by Joy Skarka
*TW; mention of assault and trauma.
This past spring, I spent 30 nights alone in the hospital without my loving husband by my side. One night, as I laid in my hospital bed, I thought back on the decision I made to marry him. Little did I know how my decision three years ago would impact me today as I walked through this season of physical suffering.
Years ago, as I was trying to figure out if I should marry the man I was dating, I asked my counselor how to make this important decision. She responded, “Does he suffer well?” The question caught me off guard. After thinking about it, I replied, “Yes; he’s gone through cancer, found joy in the midst of pain, and continues to follow God.” That day I knew I was going to marry my now-husband, Zack.
In our marriage, we have experienced a lot of suffering. When we were first married, I worried about my husband’s cancer returning. Turns out, I’m the one who has struggled with sickness! Over the past three years, my body has experienced vaginismus (a condition involving involuntary muscle spasms in the pelvic floor muscles that can make sexual intercourse painful, difficult, or impossible), miscarrying our eight-week-old baby, frequent sinus headaches, and, most recently, achalasia: A rare disease that causes my esophagus to not function properly.
To fix my esophagus, I had a scheduled surgery in May 2020. Nothing went as planned, resulting in an ambulance ride, emergency gallbladder removal, another esophagus surgery, feeding tube placement, countless procedures and scans, and five different hospital stays amounting to over 30 days alone (because of COVID) in the hospital.
I’m still processing through the trauma that resulted from isolation in the hospital and that accompanies health issues. I will never forget laying in the hospital alone as they tried over and over again to insert a catheter as I begged, “Please stop. I have vaginismus and was raped. This isn’t going to work. Please stop.” The doctor eventually gave up, after I was already bleeding and crying in pain. The experience triggered flashbacks from my previous sexual trauma, and re-inflamed my vaginismus. After I finally came home from the hosptial, I knew I needed to process through this latest trauma, and since then, I regularly see a sex therapist. (Sex Therapy: What Is It, and Why Should You Go?)
In all of my health struggles, pain was always present. Physical pain, especially sexual pain, impacted intimacy with my husband. During my most recent sickness and resulting hospital stay, not only were we unable to have sexual intercourse for months, I could barely lift my arms up to hug him while sitting on the couch. There were periods of time I was nauseous or throwing up all day long, and the last thing I wanted to do was kiss my husband. Yet, over time, we learned through trial and error ways to be intimate and show love to one another. While I was sick, our love for each other grew stronger each day as my husband took care of me. He cleaned my puke bucket, washed my hair in the shower, and held my hand as I cried.
After my hospital stay, our intimacy looked different than it had previously. In the moment, I was unaware how my physical pain and suffering played a role in God’s big-picture plan. Later, I realized that God was writing another chapter of our love story.
My health struggles had left me asking many theological questions:
Here are 3 ways I learned to suffer well through physical pain and suffering:
It’s easy for us to isolate ourselves from God and others and think no one cares or understands our pain. When we struggle, we must purposefully decide not to isolate ourselves. At the end of the day, the enemy wants to isolate us from Jesus and from the body of Christ. We have to fight the temptation to isolate and instead step out into a community. We must find safe people to share our pain with. It’s okay to cry to others and to God. Let’s be honest and open with people (safe people, not all people!) about how we’re really doing.
Even when God feels a million miles away, He is there, quietly whispering into our ears for us to let Him in. Pray and ask God to reveal Himself. Believe God is there and that He is enough. Use your suffering as an opportunity to call out to Him continually, perseveringly, and receive His treasured words to you. God can handle our honest thoughts, questions, and doubts. I think it’s crucial when we experience suffering to grieve and to honestly converse with God about our questions and doubts. God knows them already, so there’s no point in trying to hide those thoughts.
In the book of Job, we read Job’s conversations with God, his doubts and accusations, and his friends’ vain attempts to help. In the end, we see Job confess that he spoke of things he did not understand (aka God is sovereign and he is not).
Let Him love you, slowly, continually, in every hard breath as you learn to heal. He hears you even when you have no words to say. He’s with you. He knows you. He loves you.
Let the pain teach you about Christ’s humanity. It’s an incredibly unique aspect of Christianity that we worship a God who has actually suffered, physically. Christ was tempted to the point of bleeding, He wept over his friend Lazarus’ death, He experienced the Garden of Gethsemane alone, and He died a horrendous death on the cross. God understands and has experienced our pain.
Give yourself grace. Suffering is never what we desire or want, especially when it’s health-related and it seems our bodies, and sometimes even God, have failed us. Receiving grace requires humility and for us to acknowledge our need. We cannot save ourselves. During your suffering, it may be hard to read your Bible every day. When I was in the hospital, I lacked the strength required to hold up my phone. Instead, I listened to Scripture and played worship music.
Believing that we need to “have it all together” is a big fat lie. The only person who holds all things together is God. None of us have it all together, and that’s okay. Even our broken bodies are a gift of grace, because they still have life. It’s up to us if that life will be filled with hope or bitterness, faith or frustration. And it’s okay if we struggle daily to find hope and peace, because God’s lovingkindness remains steady and His mercies are new every morning.
I want to believe that God will use my pain and sickness for His good. I want to believe that He has not forgotten about me. Maybe you aren’t suffering with physical pain, but I bet you’re suffering from something. Maybe you are grieving the loss of a loved one. Maybe you’re struggling with depression. Maybe you feel stuck in addiction and chained to pornography. Maybe you are single and have sexual desires and don’t know what to do with them. We all experience suffering, so give yourself grace in moments of weakness, share your burdens with those around you, and embrace suffering as an opportunity to fellowship with our Savior in His suffering.
You may also find the following resources helpful:
Photo by Emma Simpson on Unsplash