Chronic Pain and the Ministry
When I was halfway through seminary, I was diagnosed with a neurological issue that affects my spinal cord. It was a long, drawn-out situation that left many doctors confused and unable to offer much help. The illness results in numerous problems: numbness in my limbs, pain shooting through my head and back, disorientation and dizziness and the constant feeling that I am going to collapse. It is a frustrating issue. In God’s providence, I managed to get through seminary though I struggled immensely for over two and a half years. I still struggle today, and my circumstances have escalated.
That’s the background. In the foreground is the subject of the pastoral ministry. You see, the Lord called me to pastor God’s people. I often wonder how I can be of much use while I am struggling to maintain a certain level of sanity in my own life. It dawned on me that due to my struggles, I am better equipped to minister to those who also struggle.
This observation is not without Biblical precedent, of course. In the Lord’s wisdom, He called me to pastor a church that finds many in the congregation struggling with significant chronic illness and pain. As a result, I am called upon to encourage them, strengthen them and pray with and for them as they hurt. It breaks my heart to see these dear people suffer.
On reflection, I am reminded of someone who can sympathize with my weaknesses and the weaknesses of others (Heb. 4:15). This someone suffered as I do (Is. 53), and he did so in a way that no mere human can truly understand. That someone was tempted to sin (Matt. 4), walked this earth and saw how sin has so ravaged humanity — men and women, boys and girls made in the image of God (Luke 19:41). This someone ministered to the lame (E.g. Mk. 2:1-12), the blind (E.g. Mk. 8:22-26; John 9:1-2), the hungry (E.g. Mk. 8:1-10), the weak and the struggling, and the sick (Mk. 1:29-31). Sometimes this someone healed. Sometimes this someone listened. Sometimes this someone wept (E.g., John 11:33). Sometimes this someone raised the dead (E.g., Luke 7:11-16).
This someone not only witnessed the effects of sin on humanity, he too underwent personal suffering and pain. He was poor and lowly of heart (Matt. 11:29. He did nothing but good to all. He served, and then he underwent the effects of sin himself (though he knew no sin or sinned in any way) when wicked men beat his body, spit upon him, called him names and, eventually, nailed his body to a cross in abject shame and agony (Acts 2:23). Of course, this someone I am talking about is the Lord Jesus Christ, the exalted Minister who ministers to His people today through weak instruments (Phil 2:9-11; 2 Cor. 2:16).
As I seek to minister to others, I am often reminded of the pain and suffering of my Lord. It is to him that I attempt to point people. Why? Because as these dear saints suffer they do so as people with great hope. Not the kind of hope that can be found in a pill or a bottle – as helpful as those things can be thanks to modern medicine. No, the real hope is not only that Christ suffered, but he died and three days later was raised from the dead, the ultimate end of every human being.
You see, sin is the reason humanity suffers. Sin does not discriminate. We are products of the fall. We live in a fallen world. We operate in a world that sees the devastating effects of sin all around us. From disunity in families and country to wars and poverty and, yes, sickness and suffering and death, the results of the fall and the entrance of sin into the world that God made and called very good (Gen. 1:31) is everywhere. It culminates in death (Rom. 6:23; Heb. 9:27-28) — a consequence that was never part of God’s design.
Yet, there is hope for the redeemed child of God. That hope is in Christ’s resurrection (1 Cor.15). Through his suffering and ultimate death and eventual resurrection, he secured for us that same thing. As God’s people who suffer we can look forward and know with certainty that our bodies, as much as they seek to betray us today, will be made perfect in holiness someday. It will happen at our death or when the Lord Jesus appears again to take his people to be where he is.
Without this hope, there is nothing to look forward to other than more agony due to sin and the required judgment of a holy God. For the redeemed child of God, however, this hope belongs to them. For those who have not submitted to Christ; who have not received the saving grace and forgiveness that can only be found in Christ, there is no hope at all. Death is a tragic, awful end for them. But, for the Christian, God says their death is precious in His sight (Ps. 116:15). Why? Because his Son has conquered the effects of the fall and He has defeated the final effect of the fall and sin.
It is to this hope I seek to point God’s people. No, it doesn’t take away the pain usually. However, It is not a trite answer that does nothing. It is, in fact, the hope of every Christian: to see Christ, to be with Christ, and to be made like him in every respect (1 John 3:2). The hope of the resurrection is knowing that our bodies will be made new and that we will be in a place with no more tears, pain, suffering, and agony (1 Cor 15:40-58; Rev. 21:4) because it is there that the effects of sin will be ultimately and finally reversed through the work of God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
For the Christian, this certain hope softens the blow of this fallen world. For those who do not know Christ; who have not repented of sin and looked to Christ alone, the pain and agony of this life will only be worse in eternity. For the Christian, we can know with certain hope that our loving heavenly Father has ordered our pain and has tailor-made it for our good (Rom. 8:28).
So, that is how I minister though I, too, suffer. I minister by pointing God’s people to the exalted Minister who knows my agony yet conquered the reason of my anguish. I minister by leading them to the suffering servant who was raised for my justification, sanctification, adoption and eventual glorification. Soli Deo Gloria!
If you live in the Newport TN / Cocke County area, you are invited to participate in a discussion and support group on this subject of suffering and pain. More information can be found on the church website. It is free and open to all regardless of your church affiliation.
Please feel free to contact me if you have questions. If you are suffering or are caring for a loved one who suffers, please do not hesitate to contact me. I am always willing to help.