Pastoring in pain: Serving God when you suffer
"On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate the pain?” the neurologist asked. “Pain at level one would be stubbing your toe. Level ten would be the most excruciating pain you could imagine.”
His matter-of-fact demeanor irritated me. Surely he could feel my hurt. The pain on the left side of my face throbbed mercilessly, as always. “Most of the time about a five or a six,” I groaned, “but sometimes as high as a seven or eight.”
For close to six years, I have lived with what doctors now label “Atypical Facial Pain.” One side of my face is in constant pain, without any discernible cause or any prescribable cure. One medical Web site notes tersely, “Treatment: none available at present.” Pain has become my companion whether I am praying, studying, preaching, spending time with my family, exercising, or trying to sleep.
Like Paul, I have asked the Lord to take away this thorn in my flesh. So far, He has not. Faithful friends, colleagues, even complete strangers, have laid their hands on me, anointed me with oil, and prayed that God would heal me. So far He has not.
I have read books on pain and healing. I have been through X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, and spinal taps. I have tried 16 different prescription drugs. I have had surgery. I have altered my diet. I exercise more than ever before. So far nothing has taken away the excruciating pain. And so I live with constant pain.
In my darker moments, I grumble. I experience the aches, and I can only pray and pine that the Lord will heal me—now. In my brighter moments, I actually welcome the pain. My spiritual life—and my pastoral experience—has been enriched through coping with the constant agony.
Paralyzed by pain
I would be dishonest to say I am thankful for pain. If I could do something to never feel pain again— or had never known pain in the first place—I would do so, instantly. Yet I am beginning to appreciate some of the subtle blessings of pain. Years into this journey, I am starting to see some of the good things that come from suffering.
When my health began to fail, I found myself in very unfamiliar territory. For the first time I was overwhelmed by the reality that I could not solve my own problems. Up to that point, life had gone smoothly. I had done well by most criteria. I had graduated as the outstanding graduate of my high school and university department. I earned two master’s degrees from two different universities in four years. I completed a PhD in three years while pastoring full time. I had been blessed with a wonderful wife and three beautiful, healthy children. My pastoral ministry has been “successful” by most measures: people were coming to faith and growing in spiritual maturity. The churches I pastored grew. I led churches through building programs and into new ministry territory. I was involved in denominational leadership and had opportunities to shape new and exciting ministries.
Then the pain began. Between the pain and medication, I was dizzy and ill for months. Most weeks, all I could muster was a scratchy sermon. I preached sitting down because I was too nauseous and weak to stand. I could not visit. I could not teach. I could not meet with anyone. I had to excuse myself from committee meetings. I had to resign from community and denominational leadership. I was humbled. I was helpless. For the first time in my life I felt physically and spiritually powerless. And I felt physically and spiritually destitute.
I began to wonder, What if I cannot continue? What if I am physically unable to work? I looked at prospects for my family and myself, personally. What could I do besides ministry? My skills, abilities, gifts, and education did present options. But all the alternatives were similar to pastoral ministry in their physical demands: speaking, teaching, administrating, or counseling. I found myself lying awake at night, experiencing panic attacks.
Spiritually, I was exhausted. I prayed. But my prayers for healing went unanswered in the way I had requested. I read the Bible. The words sat on the page, irrelevant to my life. People offered spiritual wisdom and prayer, but their insights did not fit my situation. Their prayers for healing seemed to be ignored. One well-meaning friend prayed fervently, anointed me with oil, and claimed healing. When the healing did not happen, she politely informed me I ought to have more faith. I was angry with her, but I also wondered if she was right.
Other Christian friends and pastoral colleagues evaporated. Whether they were unsure of what to say or do, overwhelmed by other needs, or uncomfortable with a friend and colleague in pain, most of these friends never called. I felt very alone.
But I did keep praying.
Cries from the depths
Several years of hindsight later, I am surprised by the practical lessons I have learned through this ordeal. For instance, I have discovered prayer—real prayer. On my worst days I have been forced to pray, “Lord, just help me make it through this day!” I had never prayed such a basic prayer before. And the Lord has helped me through every day—just. Some days I barely drag through, only to collapse into bed at night, thanking God that I survived.
I read the raw passion of the Psalms with a renewed respect for the suffering of God’s people. I am encouraged that I can pray brutally honest prayers.
My Christian faith has become much more relevant and pragmatic than in systematic theology class debates. I still believe and teach solid biblical Christian theology. But my preaching and teaching on complex issues, such as pain and suffering, is less trite. My reflections are tempered with more compassion than before. While I still champion spiritual truth, I find myself more empathetic with those who struggle with their pain and how their faith intersects with their life challenges.
I believe more passionately than ever in the great truths and promises of Scripture, especially the sovereignty of God. He can heal; I believe that absolutely. But I continue to appreciate that God does not heal at my command. Healing is His initiative and His gift. Healing is not some genie I can conjure up by the right prayer. Appreciating God’s sovereignty, I have learned, is not blind submission, but a statement of profound faith in an omnipotent, omniscient God.
My theology has also become more eschatological. As my present experience has become painful, I find I reflect more on eternity. Until the pain, I rarely thought of heaven. My day-to-day experience was quite comfortable. No longer. Now I find myself yearning more and more for the promised perfection of resurrection. I find myself more able to understand the biblical concepts of faith and hope—as yet unfulfilled promises that one day will be our lived experience—than I had before.
I have discovered new credibility in my ministry with others in pain.
Last spring I held Pat’s hand in the emergency ward when the doctor told him his diagnosis: lymphoma. I was there less than 48 hours later when he came out of his first chemotherapy treatment. The five tumors that the scans had identified were growing faster than any of the internists at the hospital had seen.
Lymphoma explained those splitting headaches that had crippled Pat since December. Test after test had revealed nothing. But the pain had persisted. And Pat and his wife, Nancy, had yearned for a diagnosis. Over the months they agonized, wondering what the problem really was. Now this.
My wife and I knew the stress of waiting for test results and diagnoses. We had waited two and a half years for the source of my pain to be identified. Cancer? In my case, twelve months of tests finally ruled that out. But it was a year of agonizing worry, waiting for the verdict.
Doctors then guessed neuralgia. They prescribed treatment. Ten months, five prescriptions, and merciless days of drug-induced nausea later, no change in the pain.
Multiple sclerosis? Another MRI. A spinal tap that took weeks to recover from. More medication. Another five months. Another dead end.
Another hypothesis. Another failure. Another test. Another blizzard of prescriptions. Another roller coaster of emotions (and side effects). Finally, the neurosurgeon pronounced a “diagnosis of exclusion”; having ruled everything else out, he announced I had “Atypical Facial Pain,” a rare neurological condition in which one side of one’s face is always in pain.
My diagnosis is not nearly as severe as Pat’s. But both he and Nancy appreciated that my wife and I had been there. We had endured the “not-knowings,” the “what-ifs,” and the “what-nexts.” We knew the agony of waiting weeks and months for a diagnosis. My suffering has given my ministry credibility with the Pats in my life.
I live 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with pain. Of course, Pat’s suffering was much sharper than mine. But as we shared, he knew I walked in pain too. Though our experiences and diagnoses were unique, we shared a bond. As we talked and prayed, he knew that my body was not whole either. We were both wounded. We were kindred spirits, aching together, crying together, and laughing together about lab tests, lunch trays, and tourniquets. Without my pain, we would still have related well. But we bonded more deeply because we shared physical suffering.
When Pat’s wife called at 11:18 P.M. on a Friday night, when I held his hand, when he slept in the Lord during my prayer over him moments later, Pat, his wife, and I shared a bond that will last into eternity. Our shared pain led Pat into a shared relationship with Jesus too. That night was one of the most beautiful evenings of my life. And pain was one gift God used to make it possible.
This pain has built bridges of compassion and caring that otherwise might never have come into being.
My pain life has pushed me to ongoing, intensive evaluation of my life and ministry. I ask the Lord, myself, my wife, and my church leaders to help me discern the absolute essentials of my ministry. I do not have the energy or ability to be all things to all people. We appreciate that I need to be in a team ministry context, where others can complement my strengths and compensate for my weaknesses.
As a consequence, I have changed the way I do ministry. Before the onset of the pain, despite a theological commitment to team ministry and priesthood of all believers, I did everything in the church. I was a solo pastor who shoveled the snow, wrote the bulletin, taught classes, visited shut-ins, and so forth. I knew I should have had others involved, but it was easier to do it myself.
My disability has demanded that others use their gifts and do ministry with me. I cannot do it all anymore.
I have focused more time and energy developing people who can do ministry and provide leadership in the church. Ministry teams now do much of the work of the church. I encourage the team, but they do the work of ministry.
Treatment and medication have stabilized the pain at a manageable level. These days the pain is about three on the ten-point scale. I have learned that to keep the pain at that level, I must be disciplined. I swim or walk for an hour every day. I manage my diet carefully. I make sure I have stress-free leisure time structured into every day. I rigorously ensure I take time off. If I get too tired or too stressed, the pain escalates rapidly. I need Sabbath. Now I do not just teach others about Sabbath, I live it.
Last year I was one of several speakers sharing my spiritual story at a year-end banquet. The person who spoke before I did talked about a painful condition he had had. He had prayed, “in faith” (he emphasized this phrase several times), and now his pain was gone. His message was on how to pray “in faith.” “If you have enough faith, and pray,” he triumphantly proclaimed, “God will heal!” His experience led him to present a cause-and-effect formula. If you are in need, pray. If you have enough faith, God will act. Guaranteed.
I spoke next. I had not been healed. I spoke of my roller-coaster journey of faith. And I emphasized that though God had not healed me, I had found His Spirit sustaining me, grown deeper in my faith, and developed a more profound daily dependence upon God. My pain has been instrumental in my spiritual growth.
After dinner, the other speaker spoke to me. “How can you be a pastor?” he asked. “You don’t have faith.” In his cause-and-effect world, my experience did not make sense.
That evening still haunts me. Was he correct? As I thought and prayed, I felt an affirmation that God was still calling me to pastoral ministry. I was reassured that I had genuine faith. But my journey has been different than my friend’s.
God, I believe, deals with us individually. For some, faith manifests itself in healing. For others, God asks us to be faithful by walking through the valley of the shadows. That faithful walking, day in, day out, is real faith too. I have needed tremendous faith to walk, hour by hour, with the pain.
By walking with pain, every minute, I am forced to be faithful. Every day I am forced to depend on God’s grace and mercy. This pain has become one of God’s most effective tools to keep me close and faithful to Him.
If God were to heal me this instant, would I rejoice? Absolutely! I look forward, eagerly, to some day enjoying a pain-free existence. But if God chooses to tarry, allowing me to bear this pain throughout this life, can I see His blessing? Yes. The lessons I have learned, the opportunities for ministry that have come, the growing maturity I have experienced, have been blessings to me and those around me.
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