How come it’s not over yet?

Rev. Elana Keppel Levy reflects on living with chronic pain. Who is God when the pain doesn’t go away? She turns to the Bible for some advice.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

It’s 11 p.m. Out of nowhere, this insistent pain starts in my lower back. I have fibromyalgia, so it’s not uncommon for my body to have extra-large pain reactions to extra-small things. I figure it’s cramps and doze off.

It’s 1 a.m. On a scale of one to ten, my fibromyalgia pain usually stays around a four with flares up to six. This is new and sharp. I feel nauseous and start moaning involuntarily. I can’t make it to the bathroom and collapse on the floor. My husband Lucus hears the thunk and wakes up. This is not a six, and it’s not coming in waves. It’s an eight, and it’s constant.

Lying on the floor, I try shifting positions. Nothing helps. I look to Lucus and my words repeat, they’re almost as involuntary as the moans: “How come it’s not over yet?” He doesn’t say anything; he just strokes my hair for hours, eventually taking me to the emergency room.

That night I found out I have kidney stones — the first one making its show-stopping debut. Kidney stones mean predictable, inescapable pain. Even when we’re used to chronic ailments, it’s easy to come back to this notion that we should be able to evade or conquer pain. It’s not just our pain-denying culture; it’s also the way we read and preach the Bible. Who doesn’t love a good miracle healing story? Don’t they show the love and power of God? Don’t they give us hope?

When the persistent question is, “How come it’s not over yet?” these healings can seem remote, even mocking. We are told that God makes all things well, that God wipes away our tears (Revelation 21:4), that Jesus gives us rest (Matthew 11:28-29). But pain still exists. What are we supposed to do with it?

There are many people in the Bible who go uncured. When Jacob encounters an angel, they wrestle all night. The angel strikes him on his hip. He demands a blessing and then limps for the rest of his life (Genesis 32:22-32). In 2 Kings 7, four men with a skin disease find the enemy camp abandoned. (God lured the enemy away). They plunder the camp and report the good news to their people. They had been starving to death and now they are saved. The four men are heroes, unhealed. In Jeremiah 15:18, the prophet complains, “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” Job, who is faithful to the end, wrestles with pain, unable to sleep: So I am allotted months of emptiness, and nights of misery are apportioned to me. When I lie down I say, ‘When shall I rise?’ But the night is long, and I am full of tossing until dawn” (Job 7:3-4).

Mentions of illness can be so fleeting that we miss them entirely. Timothy had a stomach problem and other “frequent ailments” (1 Timothy 5:23). Trophimus was so sick he couldn’t travel (2 Timothy 4:20). Paul has a thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Though he prays earnestly, Paul is not healed. God says instead: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

In Mark 8:22-26, Jesus touches a blind man. He puts saliva on his eyes, but his sight is still distorted. Jesus touches him again and he’s healed. Even with Jesus physically present, directly touching his eyes — it still takes two doses for relief!

“How come it’s not over yet?” The question is as insistent as it is unanswerable, but, still, God is there. In God’s grace we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Here, we stand at the jagged edge of our knowing and peer into the sometimes crushing, seeming illogic of our existence. We spend a time here on our sojourn with all who suffer, all who face evil. Even in this often clamorous camp, signs of grace appear like hair gently stroked. It’s not over yet, but God isn’t done either.