How does it feel to face a lifelong illness that is not only permanent but also accompanied by continual physical pain and growing disability? Nobody likes to suffer or watch their loved ones undergo such hurt and sorrow. This anguish is part of the perplexing philosophical and practical issue known as the problem of evil, pain, and suffering.
Some time ago I wrote an article, God Shouted in My Pain, in which I described the sorrow and grief my family and I experienced at the death of my brother Frank to suicide. A woman who read the article contacted me and told me abouther illness. She was a Christian and was firmly trusting in Christ’s atoning death for the forgiveness of sin. She also conveyed that she was trying to show her family and friends that in spite of her illness, she was resting in the sovereign will of God for her life.
But she was torn because—at times—she also felt hopeless in facing the rest of her life with almost constant pain and increasing physical disability. She said the pain sometimes made her think of ending it all herself. She then asked me for advice to help her face a life of suffering. Here is what I wrote to her.
Facing Ongoing Suffering
My dearest sister in the Lord:
Greetings in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
I’m sorry to hear of your constant pain and growing disability. I hope you have good medical care and are able to talk with your doctor about pain medications and possible therapies. I also have a chronic illness and it took a long time for the doctor to find the right medication to help me. Since you’ve asked how you might deal with your suffering, I humbly and respectfully offer the following.
What has been helpful to me in times of pain and increasing disability is knowing that God knows what it is like to suffer. The Father’s Son was the unique God-man and he suffered with us in life and for us on the cross. I’m sure Jesus felt the temptation to give in to hopelessness when he was all alone and facing crucifixion. Our God is a God with wounds. Since Christ and thus the triune God can empathize with our suffering, don’t be afraid to express your lament to God about your painful condition. Remember Jesus’s comforting words in Matthew 11:28:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
It has also been helpful for me to not dwell on the thought of having my illness for the rest of my life. So rather than thinking about the past or the future, I try to live in the present and each day ask God for the grace to get through this day. This focus on the present allows me to try to be courageous and trusting one day at a time.
Another thing that helps is to constantly tell myself I’m not alone in my suffering. I remind myself, especially during lonely periods, that God is closer to me than a friend, a relative, or even my spouse. And I look for ways that God shows his comforting presence.
Lastly, while I am not a mental health professional, I do strongly encourage you to seek professional psychological help if you haven’t already—especially if you have occasional suicidal thoughts. In fact, someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) is available to chat with you at any time, day or night.
I will pray for you, my sister in Christ. And I will ask the Lord to meet all your needs and to give you strength and courage.
May the Lord’s rest and peace be with you.
If you also battle illness or suffering of any kind, I hope these words will help in some way. Or if you know a person who does, please take the time to pray with them and offer support and encouragement. When you or a loved one undergoes suffering, remember that the God of historic Christianity can empathize with human pain and sorrow.
Reflections: Your Turn
What do you think of Jesus’s promise to give people rest and peace in our suffering?
- For 12 points and practices for personal spiritual growth and renewal and examples of how to extend hope for the hurting, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Christianity Cross-Examined: Is It Rational, Relevant, and Good?, 217, 236.
- For more about Christianity and mental health, I recommend Mark P. Cosgrove and James D. Mallory Jr.’s book Mental Health: A Christian Approach.
- For those who suffer with illness and disability, I recommend Joni Eareckson Tada’s many books and especially this one on theodicy: Joni Eareckson Tada and Steven Estes, When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty.