Cycles of Relief

The pain we experience in this life will come and go, until one day it’s gone forever.

Don’t forget the back pad,” my wife says as we leave the house to go out for dinner or coffee or a movie. The back pad is a constant presence in our lives, sitting there on her chair at meal times, leaning against the driver’s seat in the family minivan, and showing up even at church, in our favorite pew.

We carry it everywhere we go together, a constant reminder of the crippling pain she often experiences when she sits for prolonged times. We took it on the cruise ship when we celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary. It even traveled with us to the Middle East, as we joined a delegation of church leaders.

Angela has suffered from lower back pain as long as I’ve known her, but in some seasons the suffering is more acute. We’ve had moments where she could be more active after surgery and therapy and pain relief shots. And then there were the times pain kept her in bed for most of the day. We’ve done almost everything we know to do: doctors, experts, therapy, natural medicines, and exercise.

My wife has lived an amazingly disciplined life—following a rigid diet and exercise routine that allows her to function day to day as a stay-at-home mother of four children. But the pain is always there, lingering in the background, a reminder of her frailty.

Early in our marriage, Angela would say things like, “I just know I’ll have to endure this pain for the rest of my life,” and I would argue back, “No, we will find a solution to get rid of this pain.” But now, though she finds relief, I’ve come to agree with her. Healing may not fully come—not in this life.

I’ve never suffered from chronic pain, so my limited experience comes only through being present to hers. But one thing I have observed is that in this fallen in-between world we currently inhabit, healing is cyclical, not linear. In other words, until we experience the full and lasting restoration provided in Jesus at the end of the age, there will be small pockets of temporary relief, mere glimpses of what will one day come in full.

We’ve done almost everything we know to do: doctors, experts, therapy, natural medicines, and exercise.

The prophet Isaiah promised that in the bloody stripes of our Messiah, we would find healing (Isa. 53:5). And Malachi told of a King who would offer “healing in His wings” (Mal. 4:2 NKJV). Typically, Christians have two types of reactions to these promises.

Some see a guarantee that in this present life, with enough faith, any malady can be reversed. And yes, sometimes this happens. I’ve heard stories of cancer suddenly vanished and diseases miraculously eliminated. But I’ve also heard of people who beg and beg to no avail. Think of Paul, who pleaded with God for his thorn to be removed, only to be rebuffed. Think of Joni Eareckson Tada, whose giant-like faith has not seen her leap out of her wheelchair. Think of my good friend who died of cancer at the age of 34, a faithful churchman and follower of Christ. We encounter myriad examples like these, and yet still many of us continue holding to the Bible’s supposed guarantee for healing.

And then there are those Christians who read God’s promises for healing and scoff at the thought that He wants to bring physical relief to His children. It’s easy to reduce the meaning of these passages to refer only to spiritual healing. And while it’s true that Jesus’ stripes restore us primarily of our sin sickness, that’s not all they heal. In announcing the kingdom, He made the lame walk and the blind see. Jesus cares not only for our souls, but also for our bodies.

Yet perhaps there is another way of looking at the healing in our great Savior’s wings. Maybe we should believe God can physically heal us but recognize that most relief in this life comes in small doses—pockets of hope in a world of despair—and all in anticipation of what is to come: a full and final restoration of our fallen bodies.

Jesus cares not only for our souls, but also for our bodies.

Paul talks about this kind of cyclical path through brokenness when he describes our existence as “earthen vessels” or “jars of clay” suffering from “light and momentary affliction” (2 Corinthians 4:7; 2 Corinthians 4:17). He wasn’t minimizing pain and suffering, but rather was looking ahead to a day when it would be gone forever. Paul, in his pain, could cling to God’s promise of resurrection in Christ.

My wife often talks about this when she discusses her pain. She has often said her suffering helps her see Jesus more clearly. Though she’d gladly take full relief right now, I’ve seen how the struggle has shaped her character and formed her soul in a manner that echoes Paul’s words about “the eternal weight of glory” (v. 17).

In some ways, our cycles of pain and relief are a microcosm of the age in which we live. The kingdom of God has indeed dawned in the world, and yet we still see the dreary corruption of sin all around—afflicting us, burdening us, blinding us. Our pain is a reminder of where we came from, and our moments of healing reveal to us where we are going.

 

There’s more than one way to understand pain. Read Take 1 here.

 

Illustration by Abbey Lossing

Related Topics:  Sickness

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5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed.

2 But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall.

7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves;

17 For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison,

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