catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 7 :: 2013.03.29 — 2013.04.11


Living in the tension

Questions of chronic pain and healing

When, at age 22, I began having inexplicable chronic ankle pain that kept me from the walking, dancing and biking I loved, I honestly felt like my life had come to an end.

Fresh out of college, I was ready to take on life’s unexpected adventures, but just not this one. Persistent pain was an anti-adventure, an unwelcome companion that kept me sidelined at home while the rest of my friends hiked mountains and salsa danced. My faith, which had sustained me up until now through a rocky family life and a bout of depression in college, now wore thin. God’s promises of life abundant and a hope-filled future seemed distant and stale, as if a stranger other than me used to believe them. Life stretched before me in a tunnel of unrelenting pain.

At the root of my angst were several questions that wedged into the once-stable core of my existence, leaving me un-moored. I questioned my body, by which I felt betrayed. Why wasn’t it able to heal properly? How could these limbs on which I had prided myself for being so strong, trim, and supple suddenly turn fragile and diseased?

I questioned society and the health care system along with the mentality of efficiency and scientific mastery of the body which pervades both. Why did doctors seem not to care about my pain? How could the medical industry go on blithely selling pharmaceuticals that often do more harm than good?

I questioned God and his wisdom in allowing the world to be the way it was. The problem of evil, which was abstract before, became glaringly personal. Children dying of hunger, mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers coming down with cancer, and all manner of disease, disability and pain cascaded into my own pain to form one gigantic glowing question mark that blinded me every time I tried to look to God.

Finally, I questioned the messages of the church and of my fellow Christians. I had digested many implicit forms of the health and wealth gospel. The more explicit ones I rejected outright as false gospels, but others were more subtle and plausible. Sometimes, I honestly didn’t know whether the truth lay. If it was true that God intended his children to be healthy and whole, where did my chronic pain, of which I prayed constantly to be healed, fit in? Why was it that sometimes miraculous healings occurred, and sometimes they didn’t? Could I, as one prayer minister suggested to me, be “harboring unforgiveness” or some other sin, such that it was blocking God’s healing power?

In the end, I just couldn’t fully reconcile the fact that some faithful followers of Jesus could suffer horrible, interminable diseases, pain and silence from God with the images of glowing physical and spiritual health that I had associated with being a Christian. As a young adult just beginning to realize the depth of despair and darkness that is part and parcel of living in a broken world, it was too much. 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?

Today, it’s been nearly three years since my ankle pain started, and while I still experience some pain, I am grateful to say things have improved tremendously. I’m not sure why. Was I healed? Was it time? Was it the physical therapy? Was my body finally able to recover once I released my viselike anxiety over it? All of the above? While I don’t have definitive answers to any of my questions, I do feel more at peace about them.

I’ve realized there isn’t a direct, one-to-one connection between spiritual and physical health. Just because we have a good relationship with God doesn’t mean he is obligated to heal our physical ailments, although he does delight in doing so. Likewise, if we don’t receive the physical healing we long for, even though we persistently ask God, this doesn’t necessarily indicate spiritual blockage or shortcoming.

When we preach and internalize the message that spiritual and physical wellbeing go hand in hand, this is more a sign of our continued reliance on works than a sign of faith. It is much easier and tidier to believe that if our bodies aren’t well, it is because we aren’t committed or surrendered enough, rather than live with the uneasy truth that no matter how hard we discipline and groom our bodies and devote them in trust to God, they can still fall prey to disease and pain.

In Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity, anthropologist R. Marie Griffith documents the way many American Protestants have taken the easier route in trying to resolve the tension between the body’s deterioration and the hope of healing. Citing books like Charlie Shedd’s Pray Your Weight Away (1957) and Joan Cavanaugh’s More of Jesus, Less of Me (1976), Griffith shows that American Protestant diet culture was strongly influenced by earlier New Thought principles which set forth that disciplined control of one’s body, including strict regimens of fasting and limited food intake, could eventually eradicate bodily impurities and lead to perfect health, even including the escape of death. Griffith writes, “For the obese, ‘out of tune’ with God, the Holy Spirit’s knocking on their hearts could not be heard through layers of fat. Once these layers were peeled away and the Spirit could enter into the body, the results were confidence, direction, energy, and love, all of which created a new dynamism, radiance, and true health.”

These beliefs which causally link physical vitality with spiritual vitality, or vice versa, are the unfortunate legacies we live with as contemporary Christians. Believing that the victorious Christian life is transcendence over pain, infirmity and fat, we are at a loss when our efforts to work our way to wellbeing fail and we face uncooperative bodies, ailing cells and flabby flesh. We would rather ignore these unsettling instances or chalk them up to not trying hard enough.

Is there another way to live in the tension between life and death, renewal and decay, in the Christian life? Can we come to a more gracious and faithful understanding of bodily imperfection? Theologian Deborah Beth Creamer’s “limits model” in Disability and Christian Theology clears some new ground in this direction. As Creamer understands it, disability, illness and pain can teach us important lessons about God and ourselves. They reveal the limitedness and dependency of all human beings, physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. In Creamer’s model, she asserts that limits are 1) unsurprising characteristics of humanity, 2) an intrinsic aspect of the human experience, and 3) good, not evil.

Seen from the “limits” perspective, disability, illness and pain are not “abnormal” deviations from an otherwise healthy existence, but a normal part of life. The experiences themselves may not be good, but the fact that we have limits, that our bodies are sensitive and react to negative inputs, and that we cannot push our bodies to do everything we wish they could is definitely good. All of these things are part of being human. They do not signal faithlessness or disobedience. That it took me a personal experience with chronic pain and months of wringing despair to come to such a realization is a reflection of just how deeply yet subtly the health and wealth gospel is ingrained in my corner of the Christian subculture.

I have since learned to see good and welcome God’s redemption through pain. My body’s brokenness and fragility force me to depend on the help of others and relinquish any illusions of control I harbor. When I encounter the suffering of others, I am reminded of the raw pain and bleeding despair I have also felt. I still question, though, and I still get confused. In this season of Eastertide, when we celebrate Christ’s descent into the very pit of pain, death and decay and his ascent in a resurrected body, I pray that his church might come to a fuller and deeper understanding of what it means for death and life to exists side by side until his second coming. All the while, every cell in my own trembling body cries out, “Even so, come Lord Jesus!”

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