Migraines, Chronic Pain, and the Cross
The “With-ness” of God in the Midst of Pain
It overtakes my entire body. The discomfort typically begins with my neck and quickly creeps up the back of my head. Nausea usually follows, along with sensitivity to light and smell. Sometimes I experience flashes of light in my eye, a warning of the impending migraine.
The pain in my head grows so intense it demands all my attention. It’s as if I have an ice pick jabbed through my temple. Crippled by the headache, I barely speak. I mumble if spoken to, and feeling highly irritable, the words usually have a harsh tone.
Perhaps I would bear it better if the migraine only lasted an hour or so. Although sometimes this is the case, many times it takes days until I feel normal again. For example, my most recent migraine episode left me in bed for 36 hours straight. I begged God for relief and none came.
Having battled such migraine attacks for years, I’ve had my fair share of wrestling matches with God. I wish I could say I humbly accept this thorn and trust God even through the worst of the pain. I don’t. More often than not I cry out in anger, wondering why the One called Healer doesn’t heal, why the Mighty God who can do all things holds back, why a good Father who loves His daughter simply watches as she cries out in anguish. Usually the raised fists turn to tears of defeat as I hear no response.
Maybe you can relate. Maybe you too suffer from headaches, or other forms of chronic pain, like arthritis, bone spurs, fibromyalgia, nerve damage, or ongoing pain doctors can’t diagnose. Or maybe you watch helplessly as a loved one hurts. Perhaps you also have struggled to trust God’s goodness when you know He has the ability to do something to ease the pain, but for some reason does not.
During one of my worst migraines, exhausted and laying in a dark room, I found my thoughts wander to the cross. I recalled that Scripture uses words like crushed, pierced, scourged to describe what happened to His body (Isa. 53). I began to wonder what kind of headache Jesus may have experienced after soldiers beat Him with their fists and hit His head with a reed. Or the searing back pain He bore as He received lashings from a whip that tore off His skin. Or the piercing sensation He felt as soldiers drove nails through His hands and feet. Of the tingling and numbness that shot through His arms as His shoulders likely dislocated. Or the crushing weight He felt in His chest as He struggled to breathe.
As I considered how Jesus suffered on the cross, I found that my anger, frustration, and demanding spirit started to slip away. No longer lost in my own agony, I beheld God Himself writhe in pain. Crushed. Pierced. Scourged.
In that moment, I felt a connection with Jesus I hadn’t experienced before. There was a with-ness that brought comfort. Not only was Christ with me in my current pain, but He was present to me in an understanding way. He too had experienced what it’s like to have a body overtaken by pain.
While I still very much wanted relief, I released my demand for healing as I thought of His own pain. I encountered a Companion who understands. Jesus, the beloved Son of God, knows what it’s like to suffer great physical pain, to ask the Father for relief, and find none.
The comfort of His with-ness quieted several fears that often surface for me during a severe migraine.
How Is This Love?
For many of us, ongoing pain, whether physical or emotional, can cause us to doubt His love. As I pondered Jesus’ suffering on the cross, however, I found I could not deny His love. Unlike many of us, Jesus had a say in His physical anguish, knowing that to purchase our salvation, it would require physical torture, along with all the emotional and spiritual suffering of bearing the wrath of God. As Isaiah writes, “Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried…He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed” (Isa. 53:4, 5). His willingness to endure such wounding for our sake and to join us in our affliction brings assurance of His steadfast, enduring love. No amount of pain can separate us from this love (Rom. 8:35).
Is This Really the Plan?
Burdened with a chronic condition, we may also struggle to understand God’s plan for our lives. Often our lives feel at a standstill as we miss out on family activities, work days, and social outings with friends. Our days can begin to feel meaningless, our pain purposeless. At the cross, though, we see God does not waste pain; He redeems it. This is not to suggest that migraines or cancer or rheumatoid arthritis are good. They are not. But we have such a powerful and mysteriously creative God who can somehow bring about good from that which in and of itself is not. Though we may not yet know the outcome, because of Jesus’s own physical suffering and triumph, we can trust that God will redeem even the worst of our pain and bring about good (Rom. 8:28).
Is There an End?
Pain also has a way of making us feel like relief will never come. I remember as a child when sick with the flu, my mom would assure me that I would soon be okay, that though it seems like it will last forever, it won’t. And sure enough, she was right. Within a day or two I felt back to normal. But for those of us with chronic ailments as adults, we know there is not necessarily an end. Worn and weary, hope for healing feels distant.
Jesus’ story, though, didn’t end with physical pain and death. He rose from the dead. And in so doing, His physical body was healed, transformed, and glorified. As He has been with us in our physical pain, we one day will be with Him in the experience of a resurrected and renewed body. Paul writes, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). In His resurrection, our Father says to us in our aching, “It’s going to be okay. I know it feels like it will last forever. It won’t. You will soon feel more alive and free than you ever have before.”
Our current bodies are temporary (2 Cor. 5:1-5). They will continue to hurt, ache, and decay in various forms, but the imperishable is coming (1 Cor. 15:5-57; I Peter 1:4). For with each new dawn, the day draws nearer when “He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
If you experience the crippling pain of migraines or other chronic pain, take time to consider the suffering of Jesus. Imagine all the ways, from the crown of thorns pressed into His head to His nail-pierced feet, that His body pulsed with pain. Jesus’ suffering assures us we’re not alone in our affliction, that there is redemption of our pain, and one day, because of His anguish, and victory over it, we will live in a world pain free. Reflecting on His physical suffering may not heal our ailments, but encountering His with-ness can provide us with comfort and strength to persevere in hope.