For whatever reason, several people I know are currently going through an exacerbation of fibromyalgia. I am one of those people dealing with debilitating pain right now. Fortunately, the pain cycles usually pass over time. But when the pain is raging, it slaps us in the face with a significant challenge.
The truth is that chronic pain is much more than just physical pain. It is physical and emotional suffering. Quite often, it is also spiritual suffering. In the years I served as a hospital chaplain, I learned so much about what people experience when they are ill. The most important lesson I learned is that there is a very real difference between pain and suffering.
Experiencing chronic pain most often goes far beyond physical pain. Pain is the actual physical /physiological response to an injury or illness. It is rooted in the body. But all too often, it is accompanied by debilitating suffering. Suffering is how the brain perceives pain based on past experience and future expectations and fears. It is rooted in the mind, even in the spirit.
Suffering asks “How long can this pain last? Will I feel this way forever? What have I done to deserve this? Has God forsaken me? Does God care about my suffering? Am I going to die?”
It is true that sometimes our suffering questions are irrational, but pain that has permeated the mind and spirit causes a very deep fear, a feeling of disorder, a sense of terror, and constant questioning. It takes an act of the will to keep suffering at bay, but it can be done. Deepak Chopra speaks of pain and suffering in many of his teachings.
Many people confuse pain with suffering. Pain is not the same as suffering. Left to itself, the body discharges pain spontaneously, letting go of it the moment that the underlying cause is healed.
Suffering is pain that we hold on to. It comes from the mind’s mysterious instinct to believe that pain cannot be escaped or that the person deserves it . . . It takes a force of mind to create suffering, a blend of belief and perception that one thinks one has no control over. But as inescapable as suffering may appear, what brings escape is not attacking the suffering itself but getting at the unreality that makes us cling to pain.
– Deepak Chopra
Is it easier said than done, modifying the beliefs and perceptions that accompany pain? To be sure, it is difficult. But suffering people find a number of ways to accomplish it: yoga, meditation, prayer, and for people of faith, leaning on the strength of their religious practice. In a very real sense, we can create within ourselves the kind of healing that rises above physiological pain.
Perhaps it sounds simplistic, but while in the throes of physical pain, I am often able to find a measure of relief by meditating on the truth of Scripture, not just reading it, but abiding in it, letting its words penetrate my spirit, opening my heart to its comforting truth.
Psalm 42 has been called a Psalm for the fainting soul. The Psalm is the voice of a spiritual believer who is enduring deep depression, who is longing for the renewal of the divine presence, who is struggling with doubts and fears, yet holding on to hope. The Psalm twice repeats this comforting refrain.
Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you so disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I again will praise him, my help and my God.
– Psalm 42: 5, 11
In the final analysis, people of faith really do have the ability to endure chronic pain while avoiding suffering. Perhaps we cannot stop physical pain or reverse the source of the pain. Perhaps we do not have the power to heal ourselves from physical pain when physiological realities are at play in our bodies. But our faith assures us again and again that we do have the power to end suffering at its source — suffering of the mind, the heart, the spirit, the soul.
If you are in physical pain, my prayer is that your faith will quiet the questions of your mind, that your inner strength will calm the anxiety of your spirit, that your depth of hope will strengthen your heart, that your soul’s resilience will transcend your suffering. This is the ultimate healing.
May God make it so.