chronic pain, soul care & better theology

chronic pain soul care and a better theology

“when we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope”

– henri nouwen

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one year ago today i had back surgery to repair a gnarly ruptured disc.  it was one of the scariest things i have ever done.  as someone who had never had a serious injury and rarely takes any medicine, and is always on the go, it was really traumatic.   the pain leading up to it was excruciating, like none i had ever been remotely close to experiencing before, and i didn’t drive a car for 2 1/2 months and would have to either stand or lay down wherever i went.  i wrestled with the reality of being desperate & the bad theology that sometimes oozed on me.  it wasn’t just painful physically; emotionally it took its toll, too.  after my surgery, some of the pain dissipated and i started to resume some parts of my old life, but i am forever changed.  i have to think of my back every day, all day.  once in a while i go an hour or two where i don’t think about it at all, but that is very rare.

i’m so much better than i was a year ago.  and for that i’m grateful. 

however, before my surgery i could work all day and then all night and be just fine.  i could go, go, and go some more.  now, all of that has changed.  a year later, i have slowly eased back into my normal pace, which is a fast and intense one.  and i have discovered, unfortunately the hard way, that it’s just not possible.  my normal pace is no longer an option.  the stress i used to be able to carry is now just too much sometimes.  this past month has been a rough one for me, lots of ugly situations that have taken their toll on my soul. i have felt my back start to break again, pain i hadn’t experienced in a long time seep back in again, and at first i did what i usually do.

got mad at myself for working too hard.

got really scared.

got frustrated at God for somehow messing with my old life.

but, fortunately, i didn’t stay there for long.  that’s my reflex, no doubt, but i am learning a new way of living that isn’t so harsh & mean, not only to myself but to God, either.  i continue to practice letting God off the hook.  and then, instead of beating the crap out of myself for working too hard, take a step back and recognize that i am just still learning how to live this new way.

i am now a person who has chronic weakness that i must be aware of.

i am more vulnerable.

I now must tend to the care of my body & soul in an intentional way.

it’s terribly hard for me to embrace this reality.  but it’s just the truth.  and it’s been better for me in all kinds of ways, too.   it also opens the door for such a better theology.  that God is not the one who causes this pain and if i do this or that spiritually, it will all magically disappear.   i do not believe that.  i am a human being and i live in a broken, weird world where there is a gap between what i want and what i need.  strength in the world’s eyes tends to be utter and complete healing, kicking ass & taking names, conquering the battle.  i wish i could on this one, oh i wish i could.   that’s what i was hoping for, too.

but a year later i think there’s a better lesson here that i’m learning to embrace.  my back is an indicator now to listen.  a voice that talks to me and tells me that i’ve pushed it too far.  or i’ve been pushed too far.   that i need to slow down.  that i need to let go.  that i can’t carry the burdens in the same way i used to carry them.  it points me toward soul care & taking better care of myself.  it reminds me of my desperate need for Jesus’ love & comfort & mercy & peace.  it helps me mourn and feel and be a human being.  it calls me to strengthen my pericardium in some important areas.   it reminds me of the often forgotten line in the serenity prayer that calls us to “take this sinful world as it is, not as i would have it.”

so there’s my little ramble for my one year anniversary.  i am thankful for all the ways i am moving again, living again, feeling again, for the ways i am indeed healing.  i love what i’m learning in a lot of ways & hate it in others.  but i do know that gratitude heals and that pain can teach us important truths about God, ourselves & this crazy little life we get to live.


Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • So thankful for your healing/recovery in all areas. Your journey is inspiring. love you!

  • I find it extremely valuable to be in a community where the concept of chronic pain and what it does to a family is fully understood. It really sucks that it exists. But I am drawn even closer to you knowing that you can truly relate. I pray for seasons of relief and strength for the long haul. I am so grateful for you <3

    • i am so glad you are both here & there’s so much to continue to learn and share together. i appreciate your prayers & i, too, am comforted to be part of a community who clings to God’s hope but doesn’t try to provide simplistic easy answers to these complicated issues. may God keep healing us all in ways that maybe don’t look like “healing” but actually really are 🙂

  • One of the things I love about your blog posts is the “blue links” to other posts which are gold mines of even more great thoughts, such as the “letting God off the hook” one … this post took me to that one, so thank you!

    • thanks, mar. i like that post, too & think about that subject all of the time & just how free-ing and also scary it is to really let God off the hook. thanks for reading.

  • The image that popped into my mind as I saw the title of this post was of oxygen masks on a plane with significant turbulence..The whole taking care of yourself before all the other people on the journey is really not simply a good idea, it is a matter of life and death. So glad that there have been significant points of recovery along the way, and you are not alone in the next leg of this process!xoxo

    We will keep making sure that the plane is fully armed, loaded with supplies, and full of passegers that make the flight more of an adventure. You just keep breathing. 😉

    • oh how thankful i am for such an awesome companion on this crazy journey together….

  • Kathy,

    It is hard to be a human sometimes. It is hard to not have all the answers, to not have the strength to handle whatever comes, to not even know exactly what your limits are anymore. One thing that you didn’t mention is that times like these are when we realize just how much we need to have the Body around us. There is a reason we are called to bear one another’s burdens; its because none of us can handle it alone. God did not create us to be alone, He never intended for us to handle everything in our own strength. I will be praying that those in relationship around can come alongside you and help to bear your burdens, and also that you will get better at letting them go and sasking for help. You are doing so many amazing things at The Refuge and touching so many lives with the healing message of love and grace. May God continue to bless you and give you the strength you need to keep doing His work, and the wisdom to know your limitations.

    Men of Praise Motorcycle Ministry

    • oh yeah, i didn’t say it here but the reality is if we didn’t have team leadership & i didn’t have the amazing friends that i do have in my life, i would have been toast years ago. like burnt up, fried-to-a-crisp. i continue to learn what more i need to let go of but one thing has become apparently clear in the past 5 years–there is no way in the world i would do this or could do this without people beside me carrying the load & sharing the burdens together. it is literally impossible, in my opinion. and most definitely not the idea. thanks for praying for me, to continue to find ways to let go of what needs to be let go of and to share, share, share as much as possible! love and hope from up north 🙂 i am thankful for you here!

    • thanks my friend, no kidding! sometimes when i flash back to a year ago i just can’t believe how thankful i am…

  • People who haven’t been through this don’t really grasp how painful it is. A couple of years after my surgeon removed my ruptured disk he told me that he thought he understood the pain until he hurt his back (a bad sprain, but not a ruptured disk). “I had no idea how painful it could be and you were worse off than me. I don’t know how you could have withstood the pain.”

    If other people don’t understand our pain because they haven’t been there, that says to me that I really don’t understand other people’s pain in places where I have never walked. My spouse has never left me. My child has never died or been murdered. I have never lost my job and ended up living under a bridge.

    Perhaps we can never really understand someone else’s pain, but we can come alongside them, hold their hand while they weep and let them know that hope is not lost. We cannot make everything right, but we can be present. We can be there for them.

    When I was a kid our neighbor had a coal-burning furnace. Every few days he removed the cinders, what remained of the coal that had burned, from the bottom of the fire chamber and carried them to the corner of his garden. Not even weeds would grow in the “cinder pile”.

    One autumn he dug up a row of Iris and threw the roots on the cinder pile to dry up and die. Imagine our surprise the following spring when we discovered the roots were not dead, but growing! A few weeks later flower buds appeared, followed soon thereafter with beautiful flowers. “Damn, those are the prettiest Iris I think I’ve ever seen” exclaimed our neighbor “and they’re growing in a pile of cinders!”

    Sometimes we feel like those dry roots on top a pile of cinders. So much pain. How can we possibly survive? Well I guess maybe we can put down roots, grow and maybe even bloom there, in what would appear to be a really lousy place.

    • this is a truly beautiful story and goes with one of my all-time favorite scriptures–isaiah 61. yes, God can make beauty from ashes. before i had chronic physical pain i had absolutely no clue what some of my friends felt like. although i am not them and would never presume to totally know what another person thinks or feels, i know that i did not have compassion and understanding then that i do have now. i also believe 2 corinthians 1 & that we comfort others with the comfort we ourselves have received. it’s why our stories of pain can be so redeeming. thanks for sharing…

  • Kathy, I think that I may have to print this one out and tuck it away for my beautiful 8 year old daughter. I do not think that she could fully appreciate it yet, but I will share it with her now. Almost a year ago, she had surgery to correct her scolosis, it was 87% at age 7. They operated on her and put two growing rods in her back and as a 7 year old, they put a “year limit” on her activities. She is a fire ball and for her to be “denied” some normal activity has been a downer for her many times, but she has remained cheerful.

    The listening to her pain and relying on Jesus for the love, comfort, peace and mercy will mean a lot for her. I also think that has she is in the beautiful place of doubt when she wrestles with the “why me” question that this can/will bring comfort.

    Thanks my friend.

  • Kathy- this post just ebbs and flows with your essence and thriving spirit!!!! I love when you speak of the pericardium, because as I;ve told you i have heart trouble and have had it slip into atrial fibrillation 3 times now and needed a shock to jumpstart it back into normal rhythm. Scary stuff!!! Listening to you detail your experience and challenges along the way just are so encouraging and inspiring when those *valley moments* happen. As Aslam says in Chronicles of Narnia- onward and upward special friend!!!! 😀

  • My Lovely Inspiring friend lots of hugs and love been send…form the other side of the globeX


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