better? If pain is, as C. S. Lewis asserted, God’s megaphone, could it not become an invaluable catalyst to clean our spiritual house and allow God to make us like Him? And perhaps only the desperate truly look for God wholeheartedly, which is the entrance to His presence and eternal companionship.
 2 Corinthians 12:8-9
 Jeremiah 29:13 If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me.
David Shultz enjoys mountain views in Arizona where he lives with his wife and two dogs, Molly and Maggie.