How to Pray When Chronic Pain Will Not Go Away
If you live long enough in this sin-cursed world, the day will come when you will need what you are about to read. I’m talking about how to pray when you are in pain. Not a little pain either. I have in mind the kind of pain that consumes you to the point where you can’t think about anything besides the pain. It could be physical pain. It could be some other type of pain. Perhaps you’ve lost your spouse or beloved child. Maybe you worked all your life for a dream job, and now it’s gone. The point is, your pain is connected to a very significant loss. We’re not talking about having a bad day. We’re talking about going through something you never anticipated in life, and the result is a pain for which you have no category. Intense, relentless, deep, consuming pain.
And to complicate things, you’re not sure what to pray anymore. It’s not because you don’t love God, for you do. And it’s not because you don’t pray, for you have prayed, many times in fact. But every time you say amen and get up off your knees, you realize your situation hasn’t changed.
Yet the pain remains.
How do you pray when you find yourself in a season of life like that, a season of pain with no end in sight? I have experienced what I have just described. I have hurt so badly that I found myself on the floor crying out to the Lord. I’ve struggled with migraines for nearly three decades, and have tried a lot of things to address the cause of the pain, including five neurologists, four chiropractors, and a gluten free diet, just for starters.
Though now greatly improved through use of a recent medication, for several years my charts showed pain fifteen days a month on the average. Sometimes just a distracting pain. Sometimes more debilitating. There was the pressure in my forehead and temples and eyes. The agony of being in the presence of any source of light or sound or scent. The inability to lay down and sleep.
But it wasn’t just the physical pain. In 2012 the Wheelersburg Baptist Church family I’ve pastored since 1987 gave me a sabbatical break for rest and more specialized attention for the migraines. About two months into the three month break I remember feeling an overwhelming mental anguish with thoughts like, “I’m two-thirds of the way through a sabbatical from a generous church who’ve sent me to get help for migraines, and I’m no closer to being able to return to work than when I left in June. What good is a pastor who can’t look at a computer screen, or read a book, or talk with people, who spends a huge chunk of his time just sitting in dark rooms?”
And then there were thoughts like these, “I’ve always loved studying God’s Word and preaching and helping people know Him better. But now? I can’t do those things, at least not in any predictable way. Why, Lord? What am I supposed to do? I keep looking for medical solutions to this problem and it doesn’t go away. When is this going to end? How long?”
I want to share with you a Psalm that has saved my life, and that’s not an exaggeration. I’ve turned to it again and again, when the pain would not leave, and the Lord used it to give me hope.
Psalm 13 shows us in very autobiographical terms what to do when we’re in chronic pain. The psalm is very straightforward, very memorable, very usable, very practical, very blunt, and very essential for every person dealing with pain. When we are in great pain, we need to pray a specific prayer in which we bring three things to God.
Bring Your Questions to God (verses 1-2)
“How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily? How long will my enemy be exalted over me?”
When we feel overwhelmed, this is not natural for us. When pain is smothering us, what do we often do? In working with people for many years and in my own experience with pain, I’ve noticed two things.
One, we tend to turn away from God rather than to Him. Oh, maybe initially we turn to Him and ask for His help. But when the help doesn’t come quickly enough, or in the way we want it, we figure we might as well look somewhere else for help. Maybe to people, or to a bottle, or a pill, or whatever. But something other than God.
There’s another tendency I’ve noticed. We’re prone to try and figure things out on our own. God doesn’t seem to be helping. And people don’t seem to have any solutions. So we decide to hunker down and start depending on the only counsel we think we can really trust. Our own. “I guess I’ll just have to figure my way out of this mess all by myself!”
But we’re creatures. And as creatures we weren’t made to live independent lives. Which means that when we feel overwhelmed, we need to do what David did. In the midst of the pain David turned to the Lord, not from Him. He came to the Lord with everything he had, starting with his questions.
Bring Your Requests to God (verses 3-4)
“Consider and hear me, O Lord my God; Enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death; Lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed against him; Lest those who trouble me rejoice when I am moved.”
It’s amazing, yet true. The God who holds the stars in His hands invites us to ask Him for things. Indeed, He designed us to be dependent creatures. He knows we need Him, and He is pleased when we bring our petitions to Him.
As David did. In the second movement of his prayer, David did what the writer of Hebrews exhorts us to do, come boldly to the throne of grace. This is what I need, God. I’m asking you to enlighten mine eyes, to help me to see what I’m missing. I’m overwhelmed right now and don’t know what to do. I need You to look my way and answer my cry and cause my eyes to see what I’m not presently seeing, how to process this helpless situation I’m in for your glory.
Bring Your Praise to God (verses 5-6)
“But I have trusted in Your mercy; My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because He has dealt bountifully with me.”
Notice how David ends his prayer by affirming the truth regarding God. It’s not his pain that captivates him now. It’s God’s attributes. Your mercy. Your salvation. And David does something else as he finishes, something very significant for the chronic sufferer.
He ends with action verbs. This is so important. When you’re in persistent pain, after a while it starts to wear on you and even wear you down. But you cannot afford to be passive when in pain. You must do something, something God-pleasing, like David did. David takes action in the final movement of this prayer-psalm by resolving to sing.
What’s that? Did David say sing? How can a man who is in the deepest pit of his life sing? Is he out of his mind? Has something snapped?
No. He’s now bringing his swirling mind back into submission to truth. He began by sharing how he felt, with his head spinning in the clouds, as it were. Now he finishes his prayer with his feet planted on the ground, doing what a man of God is created and redeemed to do, sing to the Lord.
What’s so important about singing to the Lord? When we sing to the Lord we are choosing to use what He has given to us—our voices, our minds, our breath, our time, our focus, our energy—and go vertical with it, to bring attention to Him. We’re reminding ourselves why we’re here. When we sing, we’re engaging mind, soul, and body—the whole person. We’re not just thinking, we’re not just talking, we’re singing. And this pleases our God greatly.
This also brings tremendous benefit to us. It’s hard to keep moping in despair when you’re singing about the goodness of your God. It’s hard to keep rehearsing your list of complaints when you’re expressing out loud in song the past works of your God in your behalf.
Notice that as Psalm 13 ends, David’s circumstances have not changed. David is apparently still in pain. But something has changed. While David was down on his knees crying out to God, bringing his questions and requests and praise to God, David has changed.
Follow the Pattern
The heading over Psalm 13 indicates David wrote this prayer “for the director of music.” This is important to see. David intended, indeed, the Spirit of God who directed him intended this psalm to help the people of God, for David will not be the last child of God to cry out in pain that will not leave.
I encourage you to memorize this psalm, and then let it guide you in your future conversations with God. When the pain doesn’t go away, bring your questions to Him, then your requests, but always finish by exalting Him with your praise.
*This article is an excerpt from the new mini-book by Brad Brandt, Help! I Live with Chronic Pain. It was also presented as part of a message delivered at the 2019 Association of Certified Biblical Counselors pre-conference, “Suffering with Chronic Pain While Clinging to Enduring Hope,” and is available in audio format at www.biblicalcounseling.com.
Brad Brandt (DMin Grace Seminary), along with his wife Sherry, has served as pastor of Wheelersburg Baptist Church in Ohio since 1987. He is a certified biblical counselor and Fellow with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors.