Chapter on Pain
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Finding Relief and Acceptance
Tim Doyle is a thirty-something accountant in Indianapolis who has created his own Web site on the Internet entitled "Hope for Those Who Suffer." It's devoted to the meaning and experience of suffering from a Christian perspective. This is a topic that he knows quite a bit about, not through academic study but from firsthand experience. As Tim explains on his Web site:
· His family consists of seven children, now all adults, and his parents.
· Growing up, they were a very athletic and loving Catholic family. However, during their high school years, Tim and three of the other children developed weaknesses that they now know are caused by muscular dystrophy.
· One of the children who has muscular dystrophy and another who doesn't, have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
· Today, four of the seven kids, including Tim, use wheelchairs.
All this agony has left the Doyle family wondering, "Why us?" "Why this?" "Why now?"
When it comes to pain, "Why?" is definitely the burning question. The experience of physical suffering seems so cruel and so unfairly distributed that it can turn even the most literal-minded among us into skeptical theologians. Does God wish us ill? If He doesn't wish us ill, why does He allow so much pain? If He does wish us ill, why?
Tim Doyle has struggled over these questions, too. And though he has found comfort in reading the Bible, the question of "Why, Lord? Still exists. But as Tim notes, "The Bible is clear: We're never going to understand all of our suffering on this side of eternity. But it really helps me to see that in His sovereignty, God chose suffering for His own Son. I feel that God is honoring me by saying, "Tim, the path of pain that I chose for My Son is the same path that I'm using to bring you to Me." Soothing the Wounded Spirit Pastoral counselors who work day in and day out with people in pain will tell you that Tim Doyle's story is neither unique nor universal. Certainly, there are many people who, at least initially, find their beliefs more a stumbling block than a blessing in coping with pain. "I see a lot of anger," say the Reverend Kent Richmond, doctor of sacred theology, chaplain at the Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois, and author of Preaching to Sufferers. "A lot of people feel that their faith should have protected them, should have made them special, if you will. The discovery that that doesn't happen is often difficult." So difficult, Dr. Richmond adds, that many of them decided that they want nothing to do with God anymore. That's a tragedy, because as difficult as it may be to reconcile suffering with belief, an overwhelming amount of evidence documents that faith and prayer can help people learn how to live with pain, if they have to, and in some cases, overcome it.
Here are some suggestions for getting in touch with God when we're in pain.
1. Have faith in God's presence.
Maybe we can't understand why God allows pain. Nonetheless, say Dr. Richmond, we can be certain that He stands with us in our suffering. Far from being aloof and unmoved, God suffers with us. He actively participates in our pain. This shared suffering, Richmond adds, is central to the meaning of Christ's journey to the cross, as prophesied in the Bible: "Surely He has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases ." (Isaiah 53:4 NRSV) Find your own understanding. Believers throughout the ages have found different ways to view the problem of pain, and we need to search for answers that make sense in our own heart. Dr. Richmond, for example, doesn't necessarily share Tim Doyle's view that God wills suffering as a means of drawing sinners closer to Him. " I think that we live in an unfinished creation," he says. "God seeks our willingness to participate in the completion of that creation and the humanizing of it. Pain is part of that. God is not responsible for it, but God will give us strength to help us cope." If our particular view of God is adding to our suffering rather than easing it, we may want to re-examine those beliefs, Dr. Richmond suggests.
2. Share sorrow.
It's not surprising that pastoral counselors believe that sharing our pain with someone can help lighten the load. That view is supported by research scientists who have found that communicating the experience of illness has definite therapeutic advantages. "Telling our stories is a way of processing what's happening," says Frank Baker, Ph.D., director of the Behavioral Research Center at the American Cancer Society. "It helps put life in order and gives meaning to suffering." Many people have found tremendous comfort in attending support groups where they can share what they're going through with others undergoing the same experience. Thousands of such groups exist, meeting in person and on the Internet, and hey address an amazing variety of conditions and situations, from cancer and miscarriage to Lyme disease and arthritis. Doctors, pastors, and social workers at hospitals and local health departments often have lists of such groups. For free information, write to the American Self-Help Clearinghouse, Saint Clare's Hospital, 25 Pocono Road, Denville, NJ 07834-2995. To find groups on the Internet, connect to one of the major search engines and enter search terms such as pain, support group, and/or the name of the particular condition.
The Reverend Justin Tull, doctor of ministry, senior pastor at the Oak Lawn United Methodist Church in Dallas, and author of Why God, Why? Sermons on the Problem of Pain, recommends approaching these groups with some caution, initially. "Many support groups are tremendously helpful," he says. "But some groups tend to dwell on the problem rather than moving forward. Also, support groups may not be the right solution for every person at a particular time." Be prepared to attend several meetings before making up your mind.
3. Serve others.
Research has shown that's its possible to ameliorate pain by distracting yourself from it, Dr. Baker says, and one of the most effective ways of doing that is to think about helping others. Dr. Tull cites the case of two members of his church: one, a woman who had just lost her husband, and the other, a young man that he was thinking of her in her time of grief, and she did the same when he was in the hospital. " Here were two people in pain for different reasons," Pastor Tull says, "and the fact that they would take the time to think of each other had tremendous power."
For Tim Doyle, testifying to God's power in his life, both in person and through his Web site, has been a major factor in his coming to terms with his disease. "I've been a much more powerful witness for Him in this wheelchair than I ever could have been without it," he says. " I just thank God for choosing me to be in His service."
4. Cope with one day at a time.
Suffering is easier to handle in small does, says Tull. "Don't ask how are you're going to endure this for the next 20 years," he says. "Just concentrate on how you're going to get through today." Take the long view. Paradoxically, Tim Doyle finds that he can get through difficult days of focusing on what he calls God's eternal perspective. He cites the Bible passage in which Paul writes, "I consider that sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us." (Romans 8:18 NRSV) Another key passage for Doyle: "For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure." (2 Corinthians 4:17 NRSV) "I receive tremendous comfort in God's eternal promises, as they provide and endless source of strength to help me through the toughest days. As my body weakens, His strength, through His promises, increases," says Doyle.
5. Pray with others.
Praying to God while being supported by others who care for you is a potent combination. "I can hardly think of anything more helpful than that," says the Reverend Steven Estes, senior pastor of Community Evangelical Free Church in Elverson Pennsylvania, and co-author of When God Weeps. Reverend Estes's church holds regular Sunday night prayer sessions where people in various types of need are prayed for by the congregation.
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