Let’s Get Visible: Chronic Pain, Invisible Illness, and the Kindom of God
By Bailey Brawner
Day 1 of 5: Chronic Pain Sucks
Blessed be the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation.
-2 Corinthians 1:3-7 (NRSV)
When I was growing up, I prided myself on what I could accomplish. (Later, I learned the term for that was an Enneagram 3.) I thrived off of praise, and it made me hungry to do more so I could be praised more. My senior year of high school, a lot of that praise came from sports, especially volleyball. I was thinking about playing in college and had just been announced captain of my team. Shortly into the season, my body started falling apart. I’d come home tired at 3:30pm, then couldn’t get out of bed in the morning without fatigue and stiffness throughout my body. I wore braces on my ankles, wrists, knees, and elbows. I felt terrible, and I had no reason why.
You’d think a normal person would slow down, right? Not me. I have a photo of myself setting a volleyball for senior night with a giant brace on my hand because my fingers wouldn’t work properly without crippling pain. It got worse and worse, but still, I wouldn’t give up because no matter the story I told myself, there was nothing visibly wrong with me, even when inside, something was very wrong. Finally, I learned the name for this feeling like garbage all the time: Multiple Connective Tissue Disorder. I was diagnosed with Lupus and some other autoimmune disorders where essentially, my body attacks the connective tissue in my body like a disease it’s trying to fight off in a healthy body.
The above Scripture passage from 2 Corinthians talks about being consoled by God. God sees us. God knows us, even when the people around us don’t see or understand us. Having an invisible illness, having chronic pain—it sucks. If you want, you can find ways to spin that positively, but for me, the healthiest thing I can do is acknowledge that the pain is there and real. When I walk down the street, nine times out of ten, I show no visible signs of pain, of illness. Yet, nine times out of ten, I’m in pain, noticeable-to-me pain.
When I think of consoling, I think of a kid who fell on the playground or a chaplain in the hospital after a bad diagnosis. There tends to be a specific event—something we can notice with our senses—that signals a need for consolation. But for those of us with chronic pain, oftentimes these are tough things to notice. There may not be an event. It is simply how we exist. For God to console us means that God sees us in a way that transcends what is visible. Does it help other people notice us? Notice the effort we’re putting in just to get out of bed, or notice the small, pained expressions and everything below the tip of the iceberg? It doesn’t. But God invites us into relationship—a relationship that dives beneath the surface, seeing and loving us for who we are, full stop.
Throughout the rest of this devotional, I hope you feel seen, honored, and loved. I hope you know that even when your symptoms don’t show, there are people in this world who know what it’s like to have an invisible illness. May you know that you are not alone.
Holy One who knows us with an unimaginable depth,
We thank you for allowing us to be seen. Allow us to see others, sense others, through our relationship and our experience. Guide us as we interact, that we look beyond the surface to know those around us. In your faithful name, we pray. Amen.