If you have suffered with chronic pain for any length of time, chances are pretty good that most of the people in your circles know about it. Some of them are sympathetic and kind, remembering to pray for you often, and taking your abilities into consideration when they make plans with you. You are grateful for them. Some of them forget all about your pain or disability, and invite you to do things that, to you, seem obviously impossible. These are probably not your closest friends, but you still value them, and God gives you grace to forgive their forgetfulness. Then, there are the people whom you see very seldom, and when you do see them, because they are concerned, they want an update on your condition. They want to know how you're doing, and if you're getting any better. They are either unaware of, or have not accepted the fact that your pain, barring a miracle, is a permanent fixture in your life. Once you remind them that without divine intervention, you are in this for the long haul, then they want to express to you how terrible it is that you have to suffer so. They are kind, and their intentions are good. They want to offer sympathy, and lament with you about your condition. One dear man said to me recently, "That is such a shame that you are so limited at such a young age! I remember how you used to...", and he went on to remind me how active I was before, and how sad it is that I can no longer do the things I once loved to do. While this is all true, it is not helpful for me to be reminded of it. In fact it sent my emotions into a bit of a tailspin for several days. I began to dwell on my pain, and as always, it became worse, making me more depressed, increasing the pain, and...well, I don't have to tell you how that goes. This man was innocent of any wrongdoing. He was simply expressing his concern and trying to be sympathetic. It was my emotional response that got me off track and into trouble.
So, what is the proper response to such an encounter? Should I have agreed with my friend, and cried on his shoulder? That is one option, and it would not have been wrong for me to do that. Should I have interrupted him and said, "You know, this is not helpful to me. I know you're trying to be nice, but talking about it really brings me down. Could we talk about something else?" That, too, would have been an acceptable response. What I did do is begin to tell him how the Lord has been working in my life through the events of the last five years, but he kept saying, "yeah but"', and then reiterating the unexpected outcome of the surgeries that were supposed to make me better. Finally, dinner was ready and our hostess called us away from the conversation.
So, what could I have said to my friend that would have turned this conversation around and stopped the downward spiral of my emotions, leading him to be a more effective encourager in the process? Since I know that many of you experience such encounters, I thought we could think through this together today, and perhaps be more prepared for the next one. There are several options I have thought of, that would change the outcome of such conversations:
Option number one: When he initially asked about my condition, I could have said something like this: "Well, that doesn't change, but my kids are sure growing!" (Or whatever else is new in your life that has nothing to do with your pain.) This would have completely changed the subject, launching our conversation in a totally different direction. But that would do nothing to edify him or to glorify God in my pain.
Option number two: "Well, I still struggle with pain, but the Lord has been good to me through it." I could then proceed to tell him exactly how the Lord has helped me. This is what I attempted to do, but this kind man would not let it go. He desired to validate the sadness of my situation, and offer me sympathy. This is where I faltered in my reliance on the Holy Spirit. I should have shot up a secret prayer for strength and continued to redirect the focus of the conversation. Another lesson learned here is that I need to be always "prayed up" for such encounters, and ready to meet them with grace.
Option number three: I could try to educate him on how to build up and encourage a brother or sister who suffers. I could have said, "Thank you so much for your kind concern for me. But it's more helpful for me if we focus on the good that God has done through my seeming misfortune. I know that His hand was on this whole process, and I have seen many good things come from it. Let me tell you about them..." Once I tell him sincerely about all the good work God has done through my pain, he can't help but forget all the negative. This approach will also gently inform him that recounting the sad realities of a sufferer's condition is not edifying, and can have the opposite of the intended effect.
This was an important learning experience for me. I am thankful that I had this conversation, because it showed me how desperately dependent I am on the Lord to reveal His working in me. While I will never be "happy" to have chronic pain, I know that I can be content, as I fix my thoughts on God and what He is doing in it. When I do that, there is no conversation that can cause me to lose sight of His goodness. When the Holy Spirit rules over my response to others' perceptions, we will both be edified, and He will get the glory!