Wednesday, January 12, 2011


I am nearing the end of my eighth day with a migraine headache.  Last week marked its arrival.  Since then, I have taken all the medication that there is to take.  I have tried every home remedy -- hot baths, ice packs, dark rooms, quiet spaces.  The pain is not in one place.  One moment a piercing comes on the right side above my ear.  The next moment, above my eyes.  The next moment, on the left on top of my head.  Each morning I wake up and before I open my eyes, I know the pain is still there.  There is no sign as to when it will let up.  I have kept myself busy serving, speaking, working, reading, writing.  The pain remains.  I am exhausted and it won't go away.  I made dinner.  The pain is still there.  I answered emails.  The pain is still there.  I write this sentence.  The pain persists.  I lay down.  Still there.  I sit up.  Still there.  I stand up, walk around.  Still there.  Still there.

All of this has gotten me thinking about pain and suffering.  I know this headache, and the ones I've had before, and the ones I am yet to have, do not compare to pain others suffer.  And yet, it is impossible to ignore.  So, I've been trying to sort out how to respond to this pain.  In Philip Yancey's book "Where Is God When It Hurts?" he says that suffering involves two primary issues: cause and response.  On the first issue, we ask: why am I suffering, and who did it?  On the second issue, we ask: how can I respond?  I don't feel particularly concerned with the first issue.  I don't know the answers.  

The second issue, though, is very important to me.  How can I respond?  Or, how have I responded so far?  To get at the answers to these questions, I have to really dig down to identify what exactly I’m feeling about the pain.  Alone, I think.  Very alone in the pain.  I surrounded myself with people today and yesterday, but felt like I had an ongoing, unseen battle waging in my head.  But nobody knew.  I talked to a few friends about the pain, but I simultaneously saw myself as weak and inauthentic because I was hurting more than I was letting on.  Also, helpless, out of control, no ability to impact the outcome.  These feelings, in combination, are very tough for me.  I don’t like either of them when I experience them separately.  Together, with the pain on top, makes them almost unbearable.

Where is God in this?  I have been struggling with this question for days.  I have been trying to figure out what God might want me to know about myself or about him from this experience.  Compassion?  Understanding?  Patience?  Strength?  Brother Lawrence, in Practice of the Presence of God, says that “[w]e ought . . . to submit ourselves to [troubles, temptations, oppositions, and contradictions] and bear them as long as God pleases, as things highly advantageous to us.”  What is the advantage of this headache?  Paul said: “just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.  If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer.”   (2 Corin. 1:5-6)  A headache so that I might feel Christ’s comfort?  That’s a possibility. 
I wish I could report that an understanding of Christ’s comfort in suffering is what I have come to have during this headache.  I wish I could report that I have learned peace in suffering.  Neither is so.  Nor have I become more patient.  Or strong.  No, instead, what I have been surprised and saddened to realize is that I have doubted God.  Not his existence.  His authority.  For days I did not pray that he would heal my headache.  When the pain let up, even a little, I did not thank him.  This morning, when I woke up and the pain was absent for nearly an hour, I did not believe that it was he who healed me.  I did not believe that he responded to prayers from others.  These were not conscious thoughts.  I did not think: God, you are not the reason I’m feeling better.  I did not think: I am not better because of answered prayer.  But I know this unbelief was in me. 

It is not that I have disbelieved that God exists.  It is that I have, in my heart and mind, made him smaller than he is, less capable, less powerful, less.  I have acted as if he is not who he says he is:  “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me.  I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come.  I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.  From the east I summon a bird of prey; from a far-off land, a man to fulfill my purpose.  What I have said, that I will bring about; what I have planned, that will I do.”  (Isaiah 46:9-11)  I have doubted Jesus’ words: “Ask and it will be given to you.” (Matt. 7:7-8)  I have doubted that “[e]verything is possible for him who believes.”  (Mark 9:23)

Let me be clear about something.  I do not mean to say that if only I had believed more, my headache would have gone away.  That is not at all the point.  The point is that I didn’t believe God had even the ability to make the pain go away if it was his will that it would.  This is a much more serious condition than a headache, even one that lasts eight days, or nine, or weeks, or months or years.   

This doubt or unbelief has left me raw because I generally score myself pretty strong in the belief category.  I have been deceiving myself.  When things get hard, or painful, or scary, I go back to my old ways of relying on myself.  I turn inward and wait out the pain in a quiet solitude away from God.  I don’t invite him into the pain and pray that he would deliver me from or through it.  I don’t get angry with him for allowing me to suffer.  Instead, I turn away until I am pain free, and the passage of time has changed my circumstances.  In the meantime, though, I am so alone in the pain, something that God does not want for me.  Or you.

So many of us do this; it is part of our make-up.  Couldn’t you come up with a list of things that you have not prayed for because they seem too big?  Peace in the Middle East.  Doesn’t that seem just too big of a request?  The end of homelessness.  The end of domestic abuse.  The end of loneliness.  The end of the years-long anger built up in a relationship.  We have all thought, perhaps not consciously, but certainly implicitly by not asking, that there are things beyond the reach of God, requests that are just too big.  To believe this, though, is to disbelieve who God says he is and it is to disbelieve what he says he can do.

I want God to transform me so that in my darkest times and for the biggest issues, when what is at stake is more than a headache, I turn to him as “my rock, my fortress, my deliverer,” the one in whom I take refuge and have complete confidence of his authority over all things.  (Psalm 18:2)  For now, I scream out to God, as the father described in Mark did: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”  (Mark 9:24)  Over the last day or so, I have begun to think less of the pain in my head and more of the state of my heart toward God.  I have asked for forgiveness for not believing him and for reducing him.  And, I have begun to pray two simple prayers over and over, like child might, asking that God help me overcome my unbelief and trust what he says about who he is and what he can do, and that he would make the headache go away.  


  1. Maybe I am wrong (I have a habit of being that) but ...

    Your honesty is not at all shocking and I believe that your reaction to the pain is the norm for a Christ follower who is as totally committed as he/she knows how to be. As I've implied in a previous comment ... I'm living there too. After a while (8 days or several years, it doesn't really matter) you find yourself worn down by the incessant hurt. Turning your back on God is unthinkable. It would call into question the entirety of your life's mission and purpose. And we would rather die than do that! To conclude that He doesn't care makes him an ogre and that too is unthinkable because it does away with the grace that we know we are in desperate need of. So there is only one avenue left. For some cosmic reason that we cannot understand God must be incapable of helping. His Hands must be tied. Or He is mad. But for whatever reason he is incapable of responding. And that's just not true. It's a more difficult fact to accept that He CAN help and CHOOSES not to.

    Because maybe I am the exception to the rule that God loves totally. Pride is the foundation of that flawed thinking. ("I'm the only one ever that God is unwilling to reconcile!" "He can heal the blind or the leper and he can raise the dead but He's not big enough to heal me.")

    Aww, maybe I'm totally wrong and your way of thinking doesn't follow mine at all. But I am eternally convinced of this ... we see through a glass darkly. In other words, we cannot know "why" unless God chooses to tell us "why." And honestly, He seldom does. Luke 13: 4 - 5 relates a story of Jesus referring to some guys on whom a tower fell and He refers to the "why" of it. Were they "worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?" Jesus asks. Then He simply says ... "no." So there it is. We usually don't know the "why." The planet is broken and so are we. And bad pains come and we don't know why. And Jesus chooses not to tell us. Sucks, doesn't it? But that's the way it is, sports fans. So hold on tight. Keep your seat in the upright position and tighten your seatbelt. The ride on Planet Earth occasionally is turbulent.

    Dear Father, please be gracious to my never-met sister. Allow her to feel the nail scarred Hands of grace wrap around her this night and give her peace and sleep. Be big and in charge because we are small and only last as long as a breath. But love her loud and long on this cold night. Amen...

  2. This broke my heart. I hate that you are still in pain. And hate even more that it tempts you with unbelief. But I recognize all of that in me too. That's also heartbreaking.

    I am clueless why God does some things. Right now, this one.

    I started to say you don't deserve this. But then I remembered that none of us "deserve" amazing grace, or any of our other blessings. And if we (here, I'll just say I) got what I actually "deserved," I'd be toast.

    One nice thing that has come of your headache: the comment posted by "Ron", which I found very good. I suspect you did too.

  3. The apostle Paul prayed for relief from what he called his “thorn in the flesh.” (2 Corinthians 12:7) This “thorn” may refer to a chronic eye affliction or to the constant harassment of opposers and “false brothers.” (2 Corinthians 11:26; Galatians 4:14, 15) Paul wrote: “I three times entreated the Lord that it might depart from me.” However, God knew that if Paul continued preaching despite this nagging “thorn in the flesh,” it would clearly demonstrate God’s power and Paul’s implicit trust in Him. So rather than grant Paul’s request, God told him: “My power is being made perfect in weakness.”2 Corinthians 12:8, 9.

    When we continue in our Christian course despite physical and emotional weakness, pain, persecution etc. we are demonostrating the power God has to accomplish his will in our imperfection.