On the Thursday before last, I came home from work with an unusual stomachache. I popped some Tums and began washing the cars while waiting for the pain to subside. When it didn’t, I took more Tums before bed and assumed I would wake up Friday morning pain-free. Nope.
Of course, I did what a good Avoider like me does: I downed some Ibuprofen and distracted myself with various tasks. Brittany and I ran errands in Walnut Creek and then I spent the afternoon moving and painting furniture for the nursery while my two-year old son Levi napped.
That evening, we finally went and saw Dunkirk and I’m sure I would have enjoyed it more were it not for the pain in my stomach. As I sat in the theatre I noticed that it hurt like crazy when I pressed down on my lower right abdomen…that didn’t seem good. So when we got home, I skipped the Ibuprofen in order to no longer mask the pain. I needed to see what was really going on.
At 2:15 in the AM, the pain woke me up. As I got up to go to the bathroom, I noticed I was cold for no reason and my skin was crawling. Fever. That’s not good. Still, I wanted to press on through the night. But this is why God made spouses.
Brittany made me call the advice nurse at Kaiser, and when I did, they insisted that I come in ASAP. And because Brittany couldn’t leave the house with Levi asleep, I drove myself back to Walnut Creek for a very different sort of errand.
So then I’m at the hospital. The first shot to your dignity comes when they insist that you get naked and get pushed everywhere in a wheelchair. I ensure you it is worse when the nurse keeps referring to your condition as a “bellyache.” And then there’s the poking and the prodding and the onslaught of deeply personal questions:
When is the last time you had a bowel movement?
Is there abuse in your home? Are you sure?
And then there’s consent and copays, AKA “Please don’t sue us. Sign here.” Context: the only other time I’ve been to the ER was over five years ago with an odd, stress-induced neuralgia. Half of my face hurt and my eye had blood in it—kinda scary. And even though it was clear I was under tremendous stress, the doctor had me have a CT scan. When everything came back normal, my wife and I walked out with a warning to reduce stress and a bill for more money than we had in our bank account at the time. So, you might say that I have trust issues with doctors and CT scans. What if this turns out to be just a bellyache? Am I being a drama queen?
But I knew deep down that this was more than that. So after a very weird experience of having dye run through my veins and going through a machine while holding my breath and staring at a tiny, calming(?) clip-art picture of clouds, I got the diagnosis a short time later: acute appendicitis. It was almost 7AM. Surgery was scheduled for 1PM.
Then came the painful waiting, the unconscious surgery, and the beginning of recovery. I woke up just before 4PM in a state of immense gratefulness and peace (probably the drugs), with people who love me waiting at the door.
Anyways, I’m a pastor, so I get paid to find a spiritual analogy for every life experience. Just kidding (kinda). But I am struck by how this event has mirrored the way that I usually respond to emotional or relational pain. The script would be something like this:
Minimize and medicate your pain. Stubbornly ignore the counsel of the wise (or, wife). Avoid vulnerability. Don’t trust the healer. Count the cost of healing too high to be worth the risk of giving consent. Judge yourself for making a big deal about it. Let it fester.
Fortunately, reason won out about halfway through this process and that’s the only reason I’m not in the hospital right now with a ruptured appendix and in serious danger. So what is the opposite Way to respond to any kind of pain that has guilt, shame, or fear attached to it?
Face your pain and name it. Heed the counsel of the wise. Practice vulnerability. Trust the Healer. Count the cost of healing. Do not judge yourself. Give consent to healing.
Easier said than done, right?
Often, “spiritual appendicitis” (i.e. nonphysical hurt) ruptures and turns septic when we do not give consent for God to heal us in community but insist on managing the pain alone. From there, it explodes into all sorts of soul-sucking and relationship-ruining ugliness.1 I have become convinced that this stems from our primary view of confession as a listing our crimes before a harsh judge rather than as a naming of our symptoms before a trustworthy doctor or parent. No wonder the pews are one of the most popular hiding places in this game of hide-and-seek that the human race insists on playing with the God who is love.
So I encourage you today to begin with solitude and silence, God’s first language.2 Solitude and silence is God’s unconscious surgery. Pay attention to your emotions and desires. Listen for the voice of the One who does not vaguely condemn you, but gives gentle and specific insight on what you must do to heal. You don’t need insurance, only assurance that his word is trustworthy. If you are unsure, discuss it with a trusted friend or mentor. And then whatever it is, be it confessing, forgiving, telling the truth, apologizing, you name it…do it and be healed.3
And leaders, take this as axiomatic: Hurt people hurt people. Healing people heal people. The only way that your comGroup will be a safe place of vulnerability and healing is if you are counting the cost and giving consent for your own healing in mind, body, and spirit.
What about you? I know not everyone is wired like me. What has God taught you about responding to pain in healthy and unhealthy ways?