“Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request.” (1 Chronicles 4.10 NIV)
When I was a college freshman, I woke up with a migraine. This was not unusual; splitting pain with crashing sensitivity, a wobble in my step, and missing spots in my vision had been part of my life since I was three. My great-grandmother, grandmother, father, mother, and brother experienced these attacks, and so do I.
The pain was there the next day, and it was still there two weeks later. I asked my Bible study group to pray for me. And that is where our story begins.
In the early 2000s, the prosperity gospel was taking off in many Christian communities, including mine. We read Wilkinson’s “Prayer of Jabez” with uncritical faith. When pain came to my daily life, I turned to the promises I felt the Bible offered me; miracles and healing.
“Jesus never refuses to heal someone who asks,” my pastors told me. “It’s in the Gospels.” I looked, and found that it was true. I had to touch the hem of His garment, repent, pick up my metaphorical bed and go.
Months passed, each day coming with crippling neurological disability. Medications were changed, my elimination diet restricted me to roast chicken, eggs, and poached salmon, and I prayed for healing. But my friends began to turn to troubleshooting.
Jesus promises that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we can move mountains. So, one friend suggested, I must lack faith. I struggled to focus through waves of vertigo to will a mustard seed into being. All I summoned was shame.
Demons oppress people in the Gospels and cause illness. Another friend insisted I must be possessed. Their prayers became aggressive attempts at deliverance. The pain lurked, unmoved by the name of my savior.
“You have not because you ask not,” our Intervarsity leader said. “Have you asked in faith? Really asked?” Bent over a dorm toilet, nauseated and shaking with tears, I reworded my prayer yet again.
“God must be trying to get your attention,” said my Pentacostal friend one evening over Bible study, as I was struggling to fight the grogginess caused by the latest new medication. “Sounds like a generational curse – you need to break it.”
My Calvinist friend hopped on board with, “Perhaps God is convicting you of sin. Confess, repent, and you’ll be healed.” I gave away my Harry Potter books and stopped watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to no avail. So I racked my brain for every sin I could remember, going so far as to find a very confused Catholic priest for confession. The sunlight was too bright on the way back uphill to my dorm.
I hope you don’t know the shattering heartbreak of loving God, wanting to follow Jesus, and thinking you’re failing so badly, God has decided to make you live in pain. I hope you never feel you are rejected, perhaps from salvation, because you have failed to understand God’s will. I hope you never blame yourself for not receiving a miracle.
Lent is my favorite season of the liturgical year because it is the season when the Church attends to pain of all kinds. Rejection, injustice, abuse, suffering. We look to a savior who suffered, not so that we would never suffer, but so we would not suffer alone. Many of us fast, choosing to experience deprivation in service of greater closeness with our God. Our savior too chose to be born into a body that suffered and died.
I am Roman Catholic now, and have been since my Junior year of college. This decision to convert was a hard one, and caused my family a great deal of understandable grief and anger. Part of why this way of following Christ drew me, though, was the doctrine of redemptive suffering. We believe that we have a choice–a free choice–to join our suffering to the suffering of Jesus. Jesus’ work on the cross is complete in and of itself, but we can consent to participate in it, to transform our senseless pain into closeness with our Savior in the last days of his life. We also believe that this choice has a real value to the world, and that God can use our freely given offering to do good in ways we cannot know or see.
Our pain can be holy. To me, battered and demoralized, this concept was my salvation on earth.
I no longer pray for my healing, and I ask that nobody else does either. I have formally renounced all efforts to hold God hostage to my pain, and have forgiven Him for creating my body flawed. I pray for patience, for wisdom, for insight. When I suffer, God is with me, and loves me. I welcome the Holy Spirit into my dark bedroom and my neurologist’s office, not as my rescuer, but as my companion. I look to the saints who also suffered, and see in them friends who point the way to living this life well.
That is me on my best days. I’m no saint; more often than not I’m a very grudging participant in the pain of redemption. Even now, two decades later, I struggle to read the healings in the Gospels without bitterness and anger. I am more salt than light.
My peace doesn’t have to be yours, and if redemptive suffering isn’t your calling, I hope another source of strength reaches you, whatever it looks like. But what I do ask, and what will be of great help to your neighbors, is for you to mourn with those who mourn this Easter season. While pain is inevitable in life, acceptance and empathy are choices that heal. That is also in the Gospels and requires no divine intervention.
The Passion of Christ is a mystery of undeserved rejection, friends who hurt you, and knowing that your suffering will break your parents’ hearts. And yes, the Passion is pain that saves. Saves how? I think in more ways than one.
Dr. Molly Jones-Lewis is a historian of Roman medicine who teaches in the Ancient Studies department of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She enjoys wool-working and performing early music, and her life goal is to pet a cat in every archaeological site in the Mediterranean.
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.