Life hurts. Sometimes terribly. Oh I know. Four years with chronic illness has taught me that.
Things happen in life. Chronic illness is diagnosed. Physical and mental ability are majorly decreased. Pain and disability become a normal part of life. We can no longer do the things we loved. Jobs are lost. Relationships fall apart.
Life isn’t fair. Life is hard. Life. just. hurts. So it is important that we learn to deal with pain in a healthy way.
We see pain as a bad thing, something to be avoided, to be fixed, to be got over. But through my own suffering, I’ve realized it’s not necessarily the pain that’s the problem. It’s what we do with that pain that matters.
Ways we tend to deal with pain in our flesh
You see, people have two main ways of handling pain. The first is avoidance. Some form of suffering enters our life, and we try to avoid it by doing more things. We work more hours, or get into a new relationship, or fill up our schedule so we don’t have the time to sit down and work through what has happened. We stuff our pain deep inside and move on bravely, never letting anyone know what is truly going on within us.
The second way people handle pain is aggression. We take our pain out on the people around us. It’s somehow their fault this has happened. It’s somehow their fault that we’re feeling this way. We want everyone around us to know how upset we are. And so we vent to whoever will listen. But neither of these methods are healthy. Both of them lead to greater problems. And both of them keep us from experiencing the blessing of a deeper relationship with God and with His people in our grief.
Chronic illness comes with a lot of loss so it’s important that we slow down and take time to sit with Jesus in our uncomfortable emotions – our sadness, our anger, our disappointment – and learn to grieve those losses. Otherwise the hurts will build up inside us and become an emotional wall between us and God and other people, and will hinder our ability to love well.
How to grieve in a healthy way
In her book, When Chronic Pain and Illness Take Everything Away,* author and counsellor Esther Smith writes,
“Grieving happens when we recognize and take hold of all that we feel, question, and remember. We take all of this loss in our hands – refusing to keep it inside as an act of stoicism, resisting the urge to hurl it at the nearest and safest human target – and instead, we honestly and transparently speak it before a God who hears us and responds to us in our pain. Grief is the process by which we actively release all that we feel, question, and remember at the feet of God and the people He has placed in our lives.”
What does this look like?
It’s important to pay attention to what is triggering the grief inside us. What is it that brings negative emotion to the surface? Is it a memory? A tense relationship? Physical pain? An activity that has to be missed? Identify and name it. Acknowledge it. Don’t stuff it back down. Don’t dump it on another person. Let it come out in a healthy way by pouring it out to Jesus. Allow yourself to feel the emotions and the pain. Then let it go and leave it at Jesus’ feet.
I encourage you to find healthy ways to pour out and process your grief. Figure out what works best for you. If you are an external processor, then spending time in prayer, verbally pouring out your heart and emotions to God may help. If you’re like me and find it easier to process through writing, journalling about what you’re going through, or writing poems and songs, or writing out prayers or laments to God may help. Writing is one thing that helps me process what I’m going through. I have filled six journals in the years I have been sick! I’ve also found listening to Christian music to be helpful as I work through my pain. In addition to meeting me where I’m at, it reminds of the truth of God’s character and promises at the same time.
Talking with a trusted friend is also helpful. It’s so important that we don’t let ourselves get alone with the lies because Satan will use that to bring us down. Friends can sit with you in the grief and be needed support. They can help you see lies or misconceptions or doubts you have and the truth you need that you can’t see on your own because grief and depression has fogged up your vision. They can keep you from sinking into the abyss of grief. They can help you see a different perspective on your grief- they can gently show you God’s perspective. They can pray for you and with you. And most of all, they can lead and love you to Jesus.
I would also gently encourage you to seek out a good counsellor if you need to because chronic illness is so huge and traumatic to deal with. A good counsellor can help you sort through the emotions and identify the lies you’re believing and the truths you need, and can help you work through the challenges in relationships and other areas.
But most of all, remember that our Father invites us to bring our pain to Him, to pour it out to Him. I have spent many hard nights laying on my floor crying my heart out. I have spent dark nights hammering my fists into my pillow crying out for God to show up, to come through for me in my situation. I have many pages in my journals filled with heartbroken prayers to God. And Jesus sees it all. He understands.
Friend, chronic illness is hard, and it’s okay if it hurts. It’s. okay. But let’s not allow our grief to erect walls in our hearts between us and God. Let’s dare to pour it out to Him so we can know Him more here.
The benefits of grieving our losses
As we grieve, as we pour out our pain to God, something happens in our hearts. We are more clearly able to see lies we’re believing, the heart attitudes that are ungodly, and the earthly things we are holding on to. We are emptied of these things and so our hearts are able to receive more of Him. As we let go of the lesser things of this life, we are able to receive and value things that are eternal. As He whispers His truth into our hearts, we are able to experience His comfort in ways we would not be able to if things were happy. As we quietly sit at His feet and wait on Him, we are able to know Him more deeply and intimately in that place. And as we hurt and work through our own pain, we gain a deeper compassion and empathy for the suffering of others.
We also experience true fellowship with God and with each other. 1 John 1:5-7 tells us that we can only experience this when we are walking in the light, openly and vulnerably. Emotional honesty – vulnerability – is necessary for healthy relationships and emotional and spiritual wholeness.
Biblical examples of grieving and emotional honesty
In 1 Chronicles 7:22 we read this verse: “And Ephraim their father mourned many days, and his brethren came to comfort him.” Ephraim, the son of Joseph, lost two sons, killed by the men of Gath, and this verse tells us that he mourned for them many days. Grieving is not something that is much a part of our culture. However, in eastern cultures (and particularly in Bible times) mourning and grieving losses were a big deal.
But for whatever reason, we just don’t do that in our western culture. We think we have to be strong through it and get over it as soon as possible. We push it down and try to move on with life. Maybe because of this we have a small ability to handle pain and little compassion for others. We live in a broken world full of sin and suffering. The world is full of broken people who need a Saviour. Maybe we are too proud to acknowledge our brokenness and neediness much of the time.
However, the Bible doesn’t make light of suffering. In fact, God is incredibly honest when it comes to suffering and sin. He doesn’t trivialize it or say it doesn’t matter or sweep it under the rug. And we see a number of examples of godly biblical people being emotionally honest.
I have spent much time in the Psalms – as I read them, I realize, David was very emotionally honest. He went through so many awful things, but did not shy away from pouring out his pain to the Lord. He told God exactly what he was feeling and thinking. But I see also that he seldom stayed in that place. His honesty about his pain and about his emotions helped him to see more clearly who God is, and this led him to end his psalms in praise.
Job is another example of healthy grieving and emotional honesty. Job was a godly man whom God boasted about before Satan in heaven. However, in a short period of time, he loses his animals, his seven sons, and his health. In response to these heartbreaking trials, he rends his garment and shaves his head and falls on his face worshiping God as a way of expressing his grief and showing honour to God. After sitting in silence for seven days with his three friends who came to visit and comfort him, he opens his mouth and expresses his grief in a series of heart rending questions to God. “Why did I not die at birth, come out from the womb and expire?” “Why is life given to him who is in misery, and life to the bitter in soul?” “Why is light given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in?” (Job 3 ESV) The book of Job is full of chapters of Job being incredibly emotionally honest and vulnerable with God and with his friends. He says things to God that some Christians would be horrified by and yet Job was called a godly man by God.
In John chapter 11, there is a beautiful story where Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus had been sick, and Jesus, who was in another town, had been called to his bedside to heal him two days before. By the time he arrived in Bethany where his friend and his two sisters lived, Lazarus was dead. Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, were deeply sorrowful over the loss of their brother. But when Jesus came, he didn’t say, “Hey guys, cheer up. There’s no point being sad. I’ve got this under control.” No. The Bible says that he groaned in his spirit and was troubled. He wept with his friends and the Jews who had come to mourn with them. Yes, Jesus cried. Even though he knew he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, he didn’t close his heart but allowed himself to feel the pain of this loss and the pain of the people he was with. Jesus had allowed this situation to happen, and He also allowed Mary and Martha to experience his deep love and comfort in their pain, which they otherwise would not have known.
And Jesus – What if Jesus ran from facing the pain of the cross? What if He had looked for an easy way out? Where would we be then?
Why you need to not run from pain
Grief doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you. It means that you’re human. God created you with emotions. He gave you the ability to feel deeply. Emotions aren’t bad. They’re good, so long as they don’t rule us or become what we sift truth through. There aren’t right or wrong emotions. Emotions are to the soul what physical pain is to the body. They tell you what’s going on inside. What we call negative emotion is your soul letting you know that there’s something going on that isn’t right. There’s something that hurts, something that’s broken, something that needs tending to.
When that happens you can do one of two things: you can ignore it and keep going, or you can slow down and tend to it. Ignoring it sounds like the preferable option, but it won’t make the pain go away. Like physical pain, it will grow, it will increase, and it will show itself in other areas of your life. Slow down. Take the time to feel it and work it through with God, and He will give you the wholeness your heart needs.
I often find myself resisting feeling the pain and grief of my situation but when I do, I close my heart, not only to pain, but also to comfort and love. But the Lord has graciously shown me how harmful this is. When we ignore a physical wound it becomes infected and grows worse. When I close my heart to pain, I allow it to numb and harden, and I close myself off from receiving the comfort and love that I desperately need to receive from God through the people He sends to me. I push them away, and in so doing, I push God away, the very One I need most. When I close my heart, I hinder my ability to deeply love people and God.
Suffering isn’t natural. When we feel pain, we experience something that God never intended for us to feel. Suffering can help us to realize that this world and this life is not all there is. We were made for something more, something better. We were made for the garden, for the perfection of Eden, for perfect fully open fellowship with God and each other.
May I gently encourage you – Don’t run from the hard things in your life. Run with them to Jesus. Don’t try and hide from them. Hide in Jesus, your Hiding Place. Don’t close your heart to your pain. Don’t close your heart to other people’s pain. Open it and allow it to be a flow through channel of Jesus’ love. Receive Jesus’ love for yourself, then allow it to flow through you to others in your life. Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone who is hurting. God might just use you to change their life… and yours.
With love, ❤
* When Chronic Pain and Illness Take Everything Away: How to Mourn Our Losses by Esther Smith