Author's Note: I wrote an extended version of this article over three years ago for Gospel-Centered Discipleship. Since that time, I've been diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease. I've gone back to this article frequently in my pain, sickness, and suffering to remind myself of these truths. If you find yourself in a similar season, I pray these truths will comfort you.
There I was again, lying in a hospital bed hooked to an IV receiving my usual “cocktail” for migraines. Despite seven years of treatment, I was still having episodes that landed me in the ER. This could have been the opportune moment to hit play on my usual “woe is me” self-talk. But that night something changed. I chose to preach the gospel to myself instead. The following gospel truths ministered to me, and have become regular tracks I play in my head as I learn to preach the gospel in the midst of pain.
I AM NOT BEING PUNISHED
Pain presents the temptation to believe God is pouring out punishment. Somewhere in our subconscious we equate pain with chastisement. We think if we’re good, we’ll be rewarded–and if we’re bad, we’ll be punished. Yet we’re missing a component in our religious equation: the gospel. The gospel says we don’t simply do “bad things;” rather, apart from Christ we are “bad.” We are “alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds” (Col. 1:21). We are “dead in the trespasses and sins” in which we once walked (Eph. 2:1-2). We are children “of wrath,” under God’s condemnation (Eph. 2:3). If I think migraines are a just punishment for sin, then I have underestimated the gravity of sin. In terms of punishment, I don’t deserve migraines. I deserve death and hell.
But the gospel is the “good news” for a reason. God put Jesus forward as the propitiation for sin so we might be “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). God reconciled us to himself “in his body of flesh by his death” (Col. 1:21). Though we were dead, he made us “alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:5). Christ suffered the penalty of sin so we no longer experience the punishment of God’s wrath. Though God disciplines those he loves (Heb. 12:6), he poured out his punishment for sin conclusively upon the Son. If you have been united with Christ, you will never bear the punishment for sin because Jesus received it in your place. Therefore, pain is not punishment from God or a sign of his disapproval.
I AM NOT ALONE
Pain can be isolating, leading to terrible loneliness. As complexly woven beings, when we suffer physically, we inevitably suffer spiritually and emotionally as well. The gospel brings comfort by reminding us Jesus shared in our pain. He left the glories of heaven to take “the form of a servant” and be “born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7). He shared in “flesh and blood” and “he himself partook of the same things” that we endure (Heb. 2:14). He was “made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest” (Heb. 2:17). Jesus sympathizes with our weaknesses because he knows how it feels to suffer in the flesh (Heb. 4:15). Hebrews 5:7 says, “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death…”
How many times have you prayed for relief and yet your pleas seemed to ring hollow? How often have you thought, “God is able to take this from me but he doesn’t”? How frequently have you felt abandoned by God in your suffering? Those subjective feelings are real, but the objective truth is that God has drawn near to us through Christ. We can be sure God hears our cries because we have an intercessor in heaven who identifies with us (Heb. 7:25), who is interceding on our behalf (Heb. 4:14-16). We’re never alone in pain because Jesus didn’t just suffer for us; he also suffered with us. In fact, suffering can be a means by which we experience a sweet closeness with Jesus, knowing he also walked the path of pain.
I HAVE THE HOPE OF RESURRECTION
Pain has a way of shrinking perspective. We become so obsessed with feeling better that we lose sight of the bigger picture. But the gospel tells us pain is not the final word for those in Christ–resurrection is! God didn’t create humans for sickness and death. Death came through Adam’s first sin (Gen. 3) and now “in Adam all die” (1 Cor. 15:22). But Christ defeated Satan, sin, and death and in his resurrection we see the first-fruits of what is to come: bodily resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20, 23). As Christians, we believe those “in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22) on the final day when the “perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:54). Our gospel message is much broader than “get saved and go to heaven after you die.” The truth is, in Christ, God is righting all wrongs and renewing all things. A new heaven and a new earth are coming–and on that day we will live in our fully redeemed and glorified bodies.
Our ultimate hope isn’t in this world or in temporary healing; it’s in the recreation of all things. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to alleviate emotional and physical pain. But to put our entire hope in temporary healing is to lose an eternal perspective. Christian—greater glory is ahead! We rejoice, even in pain, because we know “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). Glorification doesn’t minimize the severity of pain, but it surely outweighs it. The hope of glory weighs much more than our present pain.
PAIN PRESENTS GOSPEL "OPPORTUNITIES"
These truths are quite easy to believe on a good day. But then migraines come and render me powerless. Watching myself become anxious when I can’t produce is illuminating. It reveals that much of my confidence comes from my performance and not Jesus’ finished work. I’m confronted with the dissonance between the theology I affirm and the theology I practice. Consequently, migraines are one of the means by which God takes my theology and drives it into my heart. They present an opportunity, if you will, to believe the truths I confess. Maybe you also struggle with chronic pain. Or perhaps you suffer from panic attacks or a disease or have to live with food allergies. Pain comes in all sorts of packages. Everyone will suffer differently in this lifetime, but in each instance it presents a unique opportunity to believe the gospel more deeply.
Know that I am not minimizing suffering–but if we continue to play the “woe is me” audio, we will only lead ourselves to despair. Instead we can choose to rehearse the gospel to ourselves in spite of our suffering, and be lead to life and godliness. Raw moments of suffering provide us with some of the most fertile soil to plant gospel seeds in our hearts. And those seeds are what fuel our affection for Christ and give us the foundation for a life of faithfulness. I’m not saying I like pain, but if there’s anything in this world that can train my obstinate head and hard heart to better understand what God achieved for me in Christ, I want to welcome it with the Holy Spirit's help.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!