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.