A neighbor dropped by the house with her daughter. That’s when I first felt it, and I’ve never been the same since. As I bent down to give the little girl a hug, an incredible pain shot through my back all the way to my toes – an intense pain that would barely allow me to straighten myself up again. After several visits to various doctors, an orthopedic spine specialist told me it was a lower back disorder. “I’m sending you to 10 sessions of physical therapy, and then you should be fine,” was his prognosis on recovery. That was 15 months ago. Today, I am still in physical therapy, medicated, and seeing assorted specialists.
While I was bed-ridden those first four weeks, I knew I had to keep the right perspective. I was no stranger to bed rest or to pain. I had actually had prolonged experiences with both in the past. Those were some of the sweetest times of communion with my Savior, but they were also miserable times of boxing matches with the Lord when I did not respond correctly. Since I was aware of the danger of not taking my thoughts captive in this critical moment, my constant prayer during that initial month was, “Dear Lord, don’t let this pain be wasted. Use it to conform me to your image. Use it to teach me how to be content.”
I must admit though, one grows weary of being confined to bed, not being able to cook and clean for your family, and having to miss out on church and ministry opportunities. In our young church plant on the foreign mission field, new believers were unsure as to how to minister to the pastor’s family, and obviously, we had no family nearby to help out. However, instead of focusing on myself and the negatives, I intentionally redirected my focus to pray – for my family, our church family, our ministry, unsaved neighbors, and many other things I didn’t always take enough time to pray for before. I began to see God work through those prayers and in my own life as well.
During this time, a sweet friend, someone I consider a spiritual “mom,” was praying for my complete healing. If she were one of the four friends who lowered the paralytic through the roof for Jesus to heal him, then I know God would have healed me just by seeing her faith. She often encouraged me and assured me that she was praying for my healing. I thanked her, and inside I added, “Yes, Lord, please send healing and relief from this pain, but only when you’re done with whatever you’re teaching me first!”
After several months, the pain became manageable, and I was living a limited, but somewhat “normal” life again. However, I began to miss those tender times of communion with the Lord. The irony of it was that when there was a flare-up that would send me back to the starting point, I found I wasn’t emotionally or spiritually prepared for the set back! The Lord would invariably keep me down for a week or two at a time, until I was back to where He wanted me to be.
Abiding in Christ – About a year into this journey, the Lord revealed the target area where I needed to trust Him more. As I was reading through the Gospels, a verse I had never really noticed before seemed to jump off the page at me. (Isn’t that a wonderful thing about God’s living Word?) “And he said unto them, Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while: for there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat” (Mark 6:31). Our Lord wants us to rest when necessary. He wants us to maintain a healthy balance between rest and work. I now see that I often found my worth in my productivity level, and not my position in Christ. When I discussed with my husband what I was learning, he lovingly pointed out, “In your mind, if you’re not in motion, then life is not worth living.”
As Andrew Murray illustrates in his classic work, Abide in Christ, as a mere branch, we are totally dependent on the vine for sustenance, and our purpose is not to live for ourselves, but to bear fruit for the vine. We must live in constant communion with Christ in order to receive the necessary nutrients to be able to fulfill our God-given purpose – to glorify God with the fruit we bear. This truth is so simple, yet so life-changing! God is not so much concerned about how active or busy we are, as He is with our union with Him.
My chronic back pain seems so trivial when I think of friends who are battling a terminal illness, have buried a parent or a child, or are facing a major financial difficulty. God has different purposes for the trials He allows His children to face. Sometimes it may be to get our attention and force us to go in a different direction. Sometimes He wants to remind us that our strength is in Him. Maybe His purpose is to cause us to thirst for Him more. Many times, God uses our suffering to give us even greater opportunities for ministry. At other times, the Lord brings trials in order to bring us back to our first love, because we have become careless in our relationship and have taken success and blessings for granted. There’s nothing like being stripped of all your physical, emotional, and spiritual strength to force you to recognize that Christ is your all-in-all. I honestly do not know when or if God will finally bring an end to my physical pain. I do know—now—that I will rather glory and take pleasure in my infirmities, so that I may truly know the power of Christ at work in my life (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). No matter what kind of suffering the Lord may bring into your life, don’t let your pain be wasted. Allow the Lord to use it to transform you and fulfill His purposes for you.