“In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa became diseased in his feet. His disease was severe, yet even in his disease he did not seek the LORD, but the physicians.” (2 Chronicles 16:12).¹
A Personal Experience
I suffered with an undiagnosed case of shingles for pretty much all of April. After mostly ignoring a dull ache in my shoulder/upper-back for a couple of weeks, I awoke on April 2 with an excruciating pain in that location that seemed to be coming from a seizing muscle. I skipped work and school that day to go to my doctor in search of (what I hoped would be) immediate relief. In spite of his diligent care through two visits (in which I received several prescriptions and then trigger point steroid injections), and subsequent visits to a chiropractor throughout the month of April, nothing could make the pain go away, and I struggled to do the bare minimum in terms of keeping up with family, church ministry, and school.
I soon found myself asking a question I’m sure I had asked before, and which I have heard others ask many times as well: with all of the advances in modern medicine, how is it possible that doctors can’t figure out what’s wrong with me and fix it already?
Now I can’t say that I didn’t immediately know that there was a sinful lack of faith fueling my impulse to ask this question—in fact, 2 Chronicles 16:12 (see above) quickly and repeatedly came to mind. But the temptation to be frustrated (i.e., angry) with the lack of diagnosis and effective treatment recurred frequently in my heart for the better part of a month—I would find contentment and joy in the midst of pain one day, and then struggle again with frustration the next day when yet another task or engagement had to be put off because of what seemed like just a muscle problem in my shoulder. Even though I knew the truth of Scripture, I struggled not to feel entitled to a quick fix to my physical problem, which I was sure modern medicine should be able to provide.
The Influence of the World’s Thinking
Although I am a biblical counselor who strongly affirms the sufficiency of Scripture and resists attempts by others to “integrate” the philosophies of secular psychology with the ministry of God’s Word, I have found that my mind is often affected to at least some degree by the world’s thinking. And the way the world thinks about these things is in a way understandable: medical science has made incredible advances in the last hundred years, and those advances have led to the widespread assumption that medicine (as mediated through physicians) has the ability to cure (or at least explain) just about any discomfort, whether that be obviously physical or even mental or emotional pain.
What has become the normal assumption (one I found in my own heart to some degree in my recent bout with shingles) is that if I am in pain, I should be able to get quick relief (and maybe I even have a right to that relief) from a doctor, or from a team of doctors, or even from a combination of all of the best resources available at the best hospitals in the world. All of these wonderful things should be available to me, and should be able to bring me relief (or at least set me on the road to relief) right now.
When Expectations Collide With Reality
Whereas my experience with physical pain and medical care has usually been one of incredible efficiency—I have almost always been able to take a pill or use a device or have a procedure to decisively treat whatever ailed me—this recent experience demonstrated to me what is in fact undeniably true: medicine does not have all the answers. And in my case I had to endure with miserable symptoms, even to the point where it started to look like they might never go away, and medicine might never be able to explain it. I had a choice to make: would I make relief my idol, or would I subject my experience of physical pain to the truth of Scripture and worship God?
Scripture is Still Sufficient
It was not easy to surrender my plans for a well-run home and office, a productive school semester, and a (mostly) comfortable daily life. But a few days into my ordeal, I realized that at least one of the ways in which God intended this suffering for my good was to remind me of my own weakness and dependence on Him. The Lord graciously led me to make a discipline of putting off lies and putting on truth the way Michael Emlet describes in his booklet Chronic Pain: Living by Faith When Your Body Hurts²—rather than thinking along these lines:
- I must get rid of this pain at all costs.
- God must be punishing me.
- God owes me an easier life.
- I can’t do what God has called me to do because of this unrelenting pain.
I disciplined myself to think the truth in line with God’s Word:
- God provides the resources I need each day to persevere.
- He understands the depths of pain.
- I don’t understand why God won’t take away the pain, but I lean on His faithfulness and love to me through Jesus.
An Ongoing Battle
While I am grateful for the insight and help the Lord gave me early in the month (or so) when I was mostly down with chronic pain, it was also true that victory in this area was not as decisive or lasting as I would have hoped. Even after I realized that I was at risk of making relief an idol, I needed to figure out (on a weekly, if not even a daily basis) how to faithfully seek the help of medicine and doctors, without making the restoration of physical comfort my highest good.
By God’s grace, I was finally diagnosed and treated for shingles in early May, and much of the pain went away almost immediately—leaving mainly just need for physical therapy due to nerve damage and muscle atrophy. I have found that although the physical challenge has lessened, I continue to have need to guard my heart—I can still tend towards discontent with the lasting effects of the illness, or even with my failure (or “modern medicine’s” failure) to identify and treat the real problem sooner, so that the effects would have been minimized. Again, God’s grace is sufficient here: I have taken comfort in the fact that the issues of a failing body are common to man, and that my ultimate hope is anchored in heaven, and includes a glorified resurrection body (Eccl 12:1-8; 2 Cor 4:16-5:8).
Caveats and Concluding Thoughts
With what I have written here, I figure it is probably good to state this clearly: I consider modern medicine to be a wonderful gift from the Lord, and I would never discourage a counselee from availing him- or herself of available medical help. (Again, I sought and eventually benefited from such help during my recent illness.) I also want to acknowledge that my month of intense pain is nothing compared with the years and even decades of chronic pain many of my faithful brothers and sisters are called to endure. But I also hope to encourage everyone who reads this to remember what really matters, and where our hope truly is—whether we are in pain or in comfort, whether we are hungry or well-fed, whether we are living or dying—we have a great Savior who is also the great physician. He not only knows our suffering, He has actually ordained it for our good and has even borne it Himself, and—whether we are able to receive temporal relief from human physicians or not—we can trust Jesus to heal us fully one day, when we will be free from sin and able to enjoy life with Him in glorified resurrection bodies. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations in this post are from the NASB translation.
- Michael R. Emlet, Chronic Pain: Living by Faith When Your Body Hurts (Greensboro, NC: 2010), 8-9.