She’d been perfectly healthy. But quick as a gunshot, my bride began experiencing an incessant, peculiar, non-relievable pain. Now my spouse suffers with chronic pain.
Shin shocks, nerve flares, agonizing flurries in her spine, spinning in her head, aching in her stomach. All the time.
Naturally, she started pursuing doctors, sifted through online forums, and pressed into our church family. As the weeks piled up, so did this strange other world of people enduring similar forms of suffering. Most with rare relief.
It had a name: chronic pain. They had a similar story: a spouse suffers with chronic pain.
We heard stories, medical trials, read articles, listened to testimonies (some hopeful, most not), clinical studies. We acquired contradictory opinions, substantial skepticism, minor mockery, and loads of fear.
Her constant refrain: “This is so overwhelming.”
Only a year in, the pain has been unrelenting. A dozen doctors (at least), a hundred types of supplements (at least), a thousand tears (at least), a million questions, doubts, and false hopes of sure-fire remedies (at least).
A long road awaits. And yes, I keep saying “we.”
Marriage is a sack race. As one flesh, we’re in this together even though it’s my spouse who physically suffers with chronic pain.
We’ve got more to learn. But here’s what we’ve gathered so far.
To a spouse who suffers with chronic pain
As I asked my wife to reflect on her new normal, here’s the steel God has formed in her soul through pain.
1. Remember your task.
However confusing, agonizing, and potentially depressing the day is, ask Jesus to reveal the task He has for you today. You matter to Him, to us, and to this Kingdom. He is a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1).
For my wife, it’s often keeping a raw and honest journal (like Heman!). It’s also family. With Herculean effort, she mothers three boys under five years old.
2. Adjust expectations.
In the darker seasons, you simply can’t accomplish what you used to.
If unprepared, it will lead to guilt. So respond to yourself better than you deserve (what we Christians call grace).
Be OK with a smaller to-do list. For my wife, sometimes this means smaller goals. Laundry? Nope. Kids happy in bed? Yup. Okay, good day.
3. Advocate for yourself.
Well-intended people can do the most harm. Their ignorance-fueled “advice” resembles the friends of Job: “Oh, it’s just stress.” “Psh, it’s all in your head.” “Here’s two Advil, take ‘em regularly.”
Whether it’s a close friend or an MD, advocate for yourself as a valued image-bearer of God. You’re not crazy.
4. Take care of yourself.
Hey, it’s not un-Christian to tend to yourself. Re-read that sentence.
I love to see my wife make healthy food choices, exercise regularly, take nightly detox baths, snag her favorite tea from Starbucks, and have me do the dishes so she can memorize another verse of Isaiah 43 (her current project).
I am delighted she surrounds herself with people gutsily committed to her. She’s learned to ask for help when she needs it.
You, too, have people desiring to tangibly help you. So ask for it! Don’t let pride or fear of burdening isolate you from the body of Christ doing its job. That’s spiritual dysfunction.
Additionally, the minds of people with chronic pain often morph into battlefields of chronic fear and stress. Carve out time to memorize Scripture. It’ll anchor you to what’s true when gales of fear sweep in.
To those caring for a spouse with chronic pain
A few things I’m practicing lately …
1. Give your spouse safety to be sick.
Your spouse did not choose to be sick. It’s easy for them to feel like a burden, which brings downward-spiraling guilt aimed toward the pit.
You must fight on their behalf. Give them safety to be sick. Believe their pain. Affirm their sanity. Financially, prioritize treatment options.
2. Offer next-level service.
When their to-do list decreases, yet life’s demands stay consistent, our to-do list increases.
Chores, errands, phone calls: We must step up our game. Personally, I rarely feel closer to Jesus than when I’m serving my wife in the ordinary, overlooked tasks of the day (Matthew 20:28). I aim to serve strategically, in the tasks that trigger her anxiety or sense of worthlessness, without her even asking.
3. Communicate wisely.
Clothe yourself in wisdom as you communicate. Whether you’re listening, offering counsel, simply crying with them, tactfully changing the subject, or “talking them down” because they’re all up in their head, pray for wisdom. Your presence is a Godsend.
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Truth for any marriage when a spouse suffers with chronic pain
It’s hard. The best place to stay is anchored in the truth.
1. God, at times, places us in darkness.
From John the Baptist to Elijah to Jesus Himself in Gethsemane, we know for even for the most mature disciple of Jesus, life gets dark. And darker for some than for others. Let’s just name that.
Heman cries out, “You have put me in the depths of the pit” (Psalm 88:6).
Listen, I’m the first to admit that God + man + suffering = a mystery. Even as a pastor formally trained in theology, in the Library of Suffering I often get lost.
Is God the author of sin? No. He is the author of salvation. (Sometimes our own sin does place us in the pit of consequences from our own actions.)
Is God content with suffering in His world? No. He is redeeming the world right now, and full redemption is on its way.
Is God a cosmic bully? No. He sows our suffering with purpose, with definite fruit—even if unseen.
2. Our suffering makes us more like Jesus.
Peter Marshall wrote, “God will not permit any troubles to come upon us unless He has a specific plan by which great blessing can come out of the difficulty.”
This is not a cheap “look on the bright side.” That can be destructive.
But it’s equally damaging to ignore the plain biblical truth that suffering does, indeed, launch God-blessed, life-giving ripples to those around us. How?
Jesus was the man who carried our griefs and sorrows (Isaiah 53:4). He intimately understands suffering and grief.
When my wife, May, hits another diagnosis dead-end, or her abominable pain roars, she is sharing in Jesus’ suffering, in His death to Himself (Romans 8:17, 1 Peter 4:13, and more). And not just that: she is sharing in His glory, His resurrection (2 Corinthians 4:10, Philippians 3:10).
She is becoming more like Him. Swords are forged by heat and hammers. Gold turns bright and is purified by fire.
However mysterious, suffering sharpens us, making us useful and pure before the Lord and His world.
My wife’s capacity for life’s demands has expanded. Her gratitude for what most of us call normal (and like me, take for granted) has multiplied. Her dependence upon Jesus has deepened.
3. Never fall prey to the belief your suffering is wasted.
Our suffering blesses other people.
… Even if we never see those blessings.
Heman’s experience in the darkness, and his honest writing of those experiences, has alleviated the suffering of millions of believers. Including my wife.
But get this: He never got to see the light his darkness brought.
Nothing draws people together closer than shared affliction. The pain my wife has experienced has strengthened our marriage to new levels. And ladies in her life sharing similar conditions have become a community of white-hot love and encouragement.
4. What you choose to believe matters.
As dark seasons persist, personal feelings can overrule biblical truth.
Avoid this at all cost.
Without deep roots in a good, sovereign God (see Ephesians 3:16-21); without knowledge of the gracious, sympathetic High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-16); lacking the ready-steady hope of Glory rapidly on its way (Colossians 1:27), you might quake. Or break.
Chronic pain will wear you down into both hopelessness and helplessness. Stay tethered to truth of Scripture.
The path before us
My wife and I have no way of knowing what the path looks like from here. Except that it’s long. Although every morning I wake up wondering if it’ll be a day of pain for her, I also wake up knowing God has provided us with new mercies. That God has provided us with Himself.
I find it’s less about what the path looks like, but who you’re walking with.
May we say, alongside Job, “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold. My foot has held fast to his steps; I have kept his way and have not turned aside” (Job 23:10-11).
Copyright © 2020 Justin Talbert. All rights reserved.
Justin Talbert serves as the Student Pastor at Christ Community Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. He received his MDiv from Covenant Theological Seminary. Justin and his wife May, have three Vikings-in-training: Soren, Aksel, and Isen. You can find him on Instagram: @justinltalbert. And he regularly blogs at getgroundedministries.com.