Chronic pain and the Christian faith

Last night’s Counseling & Physiology class covered the topic of chronic pain. There are a number of syndromes and disorders that cluster around pain as the presenting problem: Chronic Fatigue, Fibromyalgia, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Osteoarthritis, back pain, etc. Depending on which research study you read, some 9-17% of the population struggles with some form of chronic pain.

While these various forms of pain are quite different, there are some commonalities. Chronic and diffuse pain sufferers frequently experience some form of inflammation, fatigue, sleep disruption, negative mood, and poor memory (its hard to pay attention to new information when you are weighed down by pain). We don’t really know what causes what but we do know that these symptoms form a vicious cycle. If you don’t get restorative sleep, you experience more fatigue, you are more prone to negative thought patterns, your pain levels go up, memory goes down…and thus you don’t sleep well the next night, and so on. Researchers describe this vicious cycle in terms of “allostatic load”–the deleterious effects of chronic stress hormones without restorative sleep.

Because of the diffuse nature of pain (vs. focal) and the lack of obvious objective evidence of that pain (a big red spot, a swollen limb, etc.), chronic pain sufferers and their families struggle to understand whether or not the pain is real and what they are truly capable of doing. How do you measure pain levels? It’s pretty subjective! Thus, it encourages more “I should be able to…” thinking in all parties. Those not suffering chronic pain do more damage by implying that the person is just looking for attention, is just being lazy. Those suffering pain who either deny the pain and try to do too much or refuse to engage the world and withdraw from it do damage to themselves–real physical damage.

As with all physiological problems, one’s mood, one’s perceptions, one’s focus, one’s stress levels impact severity of the problem. While chronic pain is not just in one’s head, how one responds to chronic pain may help alleviate or elevate the pain sensations. Ironically, many pain sufferers resist counseling because they fear that others will believe that their symptoms are all in their head. Those who refuse to acknowledge the psychological factors in pain sensation and management miss out on important means to cope with the pain and to lower pain perceptions.

Chronic pain sufferers must accept the need to adjust their lifestyle to accommodate more rest. They must fight to get the best restorative sleep possible. These are probably their primary practical responses–even above medical treatments (and I’m not knocking medical treatments nor saying that just getting sleep will solve the problem).

One of the biggest challenges for pain sufferers is the matter of hope and faith. When we suffer problems, we often hope they will go away. And when they do not, or only get marginally better, it is easy to slide into despair. Despair usually is the result of things not going the way we hoped or expected they would. Part of dealing with chronic pain is grieving what is lost in order to accept–even enjoy–what strength and health we do have. Without hope, we lose what self-efficacy we once had, thus not doing the basic care-taking activities within our grasp. Interestingly, one of the clearest signs of this struggle is the massive dropouts in pain management research. Frequently, dropouts number about 50% in these studies. This means that before a study gets too far along many are dropping out because they assume the new treatment isn’t going work.

Faith is not that things will go my way right now but that God is in control, cares/protects me, and is working for my ultimate redemption–even when the opposite seems to be true. Faith is acting in a manner consistent with said assumptions even while grieving over real losses. Such faith enables us to be mindful of our thoughts so that we do not practice into beliefs counter to what we have come to know as true.

The chronic pain sufferer who grieves well (asks God for relief, stays in community with others, seeks relief through human means yet has an attitude of waiting on the Lord, and yet still willing to explore and confront hidden sin in self) begins to see that in the midst of the pain, God is there and providing momentary help. Such a person need not act as if the pain were nothing but will look for and rejoice in 5% improvement, 10% more comfort, etc, rather than demanding complete healing as the determinant as to whether God is present with them in their distress.


Filed under biblical counseling, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling, counseling science, Despair, Mindfulness, suffering

7 responses to “Chronic pain and the Christian faith

  1. A thoughtful article on a hard issue. By His stripes we were healed but many believers still suffer with chronic afflictions. God does love us and as you said He is with us and comforts us as we go through it but we still need to persevere and believe and have faith for healing.

  2. Joy

    Excellent article! I really appreciate how faith is explained. Yes, we can believe God for healing, but He also gives us resources like christian counseling to help us cope with pain, change our perceptions, and increase our faith for wholeness. Using these resources does not mean we lack faith. Rather, it shows that we trust and seek Him instead of waiting passively for Him to act. We have to do our part too. Taking better care of our bodies with proper rest and nutrition as well as taking proper care of our minds and emotions make a significant difference in how we experience chronic pain.

  3. There are instances in scripture where Jesus ministered deliverance to set a person free from chronic pain/affliction (18 years worth) and he called out a spirit of infirmity (Luke 13:11). At another time he rebuked a fever. We need to take care of our earthly temples and praise God for doctors, but sometimes I believe people are not healed because they need deliverance!

  4. For those of you who would like to learn more about chronic pain treatment visit our blog at

  5. Laurie

    I know God loves me. He did not cause my disabling conditions or pain. I know God could heal me if that was His plan for me. However, He is in control and whatever my destiny is, He will use these disabling conditions and my chronic pain in His timing. In the meantime, on my worst days when I’m literally shaking with fear from the pain that my strongest prescription pain meds cannot touch, I wonder why even some well- meaning friends view my ordeal as “negativity” and tell me to pray about it and then tell me to “let it go” when in fact this is something that will never go away. I have suffered with my conditions for 30 years and it will continue until I die, save for some miracle. Well-meaning Christians need to understand that some issues are not named and claimed and raw emotions are real. People hurt who are living daily (all waking hours) with chronic pain and as this article points out, tend to withdraw back into their world of pain and depression because well meaning people are scolding them for spreading negativity.

  6. Georgene

    I am a caregiver to my husband who is disabled and in continual pain. Are there any resources for Christian caregivers that focus on the heart attitudes of a caregiver and how to grow in Christ during this kind of trial?

  7. John D Reeke

    You are an angel, perhaps this ultimate sacrifice goes both ways, he probably stays alive just to save you pain. Don’t feel guilty for being overwhelmed. Remember Jesus only had one bad day and his last words were God why have you forsaken me, because he lost faith in God from pain. Your husband has a bad day every day, not just one.

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