How Does Chronic Pain Glorify God?
We have a heavy question today about unalleviated chronic pain. It comes from an anonymous man who listens to the podcast. “Pastor John, hello. Thank you for this podcast, and thank you for taking my question. My mother, a believer, struggles with debilitating — very debilitating — nerve pain and can get no medical relief from anything doctors have tried. She suffers endlessly. How does such unalleviated suffering glorify God when it seems that God refuses to answer any of our prayers for mercy?”
On the night before Jesus’s crucifixion, after Judas had gone out, Peter said to Jesus,
“Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.” (John 13:36–38)
And that is, in fact, what happened. Peter denied three times that he knew Jesus, and he wept bitterly as he realized the horror of what he had done.
Now it’s several weeks later. Jesus has risen from the dead. He’s on the beach at the Sea of Galilee with his apostles, and he focuses attention on Peter, who had failed so badly three times. And he draws out of Peter three corresponding affirmations of love that rectify his three denials. Here’s the way John described it:
Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15–17)
And remember now, before Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus had said, “You cannot follow me now. You can’t go with me where I’m going. But you will follow me afterward.” And now we can see why Peter could not yet follow Jesus: he didn’t love him the way he should. But now Jesus has drawn out of Peter new, deeper, unshakable love. He who is forgiven much, loves much (Luke 7:47).
All the Way Down
And then he says these ominous words (and if you wonder, “How does this relate to the question?” maybe you’ll start to hear it): “When you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18). Now he’s speaking of his crucifixion, and so it adds this: “(This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, ‘Follow me’” (John 21:19).
“The wisdom and the power of Christ is affirmed and made clear simply by our faithful endurance in reliance upon his inscrutable grace.”
In other words, “Peter, now you’re ready. You are going to be crucified. You’re going to follow me all the way, all the way down. Once I said you cannot follow me now, and you couldn’t because your love was defective. But now you have said three times — and you are right; I affirm it — that you love me. Your love is great for me. Therefore, you will follow me all the way to your cross.” And then he added, “By this death you will glorify God.”
This must have been incredibly sobering for Peter. “So, Jesus, I have proven myself that I am genuinely repentant, and you have accepted me. You say that my love for you is real and deep. And what I get is the promise of an excruciating death, all to the glory of God?”
Pain to the Glory of God
And I ask, What if Jesus had said, “When you were young, Peter, you walked about with a pain-free life. But now that you have proven your love for me and that your repentance is real, and you are ready to serve me, now you’re going to spend the last twenty years of your life in unremitting pain, to the glory of God”?
That is, in fact, what Jesus says to many Christians. Think of it. Christians all over the world — authentic Christians, real Christians, loving Christians, penitent Christians — millions of them suffering every imaginable kind of sorrow and loss and oppression and persecution and pain and disease. Remember how Paul said, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:35)? And then he listed all the threats to our faith: tribulation, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword. And he could have added long, drawn-out pain. And if Peter’s final torture by crucifixion could be described by Jesus in advance as for the glory of God, then all of our suffering can and should be endured for the glory of God.
And so we ask, How can that be? And the Bible gives many pointers, but I’ll just mention two. And believe me, I know that mentioning them is a thousand times easier than living them through suffering. But I’m called to say what the Bible says, and so here it is.
Christ Is Always Greater Gain
First, when we suffer without cursing God, without forsaking Christ, declaring ourselves to be his friend and servant and disciple and follower and a great lover of his glory and faithfulness, we make plain to others that having Christ is more precious to us than having freedom from pain. The pain, in fact, becomes a suffering with Christ, because we are walking with him, we are holding fast to him in the midst of our suffering, rather than throwing him away because of our pain.
“These many years of suffering are not meaningless, they are not pointless, they are not in vain.”
In this way, the trustworthiness and the value and the goodness and the wisdom and the power of Christ is affirmed and made clear simply by our faithful endurance in reliance upon his inscrutable grace. This is the way Paul fought his own battle. He said in Philippians 1:20–21, “It is my eager expectation and hope that . . . Christ will be honored [magnified] in my body . . . by death. For to me . . . to die is gain.” In other words, not throwing away Christ in the sorrows and pain of dying — even long, drawn-out dying — magnifies Christ as greater gain than life.
Suffering Produces Greater Glory
And the second way our suffering can glorify God is when we endure it by trusting the promise of 2 Corinthians 4:17, which is even more amazing than the one we’ve already seen from Philippians 1:20–21 about honoring God in our death by counting death as gain. Paul looked at his whole life of suffering — and it was remarkable; just read 2 Corinthians 11 or 1 Corinthians 4. He said, “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us [that is, producing for us] an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
In other words, when we can see no benefit coming from our suffering on earth, the Bible directs our attention away from earth and says that these many years of suffering are not meaningless, they are not pointless, they are not in vain. They are actually producing (that’s the actual meaning of the Greek word translated preparing: bringing about, producing) a greater and greater weight of glory. That’s more than saying to die is gain; that’s saying the long, drawn-out pain of dying is producing greater gain. With every bolt of pain, we can say, if we have the consciousness to do it, “God will make it up to us. He will make it up to me. It will not be wasted.” In heaven we will look back on all those years of seemingly meaningless sorrows and pains and say, “It was worth it. He has made it worth it.”
So, I pray for the dear mother of our anonymous friend. Father, would you give her relief. Yes, would you give her relief, in the name of Jesus. And until then, keep her faith from wavering, because the steadfast love of the Lord is better than life (Psalm 63:3).