Physical Pain and A Gospel Perspective
I found myself yet again in a hospital bed hooked to an IV receiving my usual “cocktail” for migraines. Despite ongoing treatment, I still had episodes that landed me in the ER. This could have been the opportune moment to hit play on my “woe is me” self-talk. But that night something changed; I chose to preach the gospel to myself. The following truths ministered to me and have become regular tracks I play in my head in the midst of pain.
“You Are Not Being Punished.”
Pain tempts us to believe God is punishing us. Somewhere in our subconscious we equate pain with chastisement. If we’re “good” we think we deserve to be rewarded and if we’re “bad” we fear 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 children “of wrath” under God’s condemnation (Eph. 2:3). Quite frankly, 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.
If you are united with Christ, you will never bear the punishment for sin because Jesus received it in your place.
But the gospel is good news for a reason! God put Jesus forward as the propitiation for sin so that we might be “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). Christ suffered the penalty of sin, so believers will never experience the punishment of God’s wrath. Though God disciplines those he loves (Heb. 12:6), he poured out punishment for sin upon the Son. If you are united with Christ, you will never bear the punishment for sin because Jesus received it in your place. Refuse to buy into the lie that your physical suffering is a sign of God’s wrath.
“You Are Not Alone.”
Pain is isolating which can lend itself to terrifying loneliness. As complex beings, our physical suffering inevitably leads to spiritual and emotional pain. The gospel brings comfort by reminding us that Jesus shared in our pain. He left the glories of heaven to 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). Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses because he knows what it’s like 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 prayers rang hollow? How often have you felt abandoned by God in your suffering? Your feelings are real and valuable, but the truth is that God has drawn near to you through Christ. Believers 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 suffered for us and with us. In fact, suffering provides a sweet closeness with Jesus as he walks us with us in our pain.
“You 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 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, namely, 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” (1 Cor. 15:54). The gospel message is much broader than “get saved and go to heaven after you die.” Through Christ God is renewing all things, including our bodies! One day we will live on a new earth with fully redeemed and restored bodies.
Glorification doesn’t minimize the severity of pain, but it surely outweighs it.
Our ultimate hope isn’t in temporary healing; it’s in final resurrection. Of course we should 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.
Pain Presents Gospel Opportunities.
These truths seem easy to believe on a “good day.” Then pain comes and renders me powerless. I become anxious when I can’t produce. It reveals that much of my confidence comes from my performance and not from Jesus’ finished work. I’m confronted with the dissonance between the theology I affirm and the theology I practice. In this way, migraines present me an opportunity, if you will, to practice believing the truths I profess.
Maybe you also struggle with chronic pain. Or perhaps you suffer from panic attacks or a genetic disease or an undiagnosed illness. Pain comes in all sorts of packages. Everyone will suffer differently in this lifetime, but all suffering presents a unique opportunity to believe the gospel more deeply.
Please know that I am not minimizing suffering. I’m truly not! But I do believe we can and should rehearse the gospel to ourselves in spite of suffering in a way that leads to rich gospel transformation. Raw moments of pain provide us with fertile soil to plant gospel seeds in our hearts. And as those seeds grow in the midst of our suffering they fuel our affections for Christ and provide the foundation for a life of steadfast trust in him.
Whitney Woollard earned her M.A. in Biblical and Theological Studies from Western Seminary, where she’s currently pursuing further theological training and working part-time. She is a regular contributor to "Gospel-Centered Discipleship" and writes for various guest blogs. Whitney and her husband Neal live in Portland, Oregon where they call Hinson Baptist Church home. You can attend one of Whitney's two workshops at the Verity Forum on May 7th.