If I were the author of my life story, my days would be painless and carefree. Each day would begin with a cinnamon roll and coffee and end with sunset paddleboarding from my hypothetical beach house.
Fantasies aside, life has not gone according to plan. In late high school, the onset of stomach pain quickly expanded into a myriad of issues and unexplained symptoms that persisted in my body throughout college. Chronic pain reared its ugly head, leaving me wrestling through unfulfilled dreams and a desperate search for answers. I am not at the end of my journey, but I am closer to healing than before. And while I certainly wouldn’t re-live these pain-filled years, I also would not change them. Valleys teach us lessons that mountains never can.
Chronic pain is the greatest tool God has used in my spiritual life. Here are five lessons God is teaching me in this difficult season.
Live with a manna mindset.
One of my professors shared that when she was in college, she would often procrastinate by telling herself, “That’s future Mary’s problem!” While this may not be the best advice for homework or job deadlines, we aren’t built to handle tomorrow’s trouble today. Matthew 6:34 reminds us: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
Looking too far ahead can be unbearable. When I imagine being stuck in the same scenario years down the road, my spirit faints within me. God has been faithfully interrupting these thought patterns with a much-needed challenge: the manna mindset.
Do you remember what happened when the Israelites attempted to store up manna for the next day? It spoiled. But when they trusted God to provide today’s supply today and tomorrow’s supply tomorrow, their needs were always met. On the worst days of my health journey, it has helped to simply take life moment by moment. That can mean trying a new supplement, doing the dishes, or even taking a nap — always remembering that God’s mercies are new each morning and He promises to care for His children.
Beware comparison’s pitfalls.
Why am I such a wimp? He’s going through so much more than me and still has a smile on his face. Get it together, Olivia.
If only she knew what I was facing, she’d stop complaining. I’d give anything to trade problems with her.
A teeter totter of thoughts. As ugly as the truth is, many of us spend our time lurching from one overcorrection to another, never settling on a balanced outlook. Comparison inevitably leads to one of two pitfalls: guilt or jealousy.
Have you found your mind wandering to people in tougher circumstances? While perspective is good when it leads to gratitude and compassion, this type of comparison leaves us feeling guilty. And our natural response to guilt? Hiding. Rather than seeking the help and support we need to thrive, we grit our teeth and bootstrap self-sufficiency. Guilt does not lead to healing.
On the flip side, comparison can lead to jealousy. We look left and right and decide others were dealt a better hand. Suddenly we are discouraged, self-absorbed, and wishing we were given someone else’s life. Jealousy is riddled with problems, the most basic being that we are commanded not to covet (Exodus 20:17). But often jealousy is not even grounded in reality. We forget that we’re seeing only one chapter of the story, and if we pulled back the curtain, we would discover there is more going on behind the scenes than we could ever imagine.
Sometimes life is not fair, and your friends seem to have won the “life lottery.” Their problems appear smaller than yours. This isn’t a license to discount their pain. Pain is pain. We should be empathetic people, knowing how hard it can be to get our heart on the same wavelength as our beliefs.
God does not promise to shield us from every reality of life in a fallen world, but He promises that He is “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). This verse changed everything in my approach to comparison. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, I can trust God to be there in greater measure if my troubles increase. I can also rest assured He has a good plan for every believer’s life, regardless of how fairly I think it all shakes out.
God’s provision is not limited to physical healing.
Some problems are so big and blinding, it feels like nothing will be OK again until the path is cleared. For the longest time, I believed life with chronic pain couldn’t be good. Deep down in my heart, that was the whisper. It wasn’t about being at peace with God in my pain as much as believing I couldn’t catch a breath until I was healed. But God’s provision is not limited to physical healing.
During my sophomore year of college, I knew I needed to find answers for what was going on in my body, but I also wanted to finish my degree. Christmas break was brutal and returning to school for the spring semester was a leap of faith. When I got back, I opened my Bible to 2 Chronicles 20. The entire story is incredible, but the part that stuck out to me was this:
“Thus says the Lord to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s…You will not need to fight in this battle” (2 Chronicles 20:15b, 17a).
The battle belonged to God, not me. It was up to Him to fight in His way and His timing. With that in mind, I entered the new semester with a renewed hope in God. He would fight for me. For six weeks beginning the very next day, my symptoms drastically decreased. It was a miracle. I wasn’t fully healed, but God gave me a season of rest. When my symptoms later returned, I decided to pray a bold prayer that could be answered only because God can do “exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Eph 3:20). I prayed: LORD, I just want to go home. I want to finish school, but I want to be home.
Usually in my prayer requests, I’m simply proposing my plan to God. And this prayer was asking for two incompatible things. Could God do another miracle? Would He? One week later, the world shut down for a global pandemic. I went home and finished my semester.
Our God is so big. COVID isn’t a good thing, but it was used for good in my life. The flexibility brought about by the pandemic allowed me to seek the medical answers I needed while finishing my degree. God is still working in my circumstances, mind and spirit to provide on my continued journey to healing. He’ll do that for you too.
Shift your perspective.
FOMO is a big thing for me. I eventually realized that one of the hardest aspects of chronic pain is not just the physical ramifications, but all the missed opportunities. I found my mind stuck on all that chronic pain had taken away from me. As crazy as it sounds, I am learning to flip the script: What opportunities do I have because of chronic pain that I did not have before?
- Lending an understanding ear to friends with health struggles
- Experiencing God’s nearness in trial
- Deepened relationships with those who have walked the journey with me
- Switching majors in college
- Seasons of solitude to dive into books and resources to grow my faith
- Writing this article
I’ve heard it said that God’s will for your life is found amid your limitations. He can use them to redirect you and even produce new opportunities in your life if you will let Him.
Use your weapons.
We are in a spiritual battle. There is a very real enemy who wants to render you ineffective. He wants to rob you of joy, hope and vibrancy in your relationship with God. But God has given us a two-edged sword — and it works!
Your Bible is your greatest weapon; learn to use it. Lean in. Dig deep. Sometimes I stand in front of my mirror reading the Psalms out loud like a madwoman proclaiming truth over my life. It helps me get out of my head and land on thoughts that I know are true. We must look at our circumstances through the lens of the Bible, not the Bible through the lens of our circumstances.
Praise is also a weapon. It feels weird to proclaim what we are struggling to feel, but God uses this act of faith to change our hearts. There was a time when I realized I could start celebrating before I saw the victory — walking as a victor, not a victim, knowing the eternal battle has already been won on my behalf. You are a victor with a good, good God. I know this life is a fight, but you’re equipped with all you need.
Today I am being treated for unwanted intruders that have invaded my microbiome. There are no magic bullets or miracle cures, but this treatment has brought about the first sustained help in my journey. I didn’t think after all this time I could be facing these same problems — with hope intact. But God is faithful. I just graduated college (hallelujah!), had an amazing summer interning at Focus on the Family, and am soon stepping into a short-term traveling position with another ministry. God will continue leading (and teaching) me one day at a time.