by Allison Vesterfelt
For the past few months, I’ve been in pain. Some days it’s a dull pain — a casual ache that starts in my neck and finds it way into my arm, over my elbow, down my forearm, and into the tips of my fingers. Other days, it follows the same path, but it’s more of a sharp, persistent, throbbing pain that so overwhelms my body and mind, I can’t sit at my computer and type as I’m supposed to.
This isn’t the first time I’ve suffered like this, but it is the first time it’s been overtly physical. I broke up with a boyfriend once, and it ached this way. Some mornings, I’d wake up and wander through my day, aimless and foggy, trying to ignore reality as I meandered through meaningless daily tasks. Homework. Class. Food. Bathroom. Class. Food. Homework. Television. Sleep. Repeat.
Other days, I’d wake up, and the hurt would be so sharp that I’d curl up in bed and cover my face with the comforter, pushing my head down as far as I could toward my knees. Despite the casual understanding of what I was “supposed” to do and the consequences I’d face if I didn’t do those things, I would stay in bed. Who could blame me?
SUFFERING IS OVERWHELMING
Before I felt the weight of suffering, I didn’t think of faith or character as conditional. I thought of myself as a nice person, a hard worker, a risk-taker, and a good friend. These were pieces of my identity that had been handed to me, little-by-little, over the course of my life. I accepted them as an unchanging part of me. Then came the pain, and it was so overwhelming. The emotional pain kept me in bed for days at a time, and the physical pain kept me from sitting at my desk. I could barely put my fingers to the keys for fear of the pain I knew was coming.
And after a whole day of living, walking, and breathing this suffering, my outlook on life had changed.
Where I was once a good friend, I found myself ignoring phone calls. Where I was a hard worker, I found myself feeling apathetic about deadlines. Where I had been kind and empathetic to people, I found myself raising my voice to the woman who took too long to count my change at the grocery store. Where I was once a risk-taker, I was content to lay on the couch all day. My suffering felt so big, so permanent, it seemed impossible for me to overcome. And still, I can’t help but think how my experience pales in comparison to the suffering many others have faced.
PAIN CHANGES EVERYTHING
I heard one of my favorite authors once say that Job should be the first book of the Bible. At the time I heard him say it, I wasn’t sure what he meant. But now that I’ve experienced this physical suffering — this life-altering, mind-altering pain that makes living, loving, and even being nice to the clerk at the grocery store seem impossible — I think I know what he meant. Our lives as believers are mostly about learning how to live well with pain. Not if the suffering comes but when.
Job was a man who had it all together, kind of like I did before the pain started. Scripture calls him a man of “perfect integrity.” I considered myself pretty righteous too. Sure, I wasn’t perfect. I made mistakes. But they weren’t nearly as bad as those of people around me, and I was a decent, loving, thoughtful woman. That is, until the pain started.
Like Job, when the pain came, I begged God to take it away. I reasoned with God, reminding Him what a faithful follower I had been all this time. I pleaded with Him, suggesting I could be a better version of myself — I could “accomplish more for the kingdom” if this unexplainable suffering would go away.
Still, my prayer wasn’t answered.
What I didn’t realize was the actual, physical, tangible pain I was feeling wasn’t preventing me from being myself. It was actually revealing who I was. I had spent so much time trying to discover what my suffering revealed to me about God (Is He good? Does He love me?) I had missed what my suffering told me about myself — I’m human, frail, breakable, in need of healing. When I began to see my suffering through this lens, I started to see evidences of God’s grace, rather than His judgement.
I also started to see my suffering as a partnership I shared with God. I believe God heals people, but after asking Him to heal me from my physical healing (and hearing no response), I changed the way I thought about healing. Instead of asking God to relieve me from my suffering in an immediate, hands-off sort of way, I invited him into the messy, sometimes demoralizing, world of my suffering — the places where I cursed and cried and even rose my voice at my husband.
Sometimes I think we’re scared to invite God into these places — the head-in-the- toilet, haven’t-showered-in-days, can’t-get-out-of-bed spaces — but this is where we need Him most. It’s only when we invite God into these spaces that we begin to feel our relationship with Him deepen. This is where we find meaning. This is where we discover healing isn’t always about relief from suffering. Sometimes it’s about seeing our suffering in a new way.
SOMETIMES HEALING HURTS
Sometimes there’s no explanation for the suffering we face. The last thing I want to do is trivialize the topic or pretend it doesn’t exist or hurt. It does. Even as I type these words, I feel my familiar wave of suffering come back. The pain I feel in my arm makes me wonder if you might be in pain, too.
May our suffering teach us grace — for ourselves and others. May it remind us how we’re all suffering through something, how suffering reveals our humanity, and how when we invite God to suffer with us, He comes with mercy, truth, love, and more meaning than we could ever offer ourselves.
ALLISON VESTERFELT is a writer, managing editor of Prodigal Magazine and author of Packing Light: Thoughts on Living Life with Less Baggage (Moody, 2013). She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband Darrell. You can follow her daily at facebook.com/allisonvesterfelt or on Twitter: @allyvest.
This article originally appeared in Collegiate Magazine. Subscribe