Wednesday Memo — Pain Points Us to the Cross

We are now in the Easter season, which emphasizes the suffering of Christ. Dr. Amy Givler has been reflecting on the pain Jesus endured on our behalf. Our natural inclination is to try to shield ourselves from pain, but it has much to teach us. Here’s a copy of her thoughts as initially published by CMDA:

Amy Givler, MD

I love being part of a church that recognizes the “church calendar”—that is, the seasons through the year that mark various times in the life of Jesus. Thus Advent celebrates the unveiling of God’s rescue plan, Jesus coming to earth as a baby. And Lent emphasizes denial of self, because it was our failings that made God’s rescue plan necessary.

We are now in the season of Lent, and so I have been reflecting on the pain Jesus endured on my behalf. As a flesh and blood human, Jesus had peripheral nerves—both fast A-delta fibers that rapidly transmitted the message of pain to the brain, and slower C-fibers that triggered the release of Substance P and other peptides, leading to inflammation.

Pain is an alarm system, telling us something is not as it should be. I’ll never forget the first time I learned of the severe hereditary sensory and autonomic neuropathy type 4, also known as “congenital insensitivity to pain,” when I read Paul Brand and Philip Yancey’s book, Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants, and met Tanya, a 4-year-old who did not feel pain. She had bit her fingers to the bone and continued to walk on broken bones and infected feet, leading to osteomyelitis. She had no “built-in warning system” and laughed at all the attention she was getting. She wasn’t hurting, but her parents were.

Paul Brand was a brilliant missionary surgeon who, while treating people with leprosy in India, came to see pain as a gift. Leprosy robs people of pain, leading to their touching burning coals and ignoring the resulting inflammation, eventually losing their fingers and toes. Healthy life is full of pain. We can expect it, and we can thank God for it.

My natural inclination is to try to shield myself from pain, but it has much to teach me. Paul, the writer of Romans, experienced much pain, yet he saw his suffering as a way for his weakness to be replaced by God’s strength. In Romans 8:18 he urges his readers to keep their pain in perspective, writing, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (ESV). Earthly sufferings can be a way to learn patience (v. 25), a deeper prayer life (v. 26), our purpose in life (v. 28) and a solid grasp of God’s love (v. 37-38).

As a family physician, most of my patients are in some sort of pain. Very often their physical pain is amplified by emotional pain, which they may or may not be aware of. I want to relieve their pain, surely, but that is not my ultimate goal. The pain is alerting me that something is wrong. If I simply prescribe opioids for physical pain or alprazolam for emotional pain, I’ll be practicing poor medicine. I need to investigate the underlying cause for both kinds of pain.

My long-term patient, whom I’ll call Sandy, first came to me with terrible headaches and abdominal pain. Whenever somebody has problems in more than one area, I explore emotional issues right away, to see if they could be contributing. She had no problem telling me about her willful, out-of-control son and how her husband left all parenting decisions to her. But when I asked how she was handling this difficult situation, she said, “Oh, it’s not difficult. I’m doing fine. God is helping me.” And then she insisted we get back to the pursuit of the physical cause of her pain.

For months—for years, really—she completely resisted making any connection between her home life and her symptoms. And so I pursued a work-up, which didn’t reveal anything worrisome. My treatments didn’t work well, and I wasn’t surprised—they weren’t getting to the root of the problem, after all—but I kept seeing her and asking about her son and her husband. Something clicked during one visit, because the tone of the next visit was completely different. She seemed lighter, less burdened.

“You told me you thought an anti-depressant would help, and that angered me at first, as if you weren’t taking my headaches seriously. I’m not sad. I’m not depressed. But even as I said this to myself, I realized that I was sad. What my son does makes me sad.” After that day her symptoms were easier to control.

What Sandy did was put a name on her pain. Her life wasn’t turning out the way she’d hoped, but until she acknowledged that, she couldn’t ask God for help for her actual problem. For the Christian, suffering is meaningful because it drives us to God. I love this New Living Translation version of James 1:2-4:

“Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.”

And as said by Elisabeth Elliot, a woman who was widowed twice and knew pain personally, “The key to happiness is Christ in me, not me in a different set of circumstances.” She knew that life in a broken world involves pain.

God may change our circumstances, or He may not. But He will always change us. And He always walks with us in our pain.

2 thoughts on “Wednesday Memo — Pain Points Us to the Cross

  1. Dan Ostergaard

    Thanks Walt, this was helpful to me as I am in pain. I have had severe sciatica for over eight months and face my second spine surgery in a few weeks, the sooner the better. I certainly pray more, not just for my pain relief but many things. I’m not good at praise so in my head I sing hyms of praise at night when I’m awake with pain. “Oh for a thousand tongues to sing my saviors praise”
    Thanks for all you do!
    Blessings, Dan

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