Can We Lean On "Sweet Love" to Beat Chronic Pain?

A rumour going around for, oh, several millennia, is that God's divine m.o. includes sending suffering to teach us to love Him. That view has always mystified me.

A rumour going around for, oh, several millennia, is that God's divine m.o. includes sending suffering to teach us to love Him.

That view has always mystified me.

When I was a kid and ill my parents comforted me. They did all they could to help me. And later they would celebrate my recovery. So how could I believe in a heavenly parent who would even leave us in pain, much less cause it?

One of the upshots of such a gloomy outlook is that the Bible's promise of God being "our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble" might as well be a pulpit pounding myth as far as most chronic pain sufferers are concerned. Consequently, the default mode for solution-seeking is usually medical science.

Is that working?

"Not very well" was the answer I took away from a panel addressing journalists, health industry workers and policy makers in Brussels earlier this year.

The audience for Pain: can't live with it, can't live without it heard from Judy Birch, who advocates for better pelvic pain relief options from a patient's perspective. She has suffered for decades because even the best drugs available only help her to manage the pain.

Dr Dan Wheeler - consultant, lecturer and pain relief expert - showed the European Voice meeting a study illustrating just why that would be. It showed the most successful painkillers reducing only 50% of a sufferer's pain and even the best managing this for only half its users. The rest of the drugs fared worse in pain reduction and in the proportion of people helped. Such results, he added, didn't begin to address the harmful side effects such medication can have.

He shared more recent research which holds out hope of more effective pain medication in the future. Yet, surprisingly, he also pinpointed an immediate way to improve the situation. The Cambridge neurologist explained how clinicians frequently noted a mental aspect to people's pain that suggested a different tack could be taken to subdue it.

"The psychology of the pain is as important, if not more important, than any drugs we can give", he said.

Indeed, a study just published showed an individual's anger level having a direct bearing on chronic pain intensity. Conversely, such pain responds positively to forgiveness, particularly self-forgiveness, according to another recent paper. The research concluded: "Forgiveness of self appears to be the most important to health, yet the most difficult to achieve."

This is where a sense of Deity as merciful, rather than condemning, can come to our aid. Gaining a view of the divine as an infinitely patient, forgiving parent affords a better model for our character, and many have been encouraged by that to subdue their anger and forgive themselves and others.

Beyond that, some have even glimpsed the nature of divine mercy as such a consistent, healing love that it has enabled them to move past simply managing chronic pain to actually being freed from it.

That was the case for one sufferer, whose severe abdominal pain began during difficult divorce proceedings.

Looking back she described a poignant moment of finding a deep calm during a night when she had been feeling suicidal: "I felt God's protecting presence surrounding me and knew I couldn't suffer at divine Love's hand. With that realization, though still in great pain, I fell asleep. I awoke refreshed and free from the pain."

That turning point didn't end the problem. The pain would return when she'd "get upset over something, entertain an unkind thought, or even overeat". Finally she recognised a need to be more consistent in her gratitude. She was, understandably, feeling grateful whenever "the agony would cease". Yet she discerned a deeper calling to be "ever and always grateful".

Implementing that spiritual self-discipline brought full release from the suffering.

Sixties "blue-eyed soul singer" Dusty Springfield had a Top Three hit with the torch song "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" - a sentiment which will resonate with many chronic pain sufferers. In the song she belts out the refrain: "Like a summer rose, needs the sun and rain / Oh, I need your sweet love to beat all the pain."

But could there really be a love sweet enough to beat back physical pain?

If anything is up to that task, it would be the type of selfless, unconditional love called "agape" in Greek. That was the kind of love Jesus clearly felt in a divine parent so close that he called him Abba ("daddy"). Motivated by the compassion this inspired in him Jesus was able to heal others by helping them feel their own unbroken connection to the same ceaseless source of love.

A love whose modus operandi is neither to send nor sanction pain but to free us from it.

A love we can learn to lean on as we seek to beat the pain.

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