March 2022 | Written by Ellie McGinty
Madison Stewart, along with her husband Gary and their two girls Violet and Brighton, have been members at Gashland for four years. Madison is on the Women’s Ministry Team, and Gary helps out with the Outreach Ministry Team. They met in college, and Gary grew up in Bolivia, Guatemala, and Texas, while Madison grew up in Platte City, where they now live. Manifold Witness seeks to look at different callings, careers, passions, and gifts through the lens of Colossians 1:16-17, which says, “For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” The title of the series is taken from the hymn Great is Thy Faithfulness.
When we think about pain, particularly chronic pain, there’s usually a breakdown in our belief of who God is. God is healer; why am I not being healed? God sees me; why doesn’t He intervene? God knows suffering because of Jesus; why does it seem like He doesn’t care about mine? With chronic pain, it feels as though there will always be more questions than answers, more mystery than clarity. The fall poisoned everything, from our imaginations, to our interactions with others, to the consistency of the functionality of our bodies. Chronic pain is one of the many ways the fall impacts humanity, and while there are myriads of types of chronic pain, the tension between what we know about God and what we are experiencing is largely the same across the different experiences of pain.
Madison Stewart experiences a particular kind of chronic pain known as migraines. Migraines seem to be mostly a mystery, in terms of cause and cure and even symptoms, but they are, for the most part, usually accompanied by a head pain that can be completely debilitating: “When I discuss migraines with someone, I’ve found it helpful to describe the difference between a bad headache and a true migraine in terms of functionality I have while experiencing them. With a headache, you can at least talk to somebody, even if you can’t focus, even if it is extremely painful. If I can function in it, I don’t classify it as a migraine. A migraine, for me, is completely incapacitating.”tionality that I have during them. Headaches you can at least talk to somebody, even if you can’t focus, even if it is extremely painful. If I can function in it, I don’t put it to a migraine status. A migraine, for me, is something that is completely incapacitating,” Madison said. This incapacitation and helplessness is common among those who struggle with migraines.
As Americans, we live in a culture that is defined by individuality and self sufficiency. Chronic pain strips a person of that self sufficiency and forces them to rely on something or someone outside of themselves. Madison referred to this as “an Emmanuel situation:” “Ritchey gave a sermon once, and there was a snippet where he talked about ‘Where is God in my pain?’ and how there are two ways to think through that question. The first is accusatory: Where is God? Where is He in my pain? Why is He not healing me? Does He not care? For years, my heart has very much echoed the cry of the disciples: Do You not care that I am perishing? Do You not care that my
body is physically stopping and not able to do normal human things? Do You not care that it is impacting my ability to parent? Do You not care that my body is perishing? In my case, God did not say ‘Peace, be still,’ to the pain. So the accusatory, ‘Where is God in my pain?’ has been a big thing. But there’s a second way to look at that question: Where is God in my pain? Although it is just a small little nuance, it implies that God is actually in my pain. Where is God now while I am experiencing pain? Where is He in this? And that changes everything. Migraines can be so isolating. Pain itself can be so isolating. But now, it’s an Emmanuel situation. In the personal pain, God is there. That has been such a lifeline that I’ve held on to.” In the midst of personal pain, there will always be questions like these, and God will always be there. It’s not a question of if God will be there, or if we will ask these questions or not, it is instead a both/and: I am questioning whether God cares, and God is here, caring for me. Because chronic pain is so personal and therefore often very private, it can be incredibly isolating, and particularly hard to invite others into. Madison talked about this as well, describing how terrifying it can be to let others know when you are at your absolute lowest and ask for their help. However, like she said, “The Christian community is necessary. [Sometimes we need someone to say,] ‘If this isolation becomes unhealthy, I am going to insert myself into it, and it’s going to be painful for both of us. But we’re going to do this together,’ or even, ‘What are you doing? No, I’m not letting go, I understand you do not want to see me. I am not letting you hide in isolation because I know that’s not healthy. I’m not letting you stay in the dark night of the soul. I’m not letting you build a home here. I’m going to sit with you in it, and then we’re going to walk out of this hand in hand.’” This action takes a tremendous amount of courage, both on the end of the person in pain and the person entering into the pain. But this is part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus and His image bearer. Galatians 6:2 says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” However, when we quote or point to that verse, we often don’t consider the surrounding verses, which are exhortations about calling one another out on our transgressions, keeping watch over ourselves and guarding against temptation, both the temptation to think we can handle it and to think that others can bear their burdens themselves. We are called to step into each other’s messes. But it doesn’t stop there. We are then called to bring it before the throne of God. We are not called to be Jesus in the sense of trying to do what only Jesus can do, or to look to others to be Jesus in the way only Jesus can be, but rather to witness each other’s pain and then give it to Jesus to carry. “That’s a really tough line to walk, being able to see somebody’s pain, hear it, but not take it on yourself, not internalize it as if it was your own. That takes practice,” Maddie said. But it’s a necessary practice, not just for those in relationship with someone who struggles with chronic pain, but for all relationships.
All of our stories are testimonies. And a lot of the time we need each other to show us exactly how they are testimonies. But because they are testimonies, they are not meant to be kept to ourselves: “Testimonies, while personal, cannot be private. They cannot. Because I have seen God’s faithfulness and goodness even within such pain – that overcomes my desire to keep it quiet. While I don’t want to diminish how the chronic pain has infiltrated every single aspect of my life, I don’t want to focus on that. But I don’t want to downplay it either, because if I downplay it, it also covers up the goodness and the strength of God amidst that. And I could not be more grateful for the way that He has walked with me through pain.”
There are all different kinds of chronic pain, from fibromyalgia, to arthritis, to back pain. Our hope with this article was not to put a blanket statement on all kinds of chronic pain, but rather to give some language and insight to both those who struggle with chronic pain and those who do not in order to encourage and foster conversation and community.