What Do We Do With All This Pain?

A friend recently asked me a question and I don’t know if I answered it well. Sometimes no profound answer comes to me in the moment but the question lingers with me until I finally ask God why I’m taking it to heart and what He wants to say to me about it. Then, I start writing. My friend was talking about past emotional pain and the question was something along the lines of, “How do you get rid of that kind of pain?” I’ve had similar conversations with at least two other people in the span of a week so maybe that’s why I felt the need to really dive deep into this. Perhaps the subject has come up so much because many of us are wondering the same thing. Throughout the course of my illness, I have asked this very question over and over again. I’ve spoken to my counselor about it more times than I can recall. I’ve tried to answer this question for years until I had to let myself finally realize that it’s actually not possible to rid ourselves of pain. I know you’re thinking, ‘thanks for the pep talk.’ But here’s the thing that has been emphasized to me and something I relayed to a friend just the other day: God never promised us a pain-free life. In fact, Jesus promised otherwise when He said, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). Unfortunately, pain is part of living in this fallen world. Getting rid of it is something only God can accomplish. He certainly will do so one day when we see Him face to face.

But we all try to do this, don’t we? We try to protect ourselves from pain. When we introduce ourselves weekly at the recovery group I attend, we always start with our struggles: “Hi. My name is Karina and I’m a believer who struggles with…” The rest of my statement is always “…depression, anxiety, and illness,” but lately I’ve been adding “self-protection” to the list of my struggles. It’s the biggest issue I continue to struggle with so, friend, I get it. I understand the urge to fight off pain. I constantly try to do so. But the truth is, we can’t. So we have to find a way to deal with it in a healthy manner. And that’s the discussion I want to continue. What do we do with all this pain?

First of all, we have to let ourselves feel it. Not so fun, right? But it’s the first step in finding freedom from the kind of pain that clings and wreaks havoc on the rest of our lives. I know from experience that shoving pain into a box that we never look at really hurts us after awhile. That box starts to mold and grow in toxicity as the waters of life keep trickling in around it. It affects the way we view our lives and how we relate to others. In my opinion, it’s the number one reason we REACT to certain situations rather than RESPONDING to them in a healthy way. People who fly off the handle when faced with seemingly small inconveniences are really reacting to unresolved pain. Through much reading and countless hours examining my own life, I believe that most, if not all, chronic diseases have an emotional trigger. It’s well-documented that anger affects the liver, grief affects the lungs, etc, etc. Jesus said, “there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open” (Luke 8:17). Things have a way of eventually bubbling up to the surface in one way or another. We could have a whole discussion just on this topic and I encourage you to do your own research. The point is this: If we don’t allow ourselves to feel pain or other emotions, disease can start to grow in our bodies as well as in our minds and hearts. Take it from the queen of unexpressed emotions. It’s extremely damaging. God called us to be in the light and that includes our pain. I believe that’s for our benefit as well as for others. He wants to heal those broken places if we will open them up to Him.

That leads to my next point. It’s important to speak our pain out loud. If at first you can only muster up the courage to speak it to God (because He knows anyway), by all means do so. There is something to be said about ‘getting it off your chest’… out of your body so that it doesn’t just sit there and rot. After years of pushing my pain away, I finally got honest with God. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve poured my broken heart out to God. I mean, just exploded it all over Him – sometimes with screams, sometimes words, usually snot and sobbing ugly cries. They are not ugly to God. He wants us to pour out our emotions so that He can pour in His comfort. We need to make room for His healing by letting the pain out.

Expressing pain to God is a necessity and I also believe that God created us to need each other. It helps to express our pain to others after expressing it to God. This is where I have struggled most. It’s difficult and sometimes agonizing for someone who has pushed pain away for so many years to stop pretending like it’s not there long enough to let someone in. If you struggle with this, my heart goes out to you. I encourage you to start praying right now for God to lead you to someone you can trust with your pain, someone who will sit with you in it, someone who won’t try to fix but will let you be sad, and who will be sad with you. When He leads you to those people, they will be some of the greatest treasures in your life. Please don’t think that you need to share your pain with everyone. Not everyone is called to be as open to the world as I am. God has called me to be a fairly open book but He may not be calling you to that, and that’s okay. I am even more honest with my accountability group than I am with the world and that honesty received with utmost love has brought immeasurable healing to my heart. Do the thing He calls you to do, whether it be sharing with a close friend or finding an accountability partner, and you will discover the gift of His beautiful healing.

Another important way to find healing in the midst of pain is to invite God into that pain. We can allow Him to comfort us as we are experiencing current pain but we also need to invite Him into our past pain that remains unhealed. God is omnipresent, meaning, He is present at all times. It’s difficult for our human minds to understand but, just as God is present with us in this moment, He is also present with us in the past. Right now He is still standing with that awkward teenage me filled with angst. He is with me at my grandparents’ funerals right now. He is carrying me through the day I left my job… right now. When we invite Him into these past pains, He can heal them. I’ll give you an example of this in my own life. I was born very early and had to be in an incubator for something like 22 days. I’ve wondered if some of my anxiety is something I was born with… if maybe spending time in an incubator meant that I was pretty much born into fear. I’m sure that tiny baby wanted to be held and comforted more than was humanly possible at the time. It’s no one’s fault. I guess I was just impatient to enter this life. I’ve asked God before to take me back to that memory, show me where He was, and bring healing to me in that moment. Side note, it may take several times of asking God and letting Him take you there. It may not happen all at once. But I really got serious about it recently when my doctor asked me if I’ve ever asked God to show me where He was while I was in that incubator. I gave the ‘right’ answer, “Well, I’m sure He was there,” and she called me out on it when she said, “But, do you FEEL that?” No. I didn’t. I didn’t understand how I could feel something when I was just a baby and don’t remember. So I asked God to show me. I got alone with Him and asked Him to take me back to that terrified baby, show me what I felt, show me where He was and what He was doing. I wish I could explain it better but it was one of the most profound healing moments I’ve had with God. I found myself weeping uncontrollably, feeling the pain I needed to feel, and also feeling the comfort of Jesus as He showed Himself to me in that moment. The details are far too precious and sacred for me to publicly share but I believe He brought some healing to a place in my heart that I didn’t even fully understand was there. What a powerful God we serve. Ask Him to heal your past hurts, to show you what He wants you to see. If your memories are too painful, please seek a counselor to walk you through this. DO NOT TRY TO DO IT BY YOURSELF. Allow God to lead and don’t force it. He knows what you can handle and when you can handle it.

I’ve put a lot of emphasis on allowing ourselves to feel but I also want to offer a word of caution. We need to feel for as long as we need to feel and not let anyone or anything try to rush us past our pain… but we do not need to wallow. I say this with all the love in my heart because, I have been there. I have wallowed in self-pity over my pain. When we find ourselves stuck in our pain, not even necessarily self-pity, but just stuck, that’s when we need to seek the guidance of a counselor. Actually, I’ve said this before, but I think everyone would benefit from a counselor. Find someone to help you through your stuck pain. Go to your minister. Do what I did and google Christian counselors. People are out there to help. Ask God to lead you to someone and, if at first you do not click, try, try again. It took me three counselors and seven years to find someone with whom I was comfortable. Well, as comfortable as I can be spilling my guts. I cannot emphasize enough how much light God has shined into my life by imparting His wisdom into my counselor. I also highly recommend Celebrate Recovery, which is a 12-step program for anyone with hurts, habits, or hang-ups. Yep, that’s everyone. It’s so important for us to find people to walk through our pain with us, especially when we are stuck.

We could talk all day about this subject but I want to leave you with one final thought. Remember that healing may not mean the pain goes away. Grief still hurts. But the rough edges can be soothed by allowing God to love us in those painful places. Sometimes God chooses not to take our pain away in this life, but He will always use it for good. I am at a place in my journey where I have the absolute privilege of enjoying some of the fruit God is growing in my life through my pain. While I pray every day for health, I am glad God has allowed me to have the pain I’ve already experienced because it has led me to the deepest relationship with Him in my life. God has used this illness to heal more of my heart than He has my body and I am grateful for it. Don’t think for a second that I wouldn’t do cartwheels and shout from the rooftops if He brought health to my body tomorrow, but I wouldn’t trade the healing He has already done in my heart for anything. It may not feel like it now, but our pain will turn into something more beautiful than we could ever imagine. That’s not just a platitude. It’s God’s promise.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” – Romans 8:28

Yes, Jesus says, “In this world you will have trouble,” but the entirety of John 16:33 is of utmost importance. He says, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” We will have trials. We will have pain. But if we take heart… take Jesus’ heart, He will bring us peace through it. The pain will not feel good. The peace that comes will not make sense. It will be beyond our understanding (Philippians 4:7), but it will be beautiful and much more precious than a pain-free life. If we hold tight to the heart of Jesus, He will faithfully guide us through the pain until we finally see the place He has prepared for us where there will be no more pain. He has already overcome and will lead us through if we open our hearts and let Him. I am praying for you.

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Life to the Full

I’ve noticed something about my days that needs to stop. For quite some time, I have just been getting through one day until the next one comes. I’ve caught myself lately thinking things like, ‘well, I managed to do all the morning rituals (take supplements, make tea, cook) that keep me alive. Only 10 more hours to go.’ Or, ‘thank goodness lunch is over. Just one more meal to cook and then I’m finished.’ I measure my life in survival. Not too long ago I was having trouble falling asleep because I didn’t want to sleep. In my weirdly-flawed logic, falling asleep meant having to wake up and do all of this surviving again and, frankly, I’d just rather not.

Jesus said in John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” I believe Him. But then I look at my life and think, what gives? In the midst of this mere survival I say, “this can’t possibly be all there is. How exactly is this a full life?” Well, it’s not. So then I asked what Jesus meant by a full life and another verse jumped out to me. “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11a). In God’s presence, we find life… to the full.

I need to change the way I believe a full life FEELS. Otherwise my life will continue to be about surviving or waiting for some elusive fullness as I understand it. I’ve believed for so long that the people who are out there with healthy bodies being active are the ones who are thriving. I see that kind of life as full, a life I’m just waiting to have before I can start actually living. Now I know that God wants me to stop biding my time and start thriving right where I am.

But how? I’ve started to ask God a lot in the last few days when I’ve found myself dwelling on an illness that just WILL NOT GO AWAY, how I can thrive here. When I haven’t left the house in over a week, when I’ve missed church and CR and small group because I’m nauseous and running a fever… God, what does it look like to fully live HERE? And I think the above verse gives us the answer. Being constantly aware of the presence of God is how we live a full life. I have been allowing Satan to steal my life by making it just about survival, kill my joy by steering my focus to my illness, and destroy my peace by keeping me longing for the wrong definition of life to the full and disappointed when it doesn’t come.

Life to the full doesn’t have to feel good in the moment, but I sure am sleeping better. When I think about God’s definition of a full life, I am living it more now than I was when I was active and leaving the house regularly. I am aware of God with me through most of my days, I have taken risks I never would have taken before because I was acutely aware that He was nudging me, I am beautifully connected heart-to-heart with God and, even though it’s sometimes hard for me to mean this, I wouldn’t trade it for anything, even health. I have more of a spiritual peace than I have ever had, even though nothing about my physical life is peaceful.

So what does thriving look like here in this place of pain? Psalm 126:5-6 says, “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.” Living life to the full means continuing on in faith AND pain, believing there will be joy. It is communing with God from our sick bed, telling Him how we feel and listening for His voice. It is lying here letting Him comfort us. It’s singing to Him in the midst of the battle raging inside of us. It’s doing whatever we can to help others from where we are, even if it’s just praying for someone or checking on them. Those are the best things we can do anyway. For me today, it’s writing this blog from the couch wrapped in two blankets longing for some physical relief. I asked God for the words and He chose to give them so, I write for His glory. Everything we do is worship. We just have to choose who or what we are worshipping.

This is living life to the full. I don’t have to wait for some future fullness. I already have it now. Praise be to God. I think I finally understand Psalm 27:13, “I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”

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