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  • Writer's pictureSam Alvis

The Pain that Lingers: When Suffering is the Rule, Not the Exception

Updated: Nov 4, 2021

I am by no means the first (or the only) one to recognize our world’s insatiable yearning for wellness and health. And while this desire to steward our bodies, minds, and souls has helped many people experience positive transformation in their physical, psychological, and spiritual wellbeing, this fixation and pursuit of healthy living is not without consequences.


One of these unintended (or perhaps very much intended) consequences of our culture’s obsession with health, is that we have no idea what to do with those of us who experience chronic pain and suffering that is physical, psychological, or systemic/institutional in origin. We desperately seek to throw “solutions” at “problems”, both in an attempt to ease the pain of the “problem-holder,” but also to ease our own distress at watching others suffer, and in coming face-to-face with our own vulnerabilities of being “next in line” for the sufferfest. And when these so-called solutions “fail” to work, we quickly turn to the problem-holder in search of some explanation as to why they are still struggling.


“You need to practice better self-care and stress management.”

“You’re not eating enough.”

“You’re eating too much.”

“You just need to change your mindset.”

“Have you tried [x,y,z solution marketed to you by an influencer claiming to have found ‘the cure’]?”

“You need to do less.”

“You need to do more.”


(Or for the Christians around here…)


“You must have some unconfessed sin in your heart that you need to repent from.”

“You must not really trust God with this part of you.”

“God is trying to teach you [x,y,z lesson] through this.”

“You must not really believe that God can heal you.”

“You just need to find your identity in Christ.”


Even as I wrote those words, my body cringed as I recounted both the many times I have been told similar statements or the unfortunate times when I myself have participated in reinforcing those narratives. What is implicit in these beliefs is that we explicitly place blame or moral-failing on those who experience prolonged distress, pain and suffering in their lives. Out of our own discomfort, insecurity, and vulnerability, we desperately seek to justify why our attempts to ameliorate suffering “work” with some people, and “fail” with others. We view pain and suffering as an aberration to the ways things are “supposed to be,” and thus are dumbfounded when a person’s life or the existence of an entire people group is marked by repeated and chronic suffering.


But what if rather than being the exception to the happy, healthy, wealthy & prosperous life some believe we are promised, what if suffering is actually the rule, and not the exception?


I know, I know: that statement is very un-American, un-Western, and anti-positive psychologist of me. But it’s actually a very Gospel-driven claim to make. In fact, Jesus himself tells us that we will have trouble, affliction, and anguish (John 16:33). The author of the book of Romans, the apostle Paul, notes that all of creation (which includes both you and me) have and will be “groaning” in pain until the restoration of all things (Romans 8: 22). We are told to not be “surprised” by suffering (1 Peter 4:12). The life of every major biblical character is marked by either grief/loss, illness, isolation, weakness, persecution, or some kind of long-suffering. And of course, how could we forget Job, who spends over thirty chapters in anguish, anger, and confusion towards God after being afflicted by every kind of loss and pain imaginable?


The point is this: rather than shying away from the prolonged pain and suffering of others (or of ourselves), we are called to draw near to the discomfort of pain in hope and comfort. And not with a hope that dismisses the gravity and reality of a situation, but with a hope that can boldly sit with and in the tension of suffering while also pointing towards the only real “solution,” which is a future reality of Shalom where all physical, psychological, and systemic/institutional sufferings will be no more (Revelation 21:1-5).


(Here’s my favorite part of every blog)... “So what?!?,” you might be asking. “How in the world does this make a difference in my life or in the lives of others?”


Great question! A few things to ponder on:


For the Ones Supporting Someone

  • Whether you’re a family member, spouse, sibling, friend, counselor, pastor, doctor, teacher, neighbor, or stranger to someone whose life seems to be marked by chronic pain and suffering of any variety, pause before offering unsolicited suggestions. Although it is more costly than throwing out solutions, a genuine listening ear, mind, body, soul, and presence will benefit your loved one so much more.

  • Spend some time reflecting on your narrative understanding of “suffering” and “wellness.” Where did you get your stories and meaning about people who “struggle” and those who “succeed”? Do you notice that you unconsciously attach moral (or even spiritual) superiority to those who are healthy, wealthy, and prosperous? Notice what parts of your understanding of the nature of suffering/pain could be expanded and even updated.

  • Get support for yourself. It can be EXHAUSTING to be an informal or formal caregiver for someone with chronic physical, psychological, developmental, neurodivergent or other kinds of struggles. You will get frustrated, annoyed, overwhelmed, angry, etc.- and that’s ok. What is not ok, is allowing that to spill over onto others. Your own compassion fatigue is a version of chronic suffering that can easily overtake your system and soul, leaving you vulnerable to further struggles.


For The Ones in Prolonged Suffering

  • No matter what others, the culture, your pastor, or even the voice inside your own head has told you: you are not a burden. It is easy to fall into despair, hopelessness, helplessness, and even thoughts or attempts at ending your own life because of the never-ending experience of pain or due to beliefs that you are a burden to others, society, and even God. My sweet friend, your life is a beautiful invitation to reckon with the vulnerability of our human existence. We need you. I need you. Your life shines the light on the dignity and worth of a person made in the image of God, no matter what that person can “do” or “produce” for others, society, or God’s kingdom.

  • See bullet point #2 above. You have inherited and ascribed to your own narratives about what it means to be in chronic pain and suffering. These narratives are often drenched in shame. Begin (or continue) to wrestle with and explore ways that you can expand your view of the nature of pain and suffering and see if you can access just a little compassion for you, and for the pain you endure that you did not ask for.

  • See bullet point #3 above. You might also be exhausted by your own experiences and have perhaps developed secondary means to cope with the primary stressors and pains. Find a counselor, spiritual mentor, or trusted individual or group to provide a place of ongoing support and connection.


And finally, because this nerd loves to share resources: here’s a small sampling of some resources (books, podcasts, songs, etc.) that have met me in my spaces of prolonged suffering and pain.


If you feel as if processing some of these things in a counseling space would be your best next step, click here to schedule an initial free consultation with me to explore how we can discover a space of safety, connection, and ultimately, hope.

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