"desperate", chronic pain & bad theology

“in this crazy world, there’s an enormous distinction between good times and bad, between sorrow and joy. but in the eyes of God, they’re never separated. where there is pain, there is healing. where there is mourning, there is dancing. where there is poverty, there is the kingdom…” henri nouwen

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years ago i went toe to toe with an elder at a church who told me that i needed to stop using the word “desperate” because “he and most of his friends didn’t wake up in the morning feeling ‘desperate'” like so many of the people i knew.  he said that they were tired of hearing about “those recovery people all the time and they weren’t like them.” i won’t go into the ins and outs of how familiar that conversation has been to me over the years, but i clearly remember walking away from that interaction reminded yet again how people who seem “desperate” aren’t in leadership in most churches.  we recruit the good business-people-and-upstanding-christian-citizens but very rarely the outwardly broken.  and while i spend a lot of time advocating for “desperation” to be okay in the church and for it to be a safe and healing place for the least and the last, i also respect that in my own life i am not too keen on being “desperate” either.  i like to talk about it.  but i don’t really be it.

starting last year i have had a ton of back pain.  it has cycled in and out since then; this past may, after a long trip, it took a turn for the worse again.  i managed to stretch my way through the summer, keeping the pain sort of at bay, but as soon as the kids went back to school decided to really focus on getting well.  since then it’s gotten worse. and worse.  i am in physical therapy. i have been going to acupuncture. i do my exercises. i lay on my miracle ball.  i am walking more than i’ve ever walked in my life.  and several days ago i was still curled up in a little ball crying out to God to take the pain away.  i told some friends that i totally feel like one of the sick, the paralyzed, the bleeding, in the gospels who will do absolutely anything, crawl on my hands and knees, for the possibility of Jesus’ touch.  yeah, i know it sounds dramatic.  but that’s what pain is like.  it can be blinding.  it is brutal.  it is tiring.  it is wearing.

and pain is telling.

you see, when i am in pain–whether it be emotional pain or the kind of physical pain i am experiencing now–the first thing i always go to in my head is “i must be doing something wrong…if i just prayed harder, was more faithful, took better care of myself, acknowledge God more, slowed down, etc., etc. etc.  then this wouldn’t be happening.” and honestly, sometimes people don’t do the best job of not cementing some of these things either.  over the course of the past year and a half i can’t tell you how many well-intentioned  “maybe this is God’s way of slowing you down” or “if you just tried x, y, or z, you’d be better” comments received.  (ps:  these things don’t help)

and i admit that during the past few weeks as it’s gotten worse i have wondered “what am i doing wrong?” on my better days, i know this is such messed up theology. i do not think God gave me back pain to slow me down or to teach me a lesson about desperation.   i have no idea, really, where God is in the whole thing except present in the pain and able to bring me some relief and peace along the way.  i am not afraid to call out to God and ask for healing.  or to say sometimes i am really mad that it’s not coming the way i want it and i am tired of waiting.    then, i just have to turn my ingrown eyeballs out and look at the pain and suffering around me and remember that this life is not about being pain-free.  and sometimes, let’s face it, weird things happen that can’t be explained and we just have to live with it.

in the story of job, after job’s life is ruined he laments his losses and questions God.  his friends say it must be his fault for being unfaithful somehow and start quoting deuteronomy to show that he must be getting what he deserves.  finally God steps back in and instead of providing answers or praising job’s pious friends, God asks mysterious unanswerable questions and commends job for keeping faith in the midst of all the hardship he is suffering. job understands him as God who is there for him in the middle of unanswerable pain.

the question to me is why i am so quick to blame myself.  and how right after me it’s so easy to blame God. but i’m guessing that’s how a lot of us are (please tell me i’m not alone on this).  and how sad i am that somehow this far into my christian experience that my default still can be: “i must be doing something wrong and God must be withholding something good from me for some reason.”  i have all of the data to tell me this isn’t true. and so many spiritual experiences that contradict that over and over again. but still, when the rubber meets the road, it’s where i sometimes go.  the difference this time is that i am not beating myself up for it but rather laughing about it, embracing it as human.  how easy it is to try to button down God and have an easy answer to everything.  and as i lay here on my back on a big pack of ice i am thinking just how weird and wild and mysterious this life really is.

and how much i love the word “desperate.”

yep, i am desperate right now.  i want healing .i want to feel better. i want God’s touch. i want peace. i want to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment and walk upright and pain-free again.  and let me tell you, i am more than aware how this is small-potatoes-pain compared to so many friends i know who live like this year after year with absolutely no relief.  but in this vulnerable, all-my-nerve-endings-exposed season, i am noticing how it is better to live this way than the way i often live.  right now, i am out of control.  i am spiritually poor.  i can’t.   and i hate it.   and i realize that even though i like the word “desperate” i don’t really live my life very desperate.  i avoid pain. i like to keep things under control.  i’d rather play it safe.

i think God loves us when we’re desperate and when we’re not.  but when i am (and i’ve had many seasons where it’s a stronger feeling than others)  i think i am in touch with something far deeper than meets the eye. it is somehow intersecting with the inner fabric of the gospel & what Jesus demonstrated over and over so clearly–that he didn’t come for the healthy, but for the sick.  for those that actually needed him.  for those that actually were desperate enough to give up the safe confines of religion & control & “what would people think” and just do whatever it took to get to him. and for those that couldn’t get to him but needed someone who would go to them.

for now, i am just crying out for relief, annoyed it’s not coming as fast and easy and clean as i want it to.  and chuckling about how easy it is for me to blame myself or blame God.  and learning that life is weird, pain is hard and desperate is scary.  but good.  there’s a lot to learn from it.

  • what are some of your thoughts on the word “desperate”, chronic pain & bad theology? cheer me up with them, i’m a little depressed.

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ps: christine sine wrote a post on pain this week that caught my eye called living with pain & the messiness of life. in a different way, it dovetails what i just wrote.

ppss: i don’t think i ever linked to my last post at communitas collective–my love hate thing with community. it’s an old one that i wrote when we first started the refuge in 2006, but it’s funny how little my thoughts have changed about it.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

15 Comments

  • *I agree that “desperate” is scary; when you meet those places within yourself where you’d give anything for “it” to stop…my question is, at that point–in those moments, is there a right decision? I think culture, particularly Christian culture, teaches that there is: the catch–you’re right until they decide you’re wrong. Maybe that’s because all of us what something, for God to fill the aches so deep there are no words, but none of us want to feel out of control. Desperate may not be a safe place to stand but I think it is a more honest place of life.
    *Chronic anything can be wearisome, but I know pain depletes everything. As my life feels perched on the edge of a deep vortex of bad theology, I’m trying to sort things through about what has been said or taught about God and who/what God really is. Like your statement about weird things happening: sometimes things are wrong just because they’re wrong, they don’t need any help to be so. (I must say I have also found it strange that at the point one decides to try to get “better”, things start to look much worse. Maybe that’s why we try to avoid feeling things in the first place…)
    *And to maybe cheer you up a bit, I’ll share two quotes I found that have made me laugh. It’s a nice way to phrase how life feels sometimes.

    There is no gravity. The earth sucks. ~ Graf Fito

    Maybe this world is another planet’s hell. ~ Aldous Huxley

    …not Christiany by any means 🙂 but I really do like the conceptual thoughts behind them.

    Reply
  • I just wanted you to know that I hear how hard it is to live with so much pain. I want to offer you hope – if it feels okay to you – that this (like all of life) pain shifts in surprising ways that we can’t really understand. Why some have pain and some don’t, why some days are more intense than others – I have no clue how to answer those questions.

    What I know for sure is that nothing stays the same; even desperate unrelenting pain has moments – even if they are mere seconds – of shifting.

    I also want to support you as you struggle to find relief – I hope that you have a healthcare provider(s) who understands your needs. If you want to be sure you and your healthcare provider are speaking the same language, feel free to check out my website http://www.the-first-step.com – there’s a free appointment prep form there to help you make sure you remember to say everything important and other tools to support you in making informed choices about your healthcare.

    Blessings to you dear one – you’ll be in my prayers.

    Reply
  • I have to admit, I TOO wrestled with and cried out to God with my own pain ordeal and well, I can’t say that I handled it well DURING the intense times. But, I’m starting to look back and REALLY see some “silver linings”. I can now relate to MOST of my patients and can zero-in on THEIR root causes more efficiently. I also understand the amazing way pain affects other systems of the body and I really understand that mind, body, heart, spirit connection! It IS wild!! So, as another “bonus”, my understanding of this has really strengthened my continued goal of the global treat of the patient in healthcare…no more “band-aids” or “chasing the pain”!!! All that being said, MAYBE you’ll look back in four years and see the “silver linings”…for now, I don’t know…keep crying out to Jesus…He loves you a whole heap! AND, keep taking care of PK!!!

    You’ve heard the saying, “Cold hands, warm heart”? Well, maybe for Kathy Escobar it’s, “Painful back, beautiful heart”!!!! Okay, okay so, you already had a beautiful heart BEFORE the back pain and will continue to have one after the pain subsides!!! Just trying for some encouragement! And, you did nothing wrong…even with all the things you’re seemingly doing “right”…well, pain can still exist…could flat out just be predisposition?! I am so sorry this is continuing for you…PAIN SUCKS! Will continue praying…praying that you WILL touch the hem of His garment…but remember to use good back mechanics when you reach down to touch that hem!!! Ha! 😉

    Jesus’ healing blood over Pastor Kathy!!! Amen!!!

    Reply
  • Hi Kathy, so sorry to learn of your struggle with back pain. It is a frustratingly, wearyingly long road back to health (I am still walking it, but little by little I have got much better, thanks to a superb Chiropractor) so I empathise with you. And you are right about Jesus drawing close and staying with us, and that we learn so much through these experiences of being incapacitated and dependent. Perhaps we see him with greater clarity when we are so needy ourselves. It is a gift I have come to cherish, but one I wished I could have got some other way!You are held in much love and prayer.

    Reply
  • Hey girl, so sorry for your pain. I don’t think pain is God telling us to slow down. I think pain is our body’s way of telling us there is a problem to address. It’s designed that way. Suffering is simply stored pain trying to get out.

    Much love
    Jonathan

    Reply
  • A member of my community is writing a book about the dark side of the spiritual life and how while many of us hope to get only good things and a good life out of our spiritual walk with God, he thinks that the walk is really about learning that God is with us through all of the dark stuff. I’m excited to read it when he’s done.

    I’ve also had many interesting conversations with my mom that I thought of while reading your post. In her almost 70 years of life, she’s come to feel that God really doesn’t know what’s going to happen to next. We love to say how God is in control, but how can He be in total control and still give us free will? And what would he get out of that kind of relationship? Sure, He has a plan and somehow, He is still Alpha and Omega, but I think in some way His plan is always shifting and changing based on our choices. He really just wants to be there with us, walk with us through all the sh*t of life, encourage us, cheer for us, collaborate with us, and hold our hand through the pain. I don’t know how this all works out theologically and I’m sure many people would call me heretic even for suggesting that God doesn’t have everything mapped out, but it’s made more sense to me than thinking that there is some pre-ordained reason why I have pain. It sounds a bit sick to say that God gave me pain to teach me something. Sure, it’s a learning opportunity, like all of life is, but that He gave it to me? God is big and beyond me, but he loves me and is here for me no matter what. I think that can be enough for me for today. 🙂

    Thank you so much for your blog. As someone who is in a start up community and just learning what it means to walk through the messiness of life with others, your writing has been very inspiring to me and beautifully honest.

    Reply
  • Kathy – I am sorry to hear about your pain. I too suffer constant pain, for almost 30 years now.

    I doubt God sent this my way, or that He is trying to teach me lessons. I think pain is one of those things that can happen to some of us, like cancer happens to some people.

    A few of my observations:
    -I mention my pain to few people, so most people don’t know I have it. Those who know are mostly those who themselves have experienced long term pain and have sensed my pain. This works the other way around also. I can sense their pain. Consider the implications.
    -Just like a male has trouble understanding what it is like to go through a pregnancy and then give birth, those who themselves have not experienced constant, long term pain don’t really get it.
    -So much of what most people valuable is meaningless. So many things that we consider problems are really insignificant irritations. Constant pain helps put this stuff in perspective. It helps me see what is important and what is not. It helps me understand the books of Job and Ecclesiastes.
    -Those who have not experienced significant and/or long-term pain are often poorly equipped to deal with such situations when they occur. My mother, a long-term ER RN, observed that those most likely to survive extreme pain, such as a bad accident, were those who had previously experienced significant and/or long term pain.

    Jesus has walked with me through this and I believe He will continue to walk with me even as my pain increases. He will walk with you also.

    Reply
  • Kathy,
    I am sorry. I wish I had some cheerful, hopeful words for you. The best that I can do is to tell you that, for a few of my friends, their back pain was temporary and eventually resolved with physical therapy or chiropractic care. You’re right; pain is brutal, tiring, and wearing. My capacity to maintain hope, joy, or peace in the midst of it is still very linked to the pain level on any given day. At a certain level, hopelessness and despair take over.

    I am still wrestling with a theology that explains life with pain. After throwing out bad theology with easy answers about blessing and favor (always performance based), I am left without answers for the Father’s lack of intervention or involvement. Which puts me in the same boat as many others who have no easy solutions to their struggles. However, I also feel very uncomfortable about my lack of expectation for help or comfort.

    Grace and peace to you in the midst of this.

    Reply
  • Kathy, just caught up with this part of your journey through FB, and tracked to this blog post. So sorry to hear about the pain you have been living with. As much as we can learn from Job, I think we can learn as much or more from Job’s “friends”–so no attempts at trite answers or explanations here. 🙂

    I think if we could peek into people’s personal lives–including the ones who don’t seem “desperate”, who are so often tapped for church leadership– 🙂 — I think we’d find that most people are dealing with some kind of issue for which there is not a ready explanation or solution, whether it be pain, or financial difficulty, or depression, or what have you. I know it’s the case with me; I have my own brand of pain, and all the unanswered questions that go with it. The desperate ones are just the ones who are honest about it.

    Praying that God will restore your physical body to wholeness, and give you wisdom on what steps to take (if any) toward that restoration–and hope and relief in the meantime. Much love.

    Reply
  • Kathy, I SOOO relate to the”Okay, what did I do wrong” thing. I am not doing it as strongly as I used to, but it is still there, every time pain flares up or a cold come by or….

    And chronic pain is mentally debilitating. It wears you out so that you enter into a “survival” mode.

    The next is not directed at you but at the bad theology… 😀

    Does God send pain to teach us lessons?
    Hmm… Matthew 7:7-11, He does not give us evil to teach us, It is against who he is (if it is not, I don’t much care for him!)
    Is pain or sickness punishment for doing something wrong?
    Only if you are a sadistic narcissist….
    Luke 13:1-5, Evil (sickness and pain are evil, if you think they are good, that is a whole other psychosis) does not happen to people because they are bad…we are all in the same boat… John 9:2-3…..

    End of rant at bad theology. 🙂

    You are not alone. 🙂

    Hugs and prayers from the other side of the mountains.

    Reply
  • Hey mi amiga

    So sorry about about your pain; I’ve got the secret to cure it; you need to do the “Planks” and strengthen your “core” ; how’s that for advice? …:-) I know that at least it helps runners maintain their posture…:-)

    problem of pain is an interesting one…..read most of Yancey’s works on it and had fun leading a study with a bunch of Charismatics; needless to say, they were very polite…

    is trying to be desperate someting like becoming a “monk”?

    Had my back tighten up a couple of times to the point I coudn’t move and/or get in the car; took a lot of physical therapy and several overdoses of Aleeve to make it go away; started runnng and doing the planks and my sciatica has been dormant for awhile..

    hang in there Kathy, or I could rather, as my Scotish friend, with her thick accent would say…”get a grip and get on with it, you wnger”

    Reply
  • My friend and associate is dealing with chronic, severe back pain right now. How irritated I was with a few people the few several months who took the liberty to discuss her ailment behind her back, as if she was not worthy of our face time. It’s all in head, she works too hard, etc. Judgment was on everyone’s lips it seems. Well it wasn’t that at all. She has a herniated disk and she hurts like hell. She’s desperate. I am desperate for her.

    Leaders need to be chosen who have been desperate and are desperate for God now. I was surprised when our music leader at our church in New Orleans admitted to being a internet pornography addict. And he admitted some time later that he fell back into it. That took courage.

    And our senior pastor supported him years later when he started his own church. We can’t abandon the desperate ones

    And now my US pastor is doing a series on Fakers, Posers, and Wannabes based on a book by Brennan Manning. Listening to the podcast, I heard my pastor admit to being broken . He lied about being fired but boasted in front of the church that he quit to be a full time pastor. I was proud of him for being authentic. As far as I know, that’s the first time he publicly acknowledged his cover-up.

    Desperate? Yeah. That’s the type of leaders we need. Those who are in recovery, who are desperate to change, and desperate to look for solutions.

    Back pain is very debilitating. I hope and pray that you and my friend find wholeness and healing.

    Reply
  • Kathy – I am so very sorry you are in pain. I will be keeping you in my prayers – praying and hoping that you get relief and healing.

    I definitely understand the “recordings” that go on in your head during times like these – I have my own mental battles that I fight when it comes to inaccurate thoughts about God and his love. Some of it comes from growing up with the idea that exertion of the will is the path to God and all his blessings (instead of transformation of the will) and some of it has to do with my own personality trait of wanting to find a way to control life (i.e. if I pray right, believe right, act right then nothing bad will happen).

    Thanks for sharing in such a transparent manner – it really demonstrates something important and significant about what it means to be a sincere follower of Jesus and an authentic member of a loving community.

    Love you lots!

    Reply
  • thanks for the comments & emails & texts, they did cheer me up a bit. i am always reminded in these moments how glad i am for the carnival & the lovely people i have met near & far through it. thanks for reading & caring & being part of the convo here. it means a lot to me. quick update on me is that i had an MRI on tuesday night & got the results yesterday. ruptured disk. so no, i’m not crazy. going to just have to walk it all out now on what’s next. surgery consult & lots of physical therapy & no sitting for a while. i am thankful for an amazing community who take such good care of me & will just have to make adjustments as we go. always learning a lot more than i bargained for along the way. right now i’m just thankful for ice packs & empathy & people who make me laugh and cut me slack…

    skylark – those did make me laugh. i think you are so right, desperate is just honest.

    char – thanks for reading. i am in good hands in terms of dr.-y stuff so feel good about that. i really agree with you about pain shifting, too. we can get blinded that it will always be like this but it shifts and ebbs and flows and i think the best thing for me right now is to just acknowledge it is what it is and there’s all kinds of light in it and all kinds of dark in it. i feel hope and i sometimes i feel fear and they can all be there at the same time. thanks for your prayers and encouragement.

    tammy – thanks dear for all the prayers and love and encouragement. i am thankful for all the amazing refugees who love me so well.

    dave – i am so with you, “i wish we could get it some other way” but i also am thankful for the nearness to God and others that suffer that i have felt in this last month. it is one gift in the midst that i don’t want to miss. thanks for your prayers and love from afar, it means a lot. thanks, too, for all the beauty you post. i rarely comment but am always reading.

    jonathan – thanks my friend, yep, no question that it’s all one big indicator. what’s interesting for me, too, is learning to listen to it. i am so good at just ignoring it and pushing through and minimizing it and in this season learning to let it be what it is has been really good (and really hard) for me. my body is teaching me a lot right now. and healing those distorted images of God is so freeing. am thankful for that in the midst. thanks for your love and friendship. i am grateful for it.

    sam
    – thanks for your thoughts and your heart. yes, i so agree, that it really helps connect with suffering in a new way. i feel like i am learning so much in the midst, more than i bargained for, and more than i really want to, to be honest. the ways of Jesus, the crazy things his spirit can teach and heal and move, really are wild and that is one thing i have really felt clearly–Jesus is close to the brokenhearted, the afflicted, the desperate. and i have felt him close in all of this, sometimes more than others, but i know i am not alone. thanks for being here.

    linda
    – thanks so much for sharing. i am with you, it is confusing. just today i was praying with some dear friends who suffer, suffer, suffer, with so many mental and physical things & are so dear and good to me & as i was praying i noticed how it is so different from what i used to pray and that sometimes i don’t really know what to say except “please, please, please be close to us, let us not feel so freaking alone and help us have hope and peace in wild and unexplainable ways” and of course i ask for help for my friends but there’s just so much that feels confusing, too, when we can’t make sense of it in our little christian trite boxes anymore. hope in this broader scheme is very different, harder to pin down, but i still hold out for it. i’m just rambling now but i guess i’m saying back to you–yeah, i’m with you on how a little disconcerting it can be. peace to you from CO.

    jeff – thanks. yeah, i am so with you on the desperate looking and feeling different for sure. it’s all so weird, the different ways we deal with pain. thanks for the love and look forward to seeing you guys on the 18th.

    katherine
    – thanks my friend. i know, the bad theology, once you start unwrapping it, is SO apparent! and i am so glad i’m not alone in how those nutty thoughts pass through. i am so glad for healing, though, and being around good people who don’t reinforce the craziness but remind me of the real truth–that life’s weird and $*!&^$^! happens & God is somehow here in it all.

    carlos – that made me laugh. everyone’s solutions crack me up. i am going to make a list eventually and i guarantee your joke-y ones would be on it for sure! yes, “the problem of pain” it’s all very mysterious. thanks for your love and prayers & support of our little community from afar. it gives me more hope than you know…

    laurie – oh that is so wild, your comment came right as i was going to bed last night & i read it to jose. so wild, we’re in the same boat. i am with you. i want to follow desperate leaders. humble, honest, real friends who aren’t trying to pretend. it is compelling. thanks for the love & prayers, peace and hope to your friend, too.

    liz – thanks. yeah, i am with you that it’s some weird combo between what i’ve been taught & what i like for my own life–control, pain free, ease, comfort. oh, so much to continue to ponder and i’m just glad to have you & others here who can help me feel less alone and keep pointing me toward hope & God in new and freeing and healing ways. love to you.

    Reply
  • Kathy, after re-reading your blog/comments again, it was notable the absence of no one encouraging one to appreciate the pain and be thankfull for it; before anyone calls me a sadist, hear me out.

    In his problem of Pain, Yancy work with Dr. Brand, a docotr who devoted his lifework with “lepers” i India and then Lousiana. In the book they describe the devasting effects when the wonderfully designe nerve system goes hay wire an doesn’t do what i supposed to and let us know that something is wrong with our body; one example, when the nerves in you eye do not sense they they are dry ad o nt send the signal to your tear ducts to irrigate and how the eye is scratched raw and eventually blinds you. They give many other exmples of how devasting it it is when the pain system goes haywire and you live in a painless world.

    Americans do not like to live with pain, but our bodies canot fuction propperly without this signaling mechanism.

    I’m thankfull that your pain system is working fie and for the diagnosed as well.

    Cheers,

    Carlos

    Reply

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