Each evening, after a busy day of baby care, Katy, Hans and I have enjoyed meaningful conversation in the sitting room. Nate’s absence has been keenly felt, especially by me, knowing how he loved to chat. He had been thrilled with our two visits to England in 2007 and 2009, reveling in the lengthy history of the country (which he’d studied) and delighting in the happiness of his fifth-born, who’d married well and loved living here. Coming without Nate this year is bittersweet. Had he lived (without cancer), we’d have been on this trip together.
A year ago, when we came for the christening of Nicholas Carl, Nate’s back was at its peak of pain. The medicine we’d brought along wasn’t holding him, and Katy’s mother, a nurse, had worked hard to secure something stronger. I look back and admire him for bearing up as he did under such incredible pain.
He participated 100% in the many family activities of that visit, sightseeing excursions, group meals, parties, hikes in the country, film-watching and Easter services. He never once voiced a complaint.
What do people do who must live with serious pain every day? I understand that the medical specialty of “pain management” has sprung up in recent years as a result of so many living open-endingly with unresolved pain.
Nate was in a small group at church years ago with a friend who’d been in a near-fatal car accident. Although he didn’t die that day, in the ensuing years he wished he had. After his doctors told him they’d done all they could, he was left with pain so overwhelming that even under the tutelage of pain management experts, he couldn’t manage. Eventually he ended the pain by ending his life.
My dear friend’s adult daughter also suffers from severe, never-ending pain after a car crash, having tried every trick in every book for relief. As I read her blog (www.NourishingCourage.com) I get a small glimpse of life with excruciating physical pain. Just absorbing her words makes my head begin to hurt. What must it be like for her?
All of us can bear pain if we know it has an end. We endure childbirth, injury, chemotherapy or surgery because eventually we know we’ll get past them. If any one of them lasted open-endedly, bearing up under such pain would be unthinkable.
The misery of pain is compounded by our unanswered questions to God: Why must I suffer? Why won’t you end it? Why does it have to be me?
Nate’s multiple spine problems (arthritis, stenosis, multiple bulging disks, bone spurs, sciatica) could never have been fully corrected by surgery. Before being told he had cancer, he was scheduled for micro-surgery that would provide some relief…”for now,” as the doctor put it. Fairly quickly the pain would have resumed. No surgeon could tell him otherwise.
Once he learned of the fatal cancer, his back surgery was cancelled. Although he had fast-growing tumors in his pancreas, lung, liver, joints, bones, blood and throughout his abdomen, his spinal pain overwhelmed all of that until the very end.
Nate was plucked from this world and released from his chronic suffering through death. In one sense, then, his terminal cancer was God’s loving gift. But surely God has a significant purpose for the pain he suffered and for that of those who must live without knowing the end it. Not understanding that purpose can be as debilitating as the pain itself.
Just as God has a specific purpose in mind for someone’s ongoing pain, he has a good reason for keeping that purpose from being known. He also has the power to heal the whole mess. After that happens, the reason for it all might become clear. But even if not, there is no doubt that human agony is important to God, a mystery to our understanding, but never to his.
“The riches and glory of Christ are for you… And this is the secret: Christ lives in you. This gives you assurance of sharing his glory.” (Colossians 1:27)