I was twenty-one when my first child was conceived. I approached pregnancy like I approach most unfamiliar things: I bought a book and read it cover to cover. I had that book down. I was going to rock this pregnancy thing, just as I rocked everything I put my mind to in a serious way.
Before long I was diagnosed with one of the complications from the book: hyperemesis gravidarum, which is Greek and Latin for throwing up like crazy. The quaint term “morning sickness” was completely inadequate for what I experienced. It lasted all day every day and all through the night. Whatever I ate, it was a toss-up (ha) whether it would stay down. The book advised eating small meals and nibbling crackers before getting out of bed. This did as much good as throwing salt over my shoulder at midnight. I didn’t just not gain weight; I lost weight. I got dehydrated. I was admitted to the hospital where I was given IVs and an anti-nausea medication that I later learned is also used as a tranquilizer. It didn’t make me feel tranquil. It made me feel slow, out of sync with time, uneasy. It also caused my arms and legs to jerk uncontrollably. Sometimes I inadvertently slapped myself in the face.
Later, after that hospital stay ended, we learned that our insurance would send nurses to our apartment to set up an IV there, so the next time I got seriously dehydrated we did that instead. At one point I was completely dependent on intravenous nourishment for two weeks, taking in no food by mouth.
There are some types of pain you can’t compartmentalize. A migraine headache is like this. So is nausea. You can’t just drink a cup of tea and lie down and rest or whatever. It’s a pain that infects everything. There is no escaping or mitigating it.
I was productive of almost nothing during this time—except of the baby, which continued to develop just fine. I couldn’t write or even read much. At first this bothered me. Once in a while I’d pull myself together, get out of bed, take a shower, get dressed in something I could have left the apartment in, and sit down and have some serious Bible study. I had an idea that there was some lesson to be learned from this illness, and that if I hurried up and learned it—studied the right passage in the right way, prayed hard enough, exercised sufficient patience, surrendered adequately to God’s will—it would end.
Guess what? It didn’t work. I went right on being sick. I stayed in bed for days at a time. I couldn’t think about anything other than nausea, pregnancy, and how long it would be till Greg came home. I would lie in bed with this tight, twisty feeling in my stomach—kind of a burning sensation, but also something like a clenched fist—and I would count. In theory I was counting the seconds and minutes till Greg would be off work, but I went very, very slowly, stretching the intervals far beyond actual seconds, almost as if I could fool myself and be pleasantly surprised when he turned up earlier than expected. Or maybe I was just reassuring myself that time was linear and that units of it were indeed passing, however slow the process seemed.
(This habit of counting is something I’ve kept for over twenty years. When I’m bored or stressed and have to sit still, I slowly count, sometimes tracing the numbers with a finger. I might start over when I reach sixty or a hundred, or I might not. Sometimes I start over in a random place. I also count the hours and days and months leading to and from certain events, repeatedly. The events themselves may or may not be significant; I’m just marking time.)
I reached a point where I simply could not take any more. I reached it a lot of times. That’s it! I’d think. I can’t take this any longer! This situation is intolerable! It must change! It didn’t. Nothing changed. I just stayed sick. I had taken all I could take and nobody cared. When I say “nobody cared,” I mean God didn’t care, or didn’t appear to. I myself was powerless to change things. There was no “final straw” action for me to take, no “that does it” plan to put in place, no scenario where I’d finally give in and spend more money or whatever and fix the problem. Only God could fix it.
I know now—know experientially—that people do reach this point again and again, or reach it and stay there: the point of Oh God I can’t take any more of this, this is the absolute limit, something has got to give—and nothing does. In some cases people truly can’t take any more, and they die. The rest of the time they keep going.
There’s a part in Perelandra, the second volume in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy, where Ransom, a college professor from Cambridge University, finds himself on the planet Venus with a green lady, the Venusian equivalent of Eve. The green-skinned Venusian version of mankind is unstained by sin. But there’s another non-indigenous guy there on the planet who turns out to be no less than the devil himself inhabiting the undead body of Professor Weston, one of Ransom’s colleagues from earth. (I know how wacked that sounds, but trust me, it works. This book has to be read to be believed.) Devil-possessed Zombie Weston is tempting Venusian Eve. She hasn’t fallen, but she’s listening to his reasoning, and his arguments are good. Ransom argues back but feels woefully out of his depth. He is a well-educated, rational, thoughtful believer, but this is the devil.
This goes on for days and days. Ransom thinks, This can’t be allowed to continue. Something must be done. Reading the book for the first time, I wholeheartedly agreed with him. I actually felt that Lewis had a sort of authorial obligation to take narrative action—have Venusian Adam show up and give the devil what-for, have God speak from the heavens in an unmistakable audible way, something. But nothing like that happens. The temptation continues. Ransom finds some mutilated animals that Devil Weston has tortured but not killed. Their suffering is acute. Though the man and woman have not sinned, pain and cruelty have marred their world. Ransom is horrified. Again he thinks, Something must be done. Again nothing happens.
Ransom’s story takes a turn I did not expect. Eventually he realizes that, yes, something must be done, and he’s the one who must do it. He has no clear direction from God, no heavenly voice or prophetic utterance or anything, but he thinks things through and decides that he, Dr. Elwin Ransom, alone and unarmed, must kill the undead corporeal vessel of the incarnate devil. Two out-of-shape college professors, both naked, neither one experienced in hand-to-hand combat, must grapple to the death. The thought is both terrifying and repellent to Ransom, but he does his duty. It is all very difficult and awkward, and it takes several days. (You just have to read this book. It’s one of the darnedest books I ever read.)
The resolution to Ransom’s narrative is the exception rather than the rule; most of us do not have such a bizarre conclusion to our final-straw extremities. We just keep waiting, and getting loaded with more and more straws.
Paul’s metaphor of a thorn in the side is an apt one for certain types of suffering. A thorn is a constant irritation, an ongoing intrusion, different from an honest cut or scrape or puncture. It produces not only pain, but swelling, pressure, and inflammation. It doesn’t belong. The body wants to get rid of it, and over time healthy flesh can break down or expel a foreign body of manageable size and substance. But a thorn like Paul’s is either too big or too resistant to be worked on in this way.
When you have a thorn in your flesh, you just want it removed, and until it is you can’t really rest. Every movement of the affected area, every bit of contact whether accidental or intentional, is a painful reminder of its intrusive, maddening presence. You can’t feel truly whole or sound while it’s there. And once it’s removed, there is instant relief. The puncture wound remains, but the foreign body is gone. There is rest and release. You can heal now.
Some pain is like that. It may be physical, emotional, or psychological. While you have it, you are fixated on relief, and the relief you want is removal, cessation. The greatest possible good you can imagine is the absence of this irritant.
Why was I sick? I don’t know. There doesn’t seem to be much point to it. Eventually I got better, and delivered a healthy (though skinny) baby boy, but I didn’t become a better person or anything. Often suffering does have a point; often people undertake it willingly for some higher purpose, as with some over-the-top athletic achievements. More often, suffering is completely unasked for, and instead of making you stronger it weakens, scars, or kills you. Don’t mistake me. I believe in the sovereignty of God, and I believe that suffering, like everything else in our lives, has its purpose. But that purpose may not be anything we can ever realize in our lifetime. From our perspective, we are in pain for a long time, and then it stops, either because we get better or because we die. Of course there is the idea that suffering makes you more compassionate and better able to comfort others in their own suffering. This is a sound Biblical principle, but it will only satisfy us so much. So, the reason I am suffering now is in order to become able to help someone else who will suffer later. Well, why does that person have to suffer? Is it just for the purpose of comforting yet another person farther in the future? Why not just end the suffering and let people be? What is the meaning of this cycle? Is it an empty cipher, unending and void?
The official answer is that suffering exists in the first place because there is sin in the world. It just happens. It has to be simply as a condition of our fallen existence. And God is able to shape it to his desired ends. I believe this. But the desired ends are too complex for me. When I hurt, or when people close to me hurt, I just want it to stop.
The cycle of suffering and comforting is not an empty cipher. It is not just a matter of passing off comfort like a baton. When we comfort one another, when we suffer vicariously on another’s behalf, and pray or labor or just commiserate, God knits our souls together in a way that is not possible when we are sharing our happiness. Suffering can be a great social equalizer; it can humble us and strip away pretense. When you are in sufficient pain it becomes difficult to lie about it.
Outside of our homes, most people present a public image most of the time. It’s all very clean and positive. Projecting such an image is natural social behavior. It makes people comfortable. No one likes the person who reveals all the ugly personal shortcomings of family members, or even of himself, to any and all. We would rather emphasize the positive, not just to look good but because we want to encourage positive things. But sometimes we grow discouraged, comparing the public images of others with our own private failures. Sometimes we need counsel or empathy, but we are too ashamed to seek it.
More and more as I get older I understand that every individual and family has secret sorrows and patterns of sin, no matter how good they look on the surface. The community of grace should be open about such things, while still respecting personal boundaries. If just a few people within a given church community were to stop caring about appearances and authentically share their struggles, more revelations from others would probably follow. There would be a lot of surprises, and a lot of relief.
The church should be lots of hurt people helping one another, like a company of soldiers behind enemy lines, the wounded supporting the wounded—binding, medicining, carrying, dragging, encouraging, and also trusting and relying, all of us doing our best to make sure everyone makes it safe and sound back to home territory.
Does this sound like a tidy way to wrap up my thoughts about the apparent futility of suffering? It shouldn’t. There’s nothing tidy about it. It’s messy and irritating and hard, and it doesn’t make pain any easier to bear. But I am beginning to think that it is in the tension of pain that we truly draw near to those who become most dear to us.
We can do this because of One who suffered all things, and gave us a pattern for submission in suffering, and empowers us to follow it. He suffered and even died, and he overcame. He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger–of all the lines of all the Christmas songs I know, this is the one that most consistently moves me to tears. He has defeated the intolerable situation.