Praying for Pain
by Pastor Dan White
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Your eyes didn’t deceive you. The title for praying for PAIN - not praying for rain.
Strange isn’t it? Praying for pain. I always pray that the Lord will remove my pain and suffering. That He will heal me from diabetes. That He will heal those friends suffering from cancer or chronic pain who my church members call out every Sunday for intercessory prayer.
Not only is there physical pain, but there is emotional pain. I can testify that emotional pain is as painful as physical pain. In fact, psychiatry has found that some physical pain results from emotional pain. The term is psycho-somatic. Stress causes the heart to constrict with pain and can even lead to a heart attack. Blood pressure goes up. Gastro-intestinal problems such as diarrhea, regurgitating, hyperacidity, duodenal and gastric ulcers, and acid reflux disease can sometimes be attributed to emotional stress.
Nothing good comes from pain whether it is physical pain like from an accident or emotional pain, or does good come from pain?
One very devoted Christian woman prayed for pain. And no, she was not a masochist. That is, a person who derives a warped sense of pleasure from inflicted pain.
Her prayer for pain rose from a heart of love to Christ. She found pain to draw her into a mystical union with Christ. After all, the Apostle Paul testified, “ I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Who was this unusual woman? She was not only the first woman to write a book in the English language, but she is the first great female writer in the English language. Her book, Revelations of Divine Love, is a classic. That she was a woman of letters is unusual since women were not encouraged and sometimes forbidden to get an education just like in some Islam countries today. In fact, the first college in America to educate women was Wesleyan College, a Methodist college, in Macon, GA, which was established in 1839. The University of Georgia did not admit women until 1918, two years before women won the right to vote.
This unusual woman of letters was born in 1343 and died in 1413, long before Columbus discovered the New World.
Who was she? Julian of Norwich, England. Not only did she write in lively prose, but she was a scholar of the Bible and the teachings of the Church.
For Julian, suffering was not a punishment that God inflicted as was the common understanding being preached and taught in the churches.
Julian was six years old when the Black Plague entered England in 1349 as it swept across Europe. Her magnificent revelations from Christ came in the midst of the Black Death. The popular theological explanation for the horrible suffering was that God was punishing a vile, wicked, and sensual culture.
The Black Death came out of the East from stowaway rats on ships infected with fleas that carried the disease. It entered in Florence, Italy, and quickly spread throughout Europe.
Once the symptoms appeared on the body in the lymph glands in the arm pits, neck, and groin, the victim had about three weeks left before dying. Boils grew to the size of an egg and turned black and blue.
The appearance of the buboes, as the boils were called, were soon accompanied by high fever and agony. Sometimes the victim died within just a few hours. They became disoriented, comatose, or wildly delirious. It was an agonizing, awful death.
The Black Death killed as many as four out of ten people in the areas affected. Nearly 75 million died in Western Europe. About one-third of the world’s population died by 1350.
It took four hundred years before Europe's population equaled the pre-Black Death figures. It is considered to be one of the major events in world history, and it is still the subject of medical, historical, and sociological analysis.
One result from the Black Death was anger at the Church. The Church lost prestige, spiritual authority, and leadership over the people. The church had promised cures, treatment, and an explanation for the plague saying that it was God’s will for the people to be punished. They needed to pray for forgiveness, and then God would heal them and make the Plague go away. As the death toll continued reaching exponential proportions, many clergy abandoned their Christian duties fleeing from angry mobs. People prayed to God and begged for forgiveness as they had been instructed, but the Plague continued.
Into this terrible scene, entered Julian of Norwich and her prayer for pain. Perhaps in part it was to identify with the suffering and death all around her.
My doctor, Dr. Tom Huff, who treats me for diabetes, heard the suffering of his patients. Insulin reactions from dangerously low blood sugar can send a diabetic into a coma. High blood sugar can render a diabetic lethargic and constant highs can lead to severe complications like kidney failure, blindness, and neuropathy.
During one visit, I complained about the difficulty that I had in managing low blood sugars. It causes panic and makes me want to eat everything in the house, especially sweets. And then, the rebound of high blood sugar inevitably comes, and I want to sleep the day away.
Amazingly, Dr. Huff told me how he had once taken an injection of insulin to feel for himself what a low blood sugar felt like. He knew the horrors and panic his patients felt first hand because of his willingness to identify with us.
I can’t express enough of my appreciation for his willingness to identify with us in such a selfless way. He became a fellow sufferer.
In the same way, I think Julian prayed for pain to identify with the people’s pain and death that she saw all around her.
Even more, she wanted to identify with the suffering of Christ on the cross. To become one with Him in his suffering. “If indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Romans 8:17 NIV).
Julian wrote, “There came into my mind a desire of my will to have by God’s gift a bodily sickness.” Julian prayed for sickness!
She continued, “I wanted to experience every kind of pain, bodily and spiritual, which I would have if I were to die - every fear and temptation. I intended this because I wanted to be purged by God’s mercy and afterwards live more to his glory because of that sickness.
In May 1373, at the young age of 30, her strange prayer was answered. She suffered a serious, debilitating , and painful illness.
For three days and three nights, she was bed-ridden unable to get up. Her friends and pastor gathered around her not expecting her to live to see the dawn. She herself didn’t expect to live.
But, Julian clung to life for two more days. On the sixth night, her breathing became shallow and labored. Her eyes appeared glassy. Her skin sallow and ashen.
Yet, she felt a great reluctance to die. She testifies, “This reluctance to die was not because of anything on earth which held me here or because of any fear or pain for I trusted the mercy of God. No, I wanted to live in order to love God better and longer so that I might through the grace of that living have more knowledge and love of God than I might have even in heaven! With all of the will of my heart, I assented to be wholly God’s.”
On the seventh day, her body felt dead from the inside. Her pastor came again to her bedside. Her eyes were locked upward. She couldn’t speak. Her pastor set a cross with the image of the Savior upon it and counseled her, “Look at it and take comfort from it.”
Such a tender moment reminds me of my mother’s last days as she suffered from cancer. Her well-worn Bible was never out of reach. Over and over again, she took hope and comfort in the promise of heaven, the meaning of her suffering, and the eternal hope from her suffering.
Julian continues with her testimony, “My eyes were fixed upwards to heaven as it seemed to me that it was upwards to heaven that I was going. Soon after, my sight began to fail. The room grew dark around me. The upper part of my body began to die. My greatest pain was shortness of breath. I truly believed that I was on the point of my death when suddenly, at that moment, all the pain was taken away and I was well, as well as I had ever felt before. I felt uneasy, though, wishing that I would have been delivered from this world to be with God, as my heart had longed for.
“Then, I had a vision and saw red blood flowing down from the crown of thorns my Savior wore. I fully perceived that it was Jesus, both God and man, who suffered for me.”
In her suffering and close to death, Julian saw the suffering of Christ. The promise in God’s Word is true, “If we suffer, we shall also reign with him” 2 Timothy 2:12).
Out of my mother’s suffering came a revelation from our Lord. In her last moments, she began singing, “It will be worth it all when we see Jesus.” Then lifted into eternity, I heard her whispering, “It’s wonderful. It’s wonderful.”
Jesus revealed this in His appearance to Julian. “I saw that He is to us everything which is good and comforting for our help. He is our clothing who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us, shelters us, and surrounds us for His love which is so tender that He may never desert us. He is everything which is good … And lovingly I pray to thee O God by your goodness give me yourself, for you are enough for me.”
After Julian recovered from her near death experience, she reflected on the visions that she had witnessed. She testifies, “His goodness fills all His creatures and all His blessed works full and endlessly overflows in them. For He is everlastingness and He made us only for himself and restored us by His precious Passion and Suffering and always preserves us in His blessed love, and this is of His goodness.”
Julian concluded that the highest form of prayer is to “faithfully pray to Him for His goodness because His goodness is full and complete, and in it there is nothing lacking. We pray to God to know His passion (suffering), death, and resurrection - which come from the goodness of God.”
Julian had the blessed privilege of experiencing pain and suffering. Like the Apostle Paul, her prayer of knowing Christ through suffering was answered. “I want to know Christ ... and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death (Philippians 3:10 NIV).
And in this vision, she found the love of Christ in her pain and “endless wonder at His high, surpassing, immeasurable love which our Lord in his goodness has for us.
“We pray to God for the strength that comes from His Cross - which also comes from the goodness of God… All the strength that may come through prayer comes from the goodness of God.”
Julian found that in suffering, nothing else really matters except knowing the goodness of God.
Goodness? God is good in suffering and pain? That is Julian’s testimony.
“I learned a great lesson of love in this blessed vision,” she writes. “For of all things, contemplating and loving the Creator made my soul seem less in its own sight and filled it full with reverent fear and true meekness and with much love for my fellow Christians.”
The love of Christ revealed in suffering spilled over to the love of true Christians in the Church. Those to whom Christ reveals His radical love through suffering also find much love for the brothers and sisters in the church.
On her deathbed, darkness driving out the light in her room, in great pain, and feeling her body dying, our Lord revealed His great love to Julian. “Therefore, we may ask from our Lover to have all of Him that we desire. For it is our nature to long for Him, and it is His nature to long for us. In this life, we can never stop loving Him.”
Julian teaches us to embrace sickness, suffering, and pain that the God of goodness and the Christ of love will breakthrough to reveal that He is always preserving us in His blessed love, drawing us close to Him in our cries and distress whether it be physical or emotional anguish.
Her reflections after her visions of Christ seem strange to us in 21st Century America. We seek comfortable, pain-free living, and don’t understand why God brings suffering to us. God’s goodness and Christ’s love redeems our suffering and gives divine purpose behind our pain which reveals the suffering Savior and divine grace. The suffering of Christ redeems our suffering.
Joy is the keynote in Julian’s writings. Dare we pray for pain to find joy? Yet, the joy of knowing Christ and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings is to find our hearts grateful for the pain He endured for our salvation.
Julian’s most famous revelation from her vision is “All shall be well and all shall be well, and all matter of things shall be well.”
For Julian, suffering was not a punishment that God inflicted, but was a means of grace used to draw us closer to Himself. What great truth Christ revealed to her and how different from those who preached during the Black Plague that suffering was the punishment of God!
Who would have ever thought that suffering is as much or more of a blessing than a pleasant, pain-free life? Christ revealed Himself to Julian in her journey into pain. “He said not that you will not go through the tempest, you shall not be travailed, you shall not be diseased. But he said, “You shall not be overcome!”
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Oh, kindred spirit, this is a powerful expression of truth. So much Scripture comes to mind to support the blessings of God to be discovered in and through suffering. The only suggestion I have would be to divide this sentence---"Nothing good comes from pain whether it is physical pain like from an accident or emotional pain, or does good come from pain?"---into two sentences, to emphasize the latter clause (ie "Or, does it?"). With your permission, I'd like to post the link to this article elsewhere (facebook, for example) to share with others. Thank you for this wonderful message and introduction to Julian's life, too. You had me "hanging on every word!"