A Theology of Chronic Pain

By Kutter Callaway

Elements - November 2014

Note: Continuing our year-long journey of “tough conversations,” this is the second in our three-part series on pain and doubt. Missed the first part? Read it here.

As with all of our concrete experiences, chronic pain is a profoundly theological reality. It thrusts us into an encounter with an ordering force at work in the world – a deeply mysterious presence that is beyond our ability to control, manipulate, or coerce. My own story as a person suffering with chronic pain involves decidedly physical, embodied, and even sensual dimensions. It has to do with my body on a basic level – the relative brokenness or well-being of an intricate series of muscles and nerve endings and skeletal structures. But at every step of the way, it also has to do with the ways in which this hurting body of mine is related to the larger project of God in the world.

Perhaps more than any other aspect of my struggle with chronic pain, it is this element that is not only the most instructive regarding what it means to endure ongoing physical suffering as a person of faith, but also the most disturbing. So a word of warning before we go any further: what I offer are not theological answers in any sense of the term. I can only point toward glimpses of the divine that I have found lying in wait as I have walked along this long, meandering, and sometimes darkened road.

No longer will your name be Jacob . . . but Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have prevailed.
Genesis 32:28 (NET)

While making plans to cross the river Jabbok, Jacob wrestles all night with Yahweh, who encounters him in the form of a man. Yahweh brings their mano-a-mano wrestling match to a close by dislocating Jacob’s hip. After receiving a new name (Israel), Jacob rightly renames the site Peniel (“face of God”) for, in his words, he had “seen God face to face and [had] survived” (Gen 32:30). Yet, in a somewhat bizarre twist, the story simply ends with Jacob limping toward sunrise, forever reminded of his encounter with God. So Jacob had the great pleasure of coming face to face with God’s very self, and the Divine blessing that Jacob receives is simply survival. Not renown or wisdom or riches, but survival.

I am surely too raw and too close to my own pain to be objective, but that sounds like a pretty terrible deal. Nevertheless, I am often reminded of Jacob’s encounter during my own bouts with chronic pain. When I hear others retell this story, the focus is often Jacob’s “fresh start” – on his new name and his new outlook on life. It feels good to think about the way he went from a conniving, back-stabbing deceiver, to the father and namesake of God’s chosen people. We like that story. Indeed, we yearn for that story. But it is not the whole story, for it fails to account for the fact that God literally inscribed into Jacob’s body an inescapable struggle with chronic pain. And just like his shiny new name, Jacob’s limp paints an unsettling picture for us. On one hand, only a select few individuals have encountered God as intimately as Jacob did on that night. On the other hand, I would venture a guess that only a select few individuals lived the rest of their lives with the kind of physical, psychological, and spiritual pain that resulted from that encounter. No one, it would seem, walks away unscathed from an encounter with God.

Significantly though, this agonizing encounter has the potential for serving as a kind of icon, if only we had the eyes to see it as such. The nation of Israel forever memorialized Jacob’s chronic pain by avoiding meat taken from the socket of the hip (Gen 32:32). That is, rather than attempting to “manage” or even “fix” the reality of chronic pain, the community of faith took this anguish up within its worshipping life and, in doing so, re-constituted both the pain and themselves. On a fundamental level, they became a community defined by their chronic suffering.

I often wonder what would happen if the Christian community did the same. What if we not only created space for others to hurt/doubt/cry/flail/scream/question, but actually incorporated the fragile wisdom of chronic sufferers into our personal and communal forms of life? This is, of course, far easier said than done, but it is this question that compels me to pursue theological language that might allow for a more humble Christianity, a Christianity that perpetually remembers its unremitting brokenness. Most of the time, I am still unsure what this all means and I question whether it all has a “purpose” or not. But for all the uncertainty, of one thing I am sure: chronic pain has brought me face-to-face with the living God, and this God has granted me a truly mystifying gift: survival.

How difficult it is for me to fathom your thoughts about me, O God!
How vast is their sum total! . . .
Even if I finished counting them,
I would still have to contend with you.

Psalm 139:17-18 (NET)

In truth, the “gift” of survival is a two-edged sword, for it leaves the survivor in a rather traumatic place. Pain has made me the embodiment of doubt – no, better: of protest. Like an infant abandoned on a stranger’s front porch, this is where chronic pain leaves me. The brutal reality is that, whether my pain is manageable or at its worst, I am not suffering for anything or anyone. There is no larger purpose for what I have to endure. In response, I do the only thing I know to do, the only thing I ever know to do in these moments: I cry out in protest against a God who would allow meaningless torment. Needless to say, given the frequency and duration of the circumstances I often face, my pain-fueled dissent typically focuses on justice, or goodness, or my own innocence or guilt. But these are just the red herrings of philosophical abstraction, for just as the Psalmist claims, even if I could somehow sift through all my existential angst, anger, and confusion, I would still have to contend at the end of the day with this unwieldy and untamed God – a God who not only chooses to work through pain, but a God who moves so god-awfully slow. Unlike anything else I have ever experienced, chronic pain forces me into a daunting, disturbing, life-changing, awe-full, mesmerizing, disorienting space that is inhabited by a God who cannot be contained or controlled or co-opted. There is no room in this space for a simplistic and naïve faith that glosses over contradictions and sweeps legitimate doubts under the carpet. In a cauldron of suffering such as this, doubt must be admitted and contradiction assumed. There is no other way around it. We can only dive headlong into the darkness, protesting along the way the sheer wrongness of it all.

Something else is going on here as well: chronic pain is unparalleled in its capacity to bring us to this tenuous place because it is chronic. Although my pain ebbs and flows, there are huge spans of time when I am in pain every single moment of every single day. I forget what it feels like not to hurt. In these moments, which seem to stretch into infinity, the word “faith” – whatever it may in fact mean during times of normalcy – becomes a far more complex and even terrifying proposition. In the course of a single pain-filled hour, I have lost my faith and found it anew more than once. But that is the convoluted beauty of it. Like Jacob wrestling at the Jabbok, pain not only forces me to confront all the doubts and fears that lurk just beneath the surface of my meticulously constructed facades, it also exposes me to a far deeper reality – a depth of intimacy I am fairly sure cannot be reached by any other means. Put differently, when suffering has taken us to the end of ourselves, when we are completely undone by our pain, we are able to enter a sacred space where the boundaries between heaven and earth evaporate. In that most precious of spaces, our bodies are not alleviated of pain, but re-created in and through it.

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