Pain came calling at my house, uninvited and unexpected. It sneaked as a dark figure up my stairs and before I knew it, pain embraced me like an enemy, entering into my head like it owned me, as if I were a possession. Fairly soon I could not distinguish the difference between pain and me, we were one. My self had been vanquished and pain ruled.
Emily Dickinson wrote:
Pain—has an Element of Blank
It cannot recollect
When it begun—or if there were
A time when it was not…
That was my situation. One day I suddenly had a terrible, stabbing pain across the left side of my head and over my forehead and into my left eye. Writhing at a 10+ pain for nine days, we finally discovered that it was the brutal monster called shingles. Checking on the Internet, I found people who said they would rather die than go on another day with shingles. I just wanted to escape this worst pain I’d ever felt, worse than shattering my arm against a tunnel wall while on an e-bike; far, far worse than giving birth eight times.
I couldn’t think beyond the pain. My head was empty of everything except the pain that had cleaved to me like a long-lost companion. I just tried to endure. Pain meds did little for me and I was in bed for almost three months, the ends of my nerves battered because of the virus. In my weakened condition, other diseases followed. In the hospital for five days, I had a seizure and got severe sepsis. By the fourth month I was able to get dressed, but my pain around my eye, and the aching of my hair follicles didn’t stop. To this day, in the seventh month the pain is not finished, but has become faint.
Like so many who are caught in the various physical woes that attack humanity, I had plenty of time to think and pray, sifting through thoughts that were alternately faithful and contrary.
Most of all in my toughest of times, I wanted to be loyal to God. I wanted to be a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ, but the pain in my head and around my face was so intense that I could not feel the Spirit.
As God looked upon all the world in Abraham’s time, one stood out as completely and absolutely loyal to Him. It was Abraham whom God called “my friend”, or in one translation “my dearest friend” (Isaiah 41:8). Scripture says that “a friend loves at all times” (Proverbs 17:17), including the hardest of times, but still I had this question.
“Can’t you heal me? This is unendurable,” I prayed. “How can you allow me such relentless pain when you could just touch me and heal me instantly? So many have been praying for me with great faith, is the answer no to them as well? Please help. Please, please. Please do it now, for I cannot stand to go on another day.”
Each day when I awoke with the same symptoms, I wondered if it would ever end, and I felt with all the earth, and anyone who had ever known such pain, as if we were holding hands in a flowing, underground. churning river.
I didn’t cry until I read a line about the Lord’s suffering in Gethsemane, “which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup and shrink (Doctrine and Covenants 19: 18). Then I cried, thinking of Him and how small my pain was. I cried because my pain gave me more empathy for this suffering Christ who came to bear our load.
I cried again on Christmas Eve day when my husband, Scot, had gone shopping for the celebration. I put on my favorite song, sat on a chair, and finally cried. I had been fairly stoic in my writhing to that point, but now I let it out. I cried for the endless and personal pain on my face and head. I cried because there appeared to be no end to it. Then my crying burst into every broken thing I had ever experienced. I cried for the death of our daughter. I cried for everything that had ever hurt. So many broken things.
I needed that cry. It was like a protest.
I wanted to be healed, which wasn’t happening, and I wanted to be loyal to God, a friend He could count on in difficulty. I didn’t want to cry out in protest against Him or say to the Atoning One, “why don’t you love me or ever do anything for me?”
As I pondered and prayed about this, I often heard this line from a song by Mercy River:
“What if the trials of your life were your mercies in disguise?
It caught me because I had been hearing this from the Lord as I prayed for healing and relief.
“Fear not, I am healing you. Not from this disease at this moment—but from something else. Something more important.”
What could be more important? I knew immediately. The state of my soul. The deepest desires I had carried from the pre-mortal world. What I really want—which is to be with God and be like Him. The Lord was allowing this disease to refashion and transform me. I was to be patient and watch. I might never know exactly what the Lord had done for me, but I could trust that it mattered.
One writer said, “We tend to think of healing as fixing a wound. What Christ seems to say is, I’m here to make you whole. And that’s not a wound. What you are is incomplete. So, when we think of Christ healing, it’s not to fix a wound, it’s to be made whole. The word heal, and the word whole, are related to the same English root which is also related to the word holy.
“So holy carries with it the sense to become whole and complete. When God says become holy, he really just means, be whole, be complete, be finished. We are in an unfinished, incomplete state. God is in a complete and finished state. Healing is how Christ makes us whole whether it’s wounds inflicted by ourselves, or by others, or by things we don’t even know. We are all in an incomplete state, and Christ can make us become greater into something better, to something more holy, to something more complete.”
My trials can be mercies in disguise if it is how God heals me. That means, of course, that He might not immediately lift the pain that rocks my very being. He is giving me a much greater gift—to be made whole and complete. He is not just knocking off the edges of the rough stone I am, He is transforming me with light that is soul deep. What a gift—an incomprehensible gift that only He can do.
It should not be a surprise that God doesn’t follow our rules and has something better in mind. He understands our soul’s yearning, better than we do. He remembers who we are and what we wanted from long before we took first breath in this life. We are far from home, subject to the vagaries and sin of a fallen world. Of course, we have lost perspective and need help. We’ve lost ourselves.
I think of the man with palsy, borne of four, whose friends wanted him to be healed so much, that when the house in Capernaum was full where Jesus was, they broke up the roof and lowered the palsied man into the press, hoping he could find relief—and find it now. One could see this group as too aggressive, but I prefer to see them and the man as so eager for the healing touch after a lifetime of being stricken that they would conquer any obstacle.
Yet, the Lord did a surprising thing. He, who could heal with a touch, said instead, “Son, thy sins be forgiven thee.” Only after did He say to the man, “Arise, and take up thy bed and go thy way.” (Mark 2:9,11) Yes, the Lord says, I will heal you physically, but however eager you are, there is something more important to be done.
It’s as if He says, “Do not be amazed that I am about the work I said I was. I am saving you from the pain of incompleteness. I am healing you not only from wounds but conditions of the heart and mind. I am changing you. I am making you whole. I am making you holy.”
If this is to happen, it means we can’t resist God or fail to put our all on his altar, though I can admit, it can be scary. It means you have known Him enough that you trust Him. He will give you solutions, healing, strength for now, but He will also make you holy as your forever gift.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says God is asking this, “Give me all of you!!! I don’t want so much of your time, so much of your talents and money, and so much of your work. I want YOU!!! ALL OF YOU!! I have not come to torment or frustrate the natural man or woman, but to KILL IT! No half measures will do. I don’t want to only prune a branch here and a branch there; rather I want the whole tree out! Hand it over to me, the whole outfit, all of your desires, all of your wants and wishes and dreams. Turn them ALL over to me, give yourself to me and I will make of you a new self—in my image. Give me yourself and in exchange I will give you Myself. My will, shall become your will. My heart, shall become your heart.”
This is so important to learn that sometimes the Lord lets us be in pain, even when He could take it from us. What do we do with that pain—especially when we are in the hottest of furnaces and we can take no more? Trust me, those days get long and endurance runs thin. So, what do we do? We choose God. We are grateful that God loves us. We acknowledge that even though we can’t see Him right now in our lives, it is because we don’t have eyes to see. It isn’t because He has forgotten us or retreated to some other region of the universe.
You want your sorrow and anguish to ease? Allow yourself to be encircled in the arms of His love. That’s what I learned when I was sick.