Pastorally we have to be prepared to be alongside people as they go into their own desert. People need to be able to pour out to someone the fears that they have buried deep, or that are bubbling near the surface. Just sharing those feelings with someone can make them less frightening, as they are acknowledged. People may be reluctant to express such deep personal feelings that pain and suffering bring. One of the privileges in life is being the one someone feels they can ‘let go’ to. Someone ‘putting on a brave face’, may just have no opportunity, or tools, to face or express their fears. They may need some company, some care, some holding.
Norman Autton in his book, Pain – An Exploration, makes the comment that children should always be given permission to feel pain. Adults too, particularly sometimes christians, need to know that there is no need to be brave or ‘cope’. Feeling the pain is the only way it can be let out for healing.
Denis Duncan in Health and Healing: A Ministry to Wholeness reminds us that christian pastoral care, including to ourselves, is the acceptance of people where they are, in order to take them to where God wants them to be ‘warts and all’. This is very positive, except that we can never take them. What we can do is accompany them as they make the journey there themselves.
What anyone offering care needs is sensitivity. Such comments as, ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’ are not particularly helpful when it doesn’t feel it. It may ultimately become true, but takes reconciling to the situation first. There will undoubtedly be some positives to come from the suffering, but that does not remove the pain of the struggle. It can be too easy to produce platitudes that nothing can separate us from the love of God, or that there is glory waiting beyond the tears. I firmly believe that
all things work together for good for those who love God (Rom 8:28),
but at times of struggle it was the last thing I wanted to hear. Not because I no longer believed it, but at that time I could not assimilate it into my experience. To glibly quote scripture references can show total lack of empathy and can appear to belittle the problem.
If we can, however use the bible sensitively and positively, there are many verses that do offer hope and comfort. For example, Isaiah 43:1-2, reminds us that God is with us in situations that threaten to consume and overwhelm us; Psalm 23 speaks of the Psalmist’s assurance that God is with him in the valleys; and for me Habakkuk 3:17-20 encapsulates the acceptance and ability to live with having no answers, but finding something in that, and still being able to cling on because of his trust in God, when everything else has disappeared.
We should not be afraid to say that we have no answers, there is more honesty in that than trying to grope for quick-fix solutions. And honesty is the one thing that is appreciated. Sometimes nothing more is needed than a being with.
And that is the point I come to. If it sounds positive, it has come from a place of great pain. Only the answer has survived on paper – but the pain was deep and life-transforming. Ask those who were around me then how many times I preached on being in the desert – because that is where I was and all I could do. I’m not trying to put just a positive spin on it, but to try to share some of what I learned, and in sharing it all again, it has helped me with where I find myself again. Healing and wholeness are ongoing. Living with ongoing illness regularly throws up new discoveries and realities to be assimilated. As does life for each one of us.
I hope sharing this has helped someone. If you’ve got any comments, please share them below for everyone to share in.
I’ll leave you with my conclusion, that sixteen years on and a few crises later, still, I think, holds true:
So for me, both personally, and as a basis for pastoral care, there has to be the offer of healing and wholeness, whatever the state of our mind and body. It may not be healing as we would like it or recognise it, but that does not mean it is not.
I believe firmly, passionately and with experience that we can lay our pain with the one who took our pain upon himself, and receive Life in its true fullness. If we do not believe that what else have we to offer to a hurting world?
And so I return to my very practical definition of healing:
accepting all that we are, and all that we will never be, incorporating that into ‘me’ – and being able to live with it.