“desperate”, chronic pain & bad theology

“in this crazy world, there’s an enormous distinction between good times and bad, between sorrow and joy. but in the eyes of God, they’re never separated. where there is pain, there is healing. where there is mourning, there is dancing. where there is poverty, there is the kingdom…” henri nouwen

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years ago i went toe to toe with an elder at a church who told me that i needed to stop using the word “desperate” because “he and most of his friends didn’t wake up in the morning feeling ‘desperate'” like so many of the people i knew.  he said that they were tired of hearing about “those recovery people all the time and they weren’t like them.” i won’t go into the ins and outs of how familiar that conversation has been to me over the years, but i clearly remember walking away from that interaction reminded yet again how people who seem “desperate” aren’t in leadership in most churches.  we recruit the good business-people-and-upstanding-christian-citizens but very rarely the outwardly broken.  and while i spend a lot of time advocating for “desperation” to be okay in the church and for it to be a safe and healing place for the least and the last, i also respect that in my own life i am not too keen on being “desperate” either.  i like to talk about it.  but i don’t really be it.

starting last year i have had a ton of back pain.  it has cycled in and out since then; this past may, after a long trip, it took a turn for the worse again.  i managed to stretch my way through the summer, keeping the pain sort of at bay, but as soon as the kids went back to school decided to really focus on getting well.  since then it’s gotten worse. and worse.  i am in physical therapy. i have been going to acupuncture. i do my exercises. i lay on my miracle ball.  i am walking more than i’ve ever walked in my life.  and several days ago i was still curled up in a little ball crying out to God to take the pain away.  i told some friends that i totally feel like one of the sick, the paralyzed, the bleeding, in the gospels who will do absolutely anything, crawl on my hands and knees, for the possibility of Jesus’ touch.  yeah, i know it sounds dramatic.  but that’s what pain is like.  it can be blinding.  it is brutal.  it is tiring.  it is wearing.

and pain is telling.

you see, when i am in pain–whether it be emotional pain or the kind of physical pain i am experiencing now–the first thing i always go to in my head is “i must be doing something wrong…if i just prayed harder, was more faithful, took better care of myself, acknowledge God more, slowed down, etc., etc. etc.  then this wouldn’t be happening.” and honestly, sometimes people don’t do the best job of not cementing some of these things either.  over the course of the past year and a half i can’t tell you how many well-intentioned  “maybe this is God’s way of slowing you down” or “if you just tried x, y, or z, you’d be better” comments received.  (ps:  these things don’t help)

and i admit that during the past few weeks as it’s gotten worse i have wondered “what am i doing wrong?” on my better days, i know this is such messed up theology. i do not think God gave me back pain to slow me down or to teach me a lesson about desperation.   i have no idea, really, where God is in the whole thing except present in the pain and able to bring me some relief and peace along the way.  i am not afraid to call out to God and ask for healing.  or to say sometimes i am really mad that it’s not coming the way i want it and i am tired of waiting.    then, i just have to turn my ingrown eyeballs out and look at the pain and suffering around me and remember that this life is not about being pain-free.  and sometimes, let’s face it, weird things happen that can’t be explained and we just have to live with it.

in the story of job, after job’s life is ruined he laments his losses and questions God.  his friends say it must be his fault for being unfaithful somehow and start quoting deuteronomy to show that he must be getting what he deserves.  finally God steps back in and instead of providing answers or praising job’s pious friends, God asks mysterious unanswerable questions and commends job for keeping faith in the midst of all the hardship he is suffering. job understands him as God who is there for him in the middle of unanswerable pain.

the question to me is why i am so quick to blame myself.  and how right after me it’s so easy to blame God. but i’m guessing that’s how a lot of us are (please tell me i’m not alone on this).  and how sad i am that somehow this far into my christian experience that my default still can be: “i must be doing something wrong and God must be withholding something good from me for some reason.”  i have all of the data to tell me this isn’t true. and so many spiritual experiences that contradict that over and over again. but still, when the rubber meets the road, it’s where i sometimes go.  the difference this time is that i am not beating myself up for it but rather laughing about it, embracing it as human.  how easy it is to try to button down God and have an easy answer to everything.  and as i lay here on my back on a big pack of ice i am thinking just how weird and wild and mysterious this life really is.

and how much i love the word “desperate.”

yep, i am desperate right now.  i want healing .i want to feel better. i want God’s touch. i want peace. i want to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment and walk upright and pain-free again.  and let me tell you, i am more than aware how this is small-potatoes-pain compared to so many friends i know who live like this year after year with absolutely no relief.  but in this vulnerable, all-my-nerve-endings-exposed season, i am noticing how it is better to live this way than the way i often live.  right now, i am out of control.  i am spiritually poor.  i can’t.   and i hate it.   and i realize that even though i like the word “desperate” i don’t really live my life very desperate.  i avoid pain. i like to keep things under control.  i’d rather play it safe.

i think God loves us when we’re desperate and when we’re not.  but when i am (and i’ve had many seasons where it’s a stronger feeling than others)  i think i am in touch with something far deeper than meets the eye. it is somehow intersecting with the inner fabric of the gospel & what Jesus demonstrated over and over so clearly–that he didn’t come for the healthy, but for the sick.  for those that actually needed him.  for those that actually were desperate enough to give up the safe confines of religion & control & “what would people think” and just do whatever it took to get to him. and for those that couldn’t get to him but needed someone who would go to them.

for now, i am just crying out for relief, annoyed it’s not coming as fast and easy and clean as i want it to.  and chuckling about how easy it is for me to blame myself or blame God.  and learning that life is weird, pain is hard and desperate is scary.  but good.  there’s a lot to learn from it.

  • what are some of your thoughts on the word “desperate”, chronic pain & bad theology? cheer me up with them, i’m a little depressed.

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ps: christine sine wrote a post on pain this week that caught my eye called living with pain & the messiness of life. in a different way, it dovetails what i just wrote.

ppss: i don’t think i ever linked to my last post at communitas collective–my love hate thing with community. it’s an old one that i wrote when we first started the refuge in 2006, but it’s funny how little my thoughts have changed about it.