God and Chronic Pain


I wrote this back in 2009 – and thought it worth sharing again:

The worst thing that the Western church has done is that we have turned God into a man. Ask any six-year-old to draw God, and she will emulate Michelangelo and draw an old man with a white beard. The orthodox Christians, the Jews and Muslims have taken much more notice of the second commandment: “Thou shall not make of the Lord thy God any graven image.” (Exodus 20:4).

And God said…

We may not believe that God is literally a human being, but we picture a transcendent God in physical terms. Children may believe God is the “Friend for little children//Above the bright blue sky” in an absolute literal sense, and adults often believe transcendence describes God’s distance from the physical creation.

It’s true that the Bible often anthropomorphosises God: God walks out before the armies of Israel; God picks up and cuddles the human person, like a mother and baby (Hosea 11:3-4). In general, however, the Bible has a sophisticated notion that God is (a) holy, that is set apart from his creation, and (b) intimately involved in creation.

God is a wind (Genesis 1:3), an unseen and uncontrollable energy that stirs up of the raw materials of creation. God “sits above” the thunder and lightning (Psalm 39), more powerful than the raw energy of the storm. God stills the seas (Psalm 65:7), not with a giant hand, but with an irresistible will.

If you have chronic pain, your picture of God matters. If you think God is a sophisticated human upgrade, if you make God in the image of human beings, your God will not be strong enough to make a difference to your pain. Your picture of God will limit your ability to receive the powerful healing God wants for you.

In the last ten or so years, my picture of God has changed radically.

Sometimes this journey has been dangerous. I have wondered if I have lost my faith. The God I had believed in was not big enough, and certainly not powerful enough to positively affect my pain, and I had to let go of that picture of God.

In Peter Jackson’s 2001 film, The Lord of the rings: the Fellowship of the Ring, an underground sequence has the wizard Gandalf confronting a Balrog on a crumbling rock bridge. The hobbits run as fast as possible to get to safety. Gandalf falls with the monster to their death. Growing your faith in God is like that rush across the bridge of Khazad-dûm. When you let go of your picture of God, everything crumbles and precious ideas die.

But let me encourage you. The only way to have a picture of God adequate to your pain is to stop believing in the God you think you know. There is a well-trodden path to this believing atheism, and it is the path of mysticism.

1. Any picture of God you have is by definition too small. To continue to believe in it is to commit idolatry. You have no choice but to let go your picture of God.

2. When you let go of God in this way, you become an atheist in the sense that you have no God to hang on to. What you must then believe is that God is hanging on to you. You cannot know what manner of God this is, you need to trust only that you are being held.

“Blessed be the Lord day by day,

who bears us as his burden;

he is the God of our deliverance,” says the Psalmist (68:19)

3. As this trust develops, so you may begin to grope towards a new understanding of the God who is holding you. You may for example, begin to find new metaphors to describe God. God is energy; God is universal heartbeat, God lives as the tiniest cell in living things. These God-cells begin a process of healthy change in your body, and your pain is reduced.

4. But these are again pictures of God. The irony is that the process of letting go of your new pictures of God must continue.

I invite you to image a Spirit, a larger reality and to open yourself to encounter this Spirit. In this process, you may experience the reality of how deeply you are loved, how surely you are held, and how extraordinary is your future in this compassionate universe. This is what I call, and only for convenience’ sake, “contemplation”, the experience beyond muscle relaxation and centring.

I invite you to relax further into this journey into the Unknown God. I encourage along the only path through deeper atheism, which as it unfolds leads to a deeper experience of the power of God in healing your mind/body.

Re-Design my Pain


Todd Sampson reminded me on ABC TV last night that I can Re-design my Brain when it comes to my chronic pain. The three principles that I should meditate on for ten minutes a day are:

 

  1. This pain will pass,
  2. The pain can’t hurt me, and
  3. This pain won’t stop my body doing all (or most) of what I want.

 

The first principle is for those times when the pain flares up and is an invitation to live in the present. It is a reminder that in the future, I won’t have this pain. The future may be after I have slept tonight. The future may be after I have pulled the emergency cord and taken a pain holiday by consuming what my GP calls any “uh-zepam” drug. The future may be the next general anaesthetic I will some day have. The future may be after my death. It doesn’t matter how rare the future or how far out into the future, just the fact that there is a future where the pain changes for the better.

 

This pain will pass. Hang on to that.

 

This pain can’t hurt me. If I break my arm and then lift a heavy suitcase, that will hurt me. But my constant companions, the pains in my back and feet are not the result of new tissue damage or broken bones. I don’t have to limp because of my sciatic legs. The pain is just there, and movement will not make anything worse. In fact, movement may make things better.

 

Better to move than seize up. This pain can’t hurt me.

 

My body, considering all the things that are wrong with it, works very well. I can feel the wind on my face and see the waves down at the beach. I can hear the magpies sing their joyful carols. I can embrace those I love, and set my grandchildren on my knee and take them riding in my wheelchair. I walk three kilometres five mornings a week. I enjoy three meals a day. I can sit and type and engage my brain and fingers setting devious crosswords and writing stories.

 

Yes, I do have to work around the limitations of mobility that pain imposes on me. But my body can do most of the things I want to do.

 

Whenever I begin to be distressed by my pain, I can remind myself of these three statements of fact:

  1. This pain will pass,
  2. The pain can’t hurt me, and
  3. This pain won’t stop my body doing what I want.

These devious affirmations will change my brain’s perception of pain, and I will carry on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Painful Life


Every minute of every day, I experience pain. People say how hard it must be, and I don’t disagree. It just is. I have experienced pain since my late teens. I recently turned 63, and the pain has really been both continuous and severe for the past 20 years.

There are days when I complain about it. Not so much the pain as the extra limits it places on my life: less mobility, so a walk on the beach turns step by step into agony. Less ability to sit, so an evening at a restaurant becomes 20 minutes before the pain just makes me, well, go home. At least in recent years, I’ve learned that I have to either pre-order, or choose a restaurant that serves me quickly.

Doctors now recognize chronic pain as a disease of the nervous system or of the brain. That’s not to say that the pain is all in the mind. Rather it points to the mis-firing of the brain’s systems for experiencing pain. In chronic pain, the nerves that bring messages of pain to the brain and the systems that interpret sensations and the brain’s own map of the body are all out of whack, like an orchestra playing out of tune and out of time.

In my case, it’s as though the brain is replaying pain from previous injury to my spine. Ghost pain messages play havoc in my brain. For other people, the ongoing pain may not relate to tissue damage at all, but it arises, a mystery with no obvious cause.

On a scale of zero to 10, where zero is no pain and 10 the worst pain imaginable, my pain sits uncomfortably around 7 most of the time. Others with chronic pain have more fluctuation.

Pain is one thing. The experience of suffering is another. Both pain and suffering are mysterious experiences. But the extent to which a person suffers from their pain is partly a choice.

Rae Scott's cover "The Secret of Mount Toolbrunup"

As a young man, I climbed Mount Toolbrunup. In W.A.’s Stirling Ranges, Toolbrunup’s the toughest climb, because loose scree covers its steep sides. You scrabble up two or three steps, often on hands and knees, and then slide back one or two. It’s exhausting. Even though you seem to make no progress, the skinned knees and knuckles don’t make you suffer. You are climbing. An interesting activity engages you, and if you lift your head high enough, you see better and better views.

Climbing Mount Toolbrunup is a bit like living with chronic pain. You scrabble along. Your way is exhausting and the pain is real. But you are engaged in something other than the effort to move along: the fascinating activity of life. If you lift your attention away from the pain, you see how absolutely captivating life is. You see people to love, usually those who love you. You see an extraordinary world full of natural and man-made marvels; planets and meerkats and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. You choose interesting activities, reading, watching movies and setting crossword puzzles are some I choose. Life is there to be lived.

Or you can choose to suffer. Chronic pain is different from many illnesses. If you break a leg, it gets better. If you have diabetes, you can take insulin. There are pain pills, but they don’t always work. Meditation and exercise form the best base treatment for chronic pain, but note: you have to work at them. You have to choose.

The pain is unrelenting. I have many strategies to keep me sane, even cheerful. I don’t underestimate the climb. Researchers have found, for example, that chronic pain is experienced in the same region of the brain as depression. For many people ongoing pain and deep depression go hand in hand. It’s easy to slip into the chasm of depression, and I have once or twice.

But in the end, I choose. I choose to minimise the pain and limitations, and as well as I can, I choose not to suffer. The view’s great.

Mount Toolbrunup

The Meaning of Pain



Melanie Thernstrom, The Pain Chronicles.
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.
EAN:978-0865476813
$22 approx. on line

Reviewed by Ted Witham

One purpose of religious faith is to make meaning. Christians especially find it difficult to make sense of chronic pain. As Melanie Thernstrom explains in her entertaining Pain Chronicles (yes, entertaining!), acute pain is an excellent response to injury. Acute pain protects us. Chronic pain, like cancer cells that don’t know how to stop, serves no such purpose. It afflicts at least one person in ten and resists most treatments.

Christians need a strong theodicy to incorporate pain into their understanding of a loving God. In his 1993 memoir missionary doctor Paul Brand, famous for his work with leprosy, tried to sell the idea that pain is “the gift nobody wants.” Brand saw the lepers’ infected cuts and burns, injuries caused because they could not feel pain, and argued that we should praise God for the protective properties of pain. For Christians with chronic pain, this is not persuasive. Chronic pain serves no good purpose. As a chronic illness it challenges God’s ability to heal.

The Pain Chronicles tells two inter-twined stories: it is a memoir of Melanie Thernstrom’s own journey from her futile searching for cause and cure, to a more productive attempt to make sense of a life with ongoing pain. Formerly a staff writer with the New York Times, Thernstrom shares this journey with a robust honesty, especially her initial belief that her pain was a punishment for an ill-advised love affair.

This leads Thernstrom to meditate on the historical connections between the word “pain” and the Latin word for punishment “poena”. This excursion into history and language takes the reader through changing theologies and attitudes, and is typical of the second story of The Pain Chronicles: its pleasure in intellectual curiosity. Thernstrom follows her forensic curiosity down many byways in the history of pain and medicine, analgesia and anaesthesia. We learn both how the ancients understood pain and how contemporary researchers peer into the brain’s response to pain with real-time brain-imaging.

The Egyptian Ebers Papyrus from the 13th Century BC declares that “Magic is effective together with medicine. Medicine is effective together with magic.” “Although it would take millennia to understand why,” writes Thernstrom, “words in combination with physical treatment can alleviate pain in ways better than treatment alone.” (p. 35). She is clearly delighted to have affirmed that medications work better in a good healing relationship.

Some Christians believe that pain can lead one into the imitatio Christi. Elaine Scarry’s classic 1985 study The Body in Pain examines how the Bible understands pain, beginning with the pain of childbirth (“all those begats”) and following through the pain inflicted on God’s enemies in the Old Testament. Ultimately, claims Scarry, all this pain can only be understood through the lens of the Cross. Women’s pain, the pain of Israel’s enemies, and ultimately our pain should be viewed as a share in Christ’s Passion. After consideration, Thernstrom dismisses this idea as unhealthy: “I didn’t want to be in Pain. I didn’t want to want it. Pain is not a cross; it’s a Harrow.” (p. 76)

Ms Thernstrom cites studies that show “positive religious coping”. For some Christians, their faith does help them make sense of chronic pain by cognitive reframing the suffering or placing it in a wider context. For other Christians, however, pain leads to greater distress perhaps because they interpret their pain as punishment. (p. 206)

Hearing about the Hindu devotees who thread hooks through their flesh, Thernstrom heads to Kuala Lumpur to see whether they might have some insights into dealing with pain. Her journalist’s pen describes the festivals vividly, but they are of only marginal help on our journey. These pilgrims choose temporary pain to induce a spiritual high. This may lead to effective analgesia, but it is a practice worlds away from chronic pain: not choosing pain that never stops. No wonder the priest snorted when Thernstrom asked the god to take away the burden of her pain.

Thernstrom returns to science to make meaning of chronic pain. This malady is a disease of the brain, in fact, a disease of consciousness, that we cannot yet cure or treat effectively because brain science knows so little about consciousness.

She compares our current understanding of chronic pain to consumption in the 19th Century. Consumption was used as a metaphor for dying Romantic poets or operatic heroines. In 1882, a German physician identified mycobacterium tuberculosis. Although the cure, antibiotics, was half a century away, this scientific discovery reduced the illness from a metaphor to a disease. Chronic pain, Thernstrom concludes, currently evokes many metaphors, but until science unlocks its secrets, we will remain like pre-1882 sufferers of TB.

The Pain Chronicles cover much fascinating territory. Metaphors of pain and suffering are explored with elegance, intelligence and humanity. Melanie Thernstrom offers no theodicy of her own. She fears, I think, that to do so would belittle the experience of her fellow sufferers. What she does provide, though, is a fascinating sampling of others throughout history making meaning in chronic pain. While there may not yet be a cure for chronic pain, there is a lot of understanding here, and therefore comfort.

Spiritual help for people with chronic pain


I know what it is to live day in day with high levels of pain. My doctors tell me that, like 5 -10% of the population, my central nervous system is misfiring and produces chronic pain. For me, this pain seriously impacts my mobility. I appreciate the medical help that I receive. I also know that there are spiritual resources that I can use to live positively while still experiencing ongoing pain.

I describe many of these resources in my 56-page Living Well With Chronic Pain, a book structured around a 12-Step program. I have also written a Manual for the spouses and friends of people living with pain.

Chaplains, pain specialists and GPs approved of the ideas in the books. Over the last two years, many people living with chronic pain have found these books helpful. Read reviews here. and here.

Today the printer has dispatched the fifth reprint of Living Well With Chronic Pain. St John Books in Fremantle (WA) will sell these books, or they can be ordered directly from me for $22.95 +postage and handling.

I am also now making available a digital version of the book and the manual. These are in PDF format and cost $9.95 (the book) and $5.95 (the manual). Email me at twitham@cygnus.uwa.edu.au to order either or both, and I will email them to you. Payment can be made to my PayPal account.

(All prices quoted are in Australian dollars).

I can say Alleluia!


I wake on Easter morning with my wife’s kiss. “Christ is Risen!” she smiles. I hesitate before responding, “He is risen indeed.” it is a great day, but I feel just pain behind and in front. The Psalmist’s words were louder in my mind than Easter’s liturgical cry: ” Fat bulls of Bashan surround me on every side.” Back pain behind and gastritis before fill my consciousness. in the same breath, I pray, “You are behind me and before: such knowledge is too wonderful for me,”, and I feel the truth of Psalm 139 deep within.
But it is not enough to get me to celebrate the Great Feast in the company of fellow-Christians. I deal with disappointment by turning to the gospel account of the first Easter morning.
I have been reading Brendan Byrne’s “theological reading of Mark’s Gospel” – A Costly Freedom, and it being in the Year of Mark, I turn to Mark 16. It is exciting to re-read the Greek: so much new is there!
Three women leave for the tomb “very early in the morning” (verse 2), between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. This, according to my hospice nurse wife, is the low time, the time when death often creeps through the house of the dying and claims those who are ready. It is a time of intense dark, and for most, the deepest sleep. Yet in Mark’s Easter story, they arrive “just as the sun was rising.” Easter is a dawn that arrives before expected, the good news that tears away the deepest darkness! The first Easter, and all those that follow, are extraordinary dawns.

As the Sun Was Rising

As the Sun Was Rising

The story moves on. I smile at the colloquial translation of verse 4(c) that springs to mind. The women are amazed that the stone is rolled away: it was a “bloody great boondie”! This whole business with the stone is amazing. The women discover that it has been moved by “lifting up their eyes and gazing” – the word theoriein calls to mind both wonder and the deep seeing of meditation.” its removal is literally “apocalyptic”, a heavenly revelation.

And then verse 5: “they enter into, into” – the preposition is repeated – the tomb, the realm of death. This detail sets Mark’s resurrection narrative apart from Matthew’s and Luke’s. The three women here enter deeply into the experience of death (“baptised into his death ” (Rom.3.6 perhaps?)) This is more than grief, although the grief is profound, like Jacob’s at the supposed death of Joseph.
This is a mythical experience of the profundity of death; Orpheus going into the place of the dead to retrieve Eurydice, and the lost possibility of new life with her. This is the place where many of Mark’s original readers may have been – in the hell of persecution or martyrdom. This is the place where true disciples must take shelter before they can shout the joy of Easter.
In my pain and disappointment this morning, I can identify some way with the women going into, right into, the place of death.
This also means I can identify with the hope put into the angel’s mouth: I too am looking for Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified One, the Risen One. Any emptiness I experience is because “he is not here” (verse 6). I too can experience the thrill of being called again to discipleship and mission, “go and tell the disciples that they will see him again.”

Best of all Mark’s “shorter ending” with its abruptness restores to me the sense of being included in this ongoing mission of God. The other Gospels describe many Appearances of the Risen Jesus. Mark doesn’t crowd me out with the experiences of others. Mark trusts that my experience will be authentic on its own terms.
Even though I struggle with pain that takes my breath away, I can feel his breath filling me with new life. He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

Walking with the Risen One

Walking with the Risen One

The Glory of God is people fully alive


Yesterday I discussed with my doctor changing the frequency of one of my medications. This involved charting my reactions to the drug, a discussion with the doctor, who telephoned the specialist after appointment. Later in the day, the doctor rang me back with the conclusions of his discussion with the specialist. I had to explain all this to my wife when she came home from work. Today, I must collect a new prescription from the doctor’s surgery and take it to the pharmacist and discuss it with him.

Chronic illness is like that. It is so easy for the illness to become that the main preoccupation of my thinking, and relations with others.

The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel writes, “Thus there is a risk that illness will make of me that deformed creature, a catalogued and professionalised invalid, who thinks of himself as such and contracts in all respects, the habitus of illness. … In so far as I hope, I detach myself from this inner determinism.”

Living well with chronic illness requires making a fundamental choice about who I am. I can choose to be a person with chronic pain, a sick person, a “catalogued and professionalised invalid.” Alternatively, I can choose to be a full human being, not defined by my illness, or any other single characteristic, but seeking a balanced and rich life.

This choice must be made every day. I learn how to live well with my illness from my experience as a Christian disciple. The framework of my life includes the habit of Morning Prayer. Every morning I need to be reminded that “new every morning is the love”

Peace at Ile des Pins

Peace at Ile des Pins

whose energy permeates my life. Every morning, I need to be reminded to choose God, to choose life rather than death, to choose to walk a creative path rather than to crawl in sin.

Every morning, I make the choice anew to live in the moment. How destructive it is to dwell in the past, or to worry in the future. “Hope is engaged in the weaving of experience now in the process, or in other words, an adventure going forward.” (Marcel again.)

This way of life is both practical and profoundly spiritual because it is both a more enjoyable and more integrated way for the mind/body/spirit to live.

The second century theologian Irenaeus saw the vision of the glory of God as people really alive (Gloria Dei vivens homo). Living with chronic pain need not reflect a disappointment with the Creator, making a mess of his creation. Living with chronic pain, when the creative path of living fully in the present moment is chosen, can truly glorify God.