Pain Check

Back X Ray shutterstock_142567207

It felt like I’d been stabbed or cut across my back. Searing pain and a shot of burning that, literally, took my breath away. Like when I fell off the Monkey Bars in elementary school—that knocked-the-wind-out-of-you feeling. The word ‘excruciating’ seemed to be the best description—and this on the day after Palm Sunday, heading into Good Friday.

I had been reaching for a basket of dirty shirts from a small pantry off our laundry room, and that’s when the back spasm hit and wouldn’t let go. Ridiculous, right? Not a very brag-able injury…but it’s what happened.

And then something else happened. It’s what I’m calling the “Pain Check.” I became aware of an almost-instantaneous eruption of questions, concerns, fears, and anxieties that so often cluster around significant pain and illness. Pain triggers strong emotional dynamics. In addition to hurting the body, it can tear a hole in your soul—and it can offer opportunities for clarity and growth.

I’ll give my Pain Check List in a moment, but you might want to stop and make your own list. What do you tell yourself or ask yourself when you’re sick or hurting?

So here’s my basic list:

“What have I done to myself? How could I be so careless?”

“Is this my fault? Is there some reason this is happening to me?”

“Am I going to get better? Is this going to change my life big-time?”

“Lord, why did you let this happen? Especially now?!” (In this case, the back spasms continued unabated through Easter. I got through the Holy Week services with prayer, over-the-counter medication, rest, and adrenaline. Finally, I saw an orthopedic specialist—but that’s a story for the next blog).

And then there’s the “If only… If only… If only…”

You get the idea.

The “Pain Check” begins as a negative experience of self-accusation and usually moves into God-accusation. The physical pain often makes us turn against ourselves and even against God. But it doesn’t get stuck there.

We aren’t powerless. We don’t have to be victims or victimize ourselves. C. S. Lewis offered his famous insight into pain that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (C. S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain). We can use these experiences to identify and challenge our negative self-talk. We can “freeze” the eruption of questions and respond to them in ways that make us stronger, in ways that are more reasonable and accurate. One way to think of this process is to frame it as a conversation with a dear friend or loved one. How would you respond to a friend who asked these questions?

“What have I done to myself? How could I be so careless?”

My initial response can be pretty self-depreciating as I castigate myself for being inept, careless, thoughtless and so on. Actually, I wasn’t careless. I was simply doing something I needed to do and this happened. Things happen. No need wasting energy on self-blame. A more helpful response is: ‘I haven’t deliberately done anything to myself. This sort of thing happens. I need to use my energy figuring out how to cope and get better.’

“Is this my fault? Is there some reason this is happening to me?”

Now that’s a complex question! The “Why? Question” doesn’t help much because a particular problem can be the direct consequence of an action, and/or the indirect consequence of an action, and/or simply the consequence of living a fallen world with a failing, mortal body. And even if we could answer the question, that would not change our current predicament.

“Am I going to get better? Is this going to change my life big-time?”

Many of us tend to “catastrophize,” (as cognitive therapists call it) plunging into ‘worst-case scenario’ mode and forecasting a bleak future. In the vast majority of situations the phrase, “This, too, will pass,” may seem small solace, but can spark hope and perspective.

“Lord, why did you let this happen? Especially now?!”

I am just going to say that God gets far, far too much blame for what happens. We live in a world that has rejected God and surrendered to the powers of the world, the flesh and the forces of evil. God is not the source of the problem, but God is the key to the solution.

I offer the Pain Check as a modest remedy for your soul. The Pain Check is the practice of naming your questions, fears and anxieties so you can address them with a renewed mind.

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:1-5 NLT).

Please understand I am not addressing the dynamics of chronic pain, nor the psychological depths of our reactions in crisis. It will often help to have the support of a wise, caring friend and even a skilled counselor and/ or spiritual director to relieve the soul distress in the midst of physical pain. But I hope the Pain Check can be a significant step to coping.

 

 

 

 

3 Personal Benefits of Journaling

Journal 1
Three of my earliest journals with my Bible open to Exodus 17:14

One of the first instructions God gave to Moses after the Exodus was “…write this on a scroll as something to be remembered…” (Exodus 17:14 NIV). Recalling the mighty acts of God was an essential element for sustaining the people’s vision of God. Just try to imagine where we’d be if Moses had neglected God’s command?

What about our own “holy histories?” Our spiritual journeys are too important to trust to memory alone. An invaluable tool for the preservation of God’s work and the application of God’s truth in our lives is a personal journal. To paraphrase a common proverb, “Weak ink is stronger than the best memory.”

A journal is like a spiritual diary. It is more than keeping a chronology of events characteristic of a traditional diary. Your spiritual journal is a record of things that happen to you or around you, with an emphasis on the responses of your heart, mind and soul. It’s a record of your prayers: of your “Yes” answered prayers, your still-waiting-for-God’s-answer prayers, and your honest wrestling with the prayers answered with “No.” It’s a place to reflect on your moods and your personal disciplines (or lack thereof) and what you plan to do about those. Your journal is the means to examine your temptations and failures, celebrate your personal victories, and record your biblical insights.

I think of my journal as a conversation with the Lord. You could say, in many ways, that your journal holds your prayers in ink.  In a future post I’ll share why I think paper and pen are important to the process and more effective than using a computer or tablet.

My own use of a personal journal began when I entered college and started keeping a notebook of insights gleaned from my personal Bible study. I prize those moments of illumination. The thrill of discovery is a gift from God. How is it that, when we pray for God to speak to us, and God does, we let that precious truth slip away like the tide erasing writing in the sand? Trust it to paper–not to memory. Over time, I began to include prayer requests and answers, problems and hurts, and hopes and plans for the future. Initially, writing came in surges, but it eventually became a consistent part of my quiet time and devotions. My encouragement is to begin where you are. You will discovers a pace that fits.

I’ve written about journaling for Leadership Journal and in my book SoulShaping. In future posts, I will share ministry benefits of keeping a spiritual journal and principles for maximizing your journaling. But let’s begin with three ways keeping a journal helps us.

Three Personal Benefits of Journaling

First, our journal gives us insight for our spiritual growth.

Our confidence as Jesus’ followers comes from knowing who we are in Christ. Trust and identity solidify when we pay attention to where we’ve been and where God is directing us. In his Confessions (a powerful illustration of journaling as a spiritual memoir), Augustine (an early church theologian and leader who lived from 354 – 430 AD) wrote, “I want to call back to mind my past impurities and the carnal corruptions of my soul, not because I love them, but so that I may love you, my God…that the bitterness may be replaced by the sweetness of you.” Augustine’s love for God grew as reviewed his life. He saw more clearly his spiritual condition and realized, in awe, God’s hand at work.

As we reflect on our spiritual pilgrimage, we gain understanding of the dynamics of our spiritual lives: the obstacles, the predictable crises, the doubts, and the means of grace God provides to overcome these. The preservation of these insights helps us grow in spiritual maturity. This is the practical out-working of Hebrews 5:11-14 (New Living Translation)

11 There is much more we would like to say about this, but it is difficult to explain, especially since you are spiritually dull and don’t seem to listen. 12 You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. 13 For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. 14 Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.

Keeping a journal is a tangible exercise for developing the skill of “recognizing the difference between right and wrong” in our daily experience. Paying attention to our inner life helps us become more aware of our patterns of thought and reactivity. As clarity comes, we can surrender these to the Lord and actively embrace God’s grace for change. At the same time, the memory of God’s faithfulness fuels an attitude of praise and thanksgiving.

Second, our journal helps us clarify our priorities.

Life always seems at least a step or two ahead of us. It’s easy to lose control of our time and resources. The urgent always crowds out the important– and we seem powerless to stop the cycle of postponing things we really value because of demands that press down on us. I often turn to my journal as the key to unlock the shackles of the time trap. Reflection enables me to sort out what’s important. The commitments that clamor and crowd in on me lose some of their urgency in the light of my basic goals and values.

Your journal is that place where you put your plans for the day on paper– first thing– and then pray for God’s grace and mercy to guide your steps minute-by-minute. Of course, you will face surprises and interruptions– but you will feel empowered by being more intentional through the day. At the same time, a clear perception of the important matters awakens a new resolve to get on with it.

Third, our journal helps in problem-solving.

Conflicts, problems and disappointments are part of life. We consistently face dilemmas that require wisdom beyond ourselves. Writing crystallizes issues. C.S. Lewis said, “Whenever you are fed up with life, start writing. Ink is the great cure for all human ills, as I have found long ago.”

In the process of spiritual direction, I ask a person overwhelmed by the number of problems she/he has to write them down. A simple list helps them see the scope of the issues in a more orderly fashion. Most often, they find that the actual number of issues is less than they felt. As the dust settles and specific details become clear, prayer and careful thought often open ways to progress. Our journal gives us a safe place to develop scenarios, practice conversations, and listen for God’s direction. It’s truly amazing how God fulfills the promise of James 1:5 in the context of journaling.

 “If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking” (New Living Translation). 

When John began his profound experience with God, God commanded him “Write down what you have seen…” (Revelation 1:19). I believe God gives us the same call today. Just get a simple spiral notebook, put the date at the top of a page and begin writing a prayer, a letter to God, or a special memory of God’s work in your life. Remember, your “holy history” is too important to trust to memory alone.