National Magazine of the Lutheran Church of Australia

Pain that won’t go away

June 2016

by Stephen Abraham

In 2003 Stephen Abraham was church planting pastor of the LCA’s new Mawson Lakes congregation and school pastor at Endeavour College in Adelaide’s northern suburbs. He was a songwriter with several worship CDs, including songs in the All Together series. He had aspirations for the future, a happy family with wife Thérèse and young son Joash, and dreams of where he thought life would take him. Two days before Christmas Eve, he ruptured a disc in his back in a sporting accident. The damage constricted the nerve running down his left leg resulting in severe and chronic pain from hip to toe on his left side – pain that simply won’t go away.

‘Let me tell you a secret. Don’t react. Don’t compare. Don’t judge. Just listen. Right now it feels like my left leg is being rolled over by a road roller: a road roller that never ever stops. It goes day and night. It hurts like hell and nothing in this world can stop it. I can take medication to knock me out and make me a zombie, I can try and meditate to lessen my reaction to the pain, I even have a spinal stimulator implanted trying to zap the nerves in my spine to block the pain; and sometimes it helps. But nothing stops the road roller and I cannot escape it as it crushes my leg every single moment of my existence. And it’s been like that for 12 long years …’

What do you think when you hear a story like that? It’s a harrowing story. It’s my story – a passage from my journal. Thanks for listening to it. It’s all I really need from you – unless I ask you for help. Now just treat me as ‘normal’ as you can. See past my mobility scooter and walking stick, look into my eyes and see me as a valid person.

Please don’t treat me as a cripple and/or pity me. Don’t gawk as I roll past on my scooter – but feel free to ask me about it and the freedom it gives me. Don’t whinge about disabled parking – I literally could not go to the shops without it. Don’t feel like ‘I can’t tell him my own problems because his are so much worse’ – that disenfranchises both of us. Look into my eyes, look past my disablement, and see me – a friend who just lives a different kind of ‘normal’.

After my accident, my family and I fought my condition and the pain as best we could, seeking out multiple medical treatments, including surgical procedures and several forms of alternative medicine. Many people prayed for me and my family for healing, but no physical healing came. While only getting one or two hours of sleep a night at the most for these years, and with my condition deteriorating, I eventually had a complete physical and emotional breakdown and had to stop pastoral ministry, going on indefinite medical leave.

I can only stand for a few minutes and walk about five metres before the pain becomes intolerable. Even my ability to sit is limited and I must remain horizontal as much as possible. Of course, this limits driving or even sitting at church where I need a special portable recliner.

Living with a long-term chronic medical condition can present some unique challenges to our Christian world view. The question of divine healing is one. Many hymns and songs boldly proclaim that ‘our God heals’. All through Scripture there are instances where miraculous healing occurs.

As someone who hasn’t been physically healed, how am I supposed to respond? Sometimes I admit I hear these songs and Bible readings and feel ripped off. Why them and not me? Why not just heal everyone? Is God so capricious to heal some and not others? Is my faith not strong enough or am I still held back by some special sin I have yet to confess? I have disabled friends from other denominations who respond by constantly seeking to be healed by the latest touring ‘gifted’ faith healer. Result? They still aren’t healed, just like me!

‘Maybe the pursuit of supernatural healing is not the answer for me personally here on this fallen world. Maybe it’s the whole human journey – including the best and worst of life (even the worst of suffering, including the most crippling of diseases) – where God is to be found. Maybe it’s “my heart that must be healed” in this lifetime and my supernatural healing will come with my “glorified body” in heaven at the end of time. God’s plan to “heal the world” is yet to come …’

(from Stephen’s journal)

The question of why a good God allows evil and suffering to exist – called theodicy, or literally ‘God-justice’ – still presents a significant challenge to many Christians.

My own personal epiphany in coming to terms with my faith while suffering chronic pain was in reading the Book of Job in the Old Testament as a newly disabled person.

I didn’t receive all the answers, but I did learn that my own experiences – how I cope with the day-to-day of my medical condition, my suffering and my interactions with friends, family and God – is a path well-trod by Job thousands of years ago.

Although I would not wish my condition on anyone, for me there is blessing amid the suffering; in the closeness I have to my family and the way they support me; in the way my son has developed a mature sense of compassion at a young age; in the health and financial support available to me in this country; and in the simplicity my life now has.

Chronic pain is a burden but not a death sentence. I encourage anyone who is suffering in this way to seek help from doctors, family and friends, and in God himself, who is with you through it all – even through the anger. Jesus went through enormous suffering and is with you through your journey of pain.

In 2014 Lutheran Media featured Stephen, his wife Thérèse and son Joash in a series of radio and YouTube video interviews simply called Chronic and later they produced a DVD, complete with a study guide for small groups and the booklet Chronic Pain.

For Stephen’s booklet or copies of the DVD, contact Lutheran Media at luthmedia@lca.org.au or 1800 353 350.