Between Chronic Pain and Healing

My article for Catapult Magazine’s Health and Wealth Gospel issue tells the story of my journey with chronic pain and the questions I asked along the way. Disease, dying, decay…how did these realities make sense together with the healing, restoration and rebirth that Christians speak of as signs of God’s presence among us?

Read the full article here:


Why Am I Not Yet Healed?

This question has often plagued me in the two plus years that I have struggled with chronic ankle pain. I hear stories of miraculous healings from people I know and trust, read about them in the Gospels, and hear time and again messages about the connection between faith and healing.

Just to be up front – I am not going to answer my own question in this post. If I knew the answer, I would also be on the cusp of solving the problem of evil – a problem which centuries of deep probing has left just as tangled as it began. I am simply going to offer a few thoughts based on my own experiences.

Firstly, I have come understand that I am asking the wrong question. When I draw near to God for the sole purpose of getting healed of an ailment, I miss out on the truest and best gift He offers – Himself. I am, as C.S. Lewis so poignantly described, seeking solace in mud pies when there are fireworks going off over my head.

During a period when I kept bringing this painful question about my healing to God, a line from the Gospel of Matthew began glowing with new significance for me, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (6:33). I don’t know when or how God will finally take away this pain. I trust He will sometime, even if not in this world, but, as for me, I am called to seek God’s face and His kingdom above all else.

Second, God, like Aslan, is not a tame lion. I can’t predict that since my friend over here was healed after three years of persistent prayer, the same thing will happen to me. I love the way that Jesus never repeats his methods of healing people in the Gospels. One minute, he is making a spit and dirt salve for a blind man. The next minute, he is healing the centurion’s servant from afar. The next minute, who knows what?

God’s ways are a mystery to me, and totally, exhilaratingly unpredictable. But I can trust that He knows my story, that He is writing my story with me, and that He will meet me in the midst of my story in a way that is deeply personal and completely Himself.

Finally, I believe that good things come out of the tension between brokenness and wholeness, between longing for and receiving healing, between the already and the not yet. One of my mentors would gently remind me that, in the midst of being tried by fire and stretched to my limit, God was forging in my heart the precious gems that could only be formed under intense pressure.

Parker Palmer expressed the same truth another way. He writes that we shy away from holding together tension and paradox because of an underlying fear that our hearts may break from holding the tension any longer. We see the reality of our broken bodies, lives, and societies, and we see the hope of healing, wholeness, redemption. But we tremble at the thought of standing in the tragic gap between the two. It is easier to respond with fight (making your ideals come true by force) or flight (escaping to a fantasy world where the reality can’t disturb you).

Sometimes it just seems to hurt too much to hold together both the hope of healing and the present pain. It makes our hearts break. But this does not have to be a bad thing. Palmer writes, “As I stand in the tragic gap between reality and possibility, this small, tight fist of a thing called my heart can break open into a greater capacity to hold more of my own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope.”[1]

I love this. I have often felt in the midst of the emotional pain that comes from questioning the meaning of my physical pain that I was falling into the gaps of life. I walked such a thin line between hope and despair, trust and disgust, patience and desperation. Honestly, I don’t like being there. I would feel much more comfortable with some solid answers about why this is happening to me. But I don’t have any. I just have the gap. As I grope forward, I take a small, brave step in believing that God is with me in the gap, and that He is enlarging my soul to live in more spacious places.

[1] Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (2004, Jossey-Bass, p. 178).

Waiting for the Body

Modern medicine has stripped the body of the sanctity and mystery with which God endowed it. Instead of seeing people (body and soul) as “fearfully and wonderfully made” and knit together by God in their mothers’ wombs (Psalm 139), we treat the people as separate from their bodies and approach the body as a machine. I have been guilty of this mindset.

When I started getting an odd pain in my left ankle a couple years ago, I initially ignored it, hoping it would resolve itself. When it continued and worsened, I went to an orthopedic doctor, who told me I had tendonitis and to wear orthotics and then to use a walking boot. When that didn’t help, I went to another doctor for a second opinion and got an MRI. This doctor concluded that my navicular bone was swollen (I know – “What??”) and prescribed physical therapy. To make a long story short, I searched left and right, up and down for the source of my pain and the solution to fix it. I tried everything short of surgery, from anti-inflammatory drugs to chiropractic adjustments to acupuncture to prolotherapy injections. The only thing I didn’t try was waiting. Actually, I was forced to wait, because the pain didn’t go away.

Looking back on the first year or so of having ankle pain, I recognize a poisonous attitude which hindered my ability to respond well to the pain. I was treating my body as if it were a car that had malfunctioned. I just wanted a mechanic to tinker around a bit, oil it up, and get it running again the way it used to. In my mind, my body was “broke.” I was dead set on doing whatever it took to “fix” it. Since it wasn’t getting fixed, I was angry and desperate – you can’t get a new body the way you can get a new car. But that’s what I thought I needed – just a replacement part, or some kind of easy tune-up.

But what if the body is not an “it”? What if it’s a “thou” (in the words of Martin Buber[1]). Flora Slosson Wuellner calls the body our life companion.[2] Our body is part of our self – a self which is made in God’s image, not just a machine to be used. Our bodies receive and register things that our conscious selves cannot. Our bodies may register the pain of a traumatic event through headaches or unusual pains, even if our conscious selves cannot bring that event up in our memory. They may manifest anxiety or stress through an outbreak of acne, or indigestion. If we stop treating the body simply as something to be fixed, but rather as a part of our self that communicates valuable knowledge about our experiences and our identity, then perhaps we would approach illness and pain in a completely different manner.

There are, of course, often legitimate physical causes for bodily ailments. For my part, I am suspicious that Cipro, an antibiotic drug in the fluoroquinolone category that I took for an infection two weeks before the pain started and which is known for causing spontaneous tendon ruptures and tendonitis (I wish my doctor had told me that!)[3] was the instigator of my ankle pain (again, another case where modern medicine does not properly honor bodily wisdom but instead intervenes with solutions that often cause more harm than good).

Even though my pain may have had a physical cause, however, I try to catch myself when I have the urge to run around like a chicken with my head cut off trying this and that treatment, looking for any possible fix. I still experiment with different treatments to try to relieve the pain and return back to my previous level of activity. But I am learning not to expect my body to always respond to treatment in a direct cause-effect, mechanistic way, nor to expect everything to suddenly be all better in two weeks. To be sure, God can work miracles, and maybe He will gift me with a quick, complete healing.

But maybe God also wants to teach me, in the midst of the pain, to wait for my body, to be gentle and patient, and to listen to this oft-ignored part of myself. I hope one day, whether the pain is gone or not, I’ll be able to truly acknowledge my body as a valuable and wise life companion whose rhythms and processes cannot fully be dissected by modern science, but rather are fearfully and wonderfully sustained by God.

[1] See Martin Buber’s book I and Thou (1958, New York: Scribner).

[2] Flora Slosson Wuellner, Prayer and Our Bodies (1987, Nashville, TN: The Upper Room).

[3] For more about the dangerous effects of Cipro and similar drugs, click here and here.