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  • Writer's pictureMary Nolte

An Overwhelming Presence

Pain is an overwhelming presence. I sat in my bed recently, trying to think, trying to pray, trying to get past the pain. I always think I’m over it, that the next time I will be prepared, that I will handle it with dignity and courage, going on to progress through mountains of work, being more productive than ever before. Then it hits me, and I can scarcely function.

I become a puppet on a string, manipulated by an invisible cruelty.

It is a cruelty that comes in many forms, some physical, some emotional, all spiritual. Physical pain can be so intense that it leads to emotional pain. I think we all know that. But what we sometimes forget is that emotional pain can lead to physical pain, like the biblical prophet whose anguish causes him to “writhe in pain” as he considers the state of his people (Jer. 4:19). Today, we call it the gut-brain connection. This has been my experience.

My journey through pain began more than 12 years ago. A perfect storm of moving to a strange city, expanding the family business, almost going bankrupt in the housing crash of ‘08, my dad’s failing health, and my own struggles as a parent of young teenagers all descended upon me, eventually manifesting in physical pain. I remember clearly its first appearance one day as we were on a family outing, our vehicle and our life full of children. Then it hit me and it was all I could feel, all I could see, the laughter and eager voices drowned out by the roar of the wave of it.

Pain overtook me, and it was all there was in the world.

In the years that followed, the pain would show up like clockwork, coming every afternoon as it was time to prepare dinner, sometimes a dull ache that I could push through—talk to my children about their day, cook a meal, laugh at the new puppy. Sometimes, I was debilitated, lying in the fetal position on my bed, begging my husband to keep the kids out so they wouldn’t see.

“Why, oh, why did Adam and Eve have to eat that fruit!”

When she was a child, my oldest daughter used to go into a tirade over Adam and Eve’s choices anytime she faced the consequences of sin on her otherwise perfect world. She lamented that Adam and Eve ushered in, with their intent to live apart from God’s plan, a world full of pain. When I was young, I thought I would be saved from the pain, spared from the worst of it, somehow, like bumpers in a bowling alley, riding along the edge of the gutter but never falling into it. Then I got older, and I found myself lying in that painful gutter over and over again as disease, divorce, death, and so much more danced their way through my life, shattering the plans I had for myself.

Pain has no schedule. It makes no appointment. It is never invited for a visit. It just shows up and wreaks havoc on my plans, crippling my days or weeks or months or years.

Pain is all around us, coming in many forms—a family fighting through cancer, a friend crushed by anxiety, a mother trapped in the tragedy of miscarriage, and so many more. Pain drives us to the end of ourselves as we crowd doctors’ offices, wait in long pharmacy lines, and stalk desperately through store aisles and internet searches, all looking for the same thing—healing from the pain. I have been there. I have gone gluten free, dairy free, egg free, soy free, nut free, nightshade free. I have been to doctors. I have tried a holistic approach. I have let them cut out pieces of me hoping to cut out the pain as well.

I have prayed numerous times for healing and wondered numerous times why God doesn’t just remove the pain.

I do not know the answer to that. I only know that in the midst of it, I am drawn to seek him out. Like the woman with the flow of blood, I am pushing through a crowd of distractions, desperate to touch him. Sometimes it takes the pain to propel me into His presence, trembling with frailty, disappointed in fruitless effort, exhausted from sleeplessness. The pain becomes the vehicle that drives me to Jesus. And reaching out and touching the hem of his garment, in faith I am declaring that I know He is the ultimate healer. In drawing near in worship, I find this “light, momentary affliction” is torn in two, like the curtain of the temple, and behind this curtain of pain I glimpse an “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).

It reminds me that in the presence of Eternity, the pain is temporary and that one day, every tear will be wiped away and that which once brought me pain will no longer even be a memory; it will be forgotten.

Not long before my dad died, I went and visited him and my mom in their little farmhouse. He was near the end of his journey with pain. I was just beginning mine. He was quiet that day, and I asked him to play chess with me. As I dragged the old wooden board out from under the bed, I remembered Daddy as he had been before the cruel progression of heart disease, patiently teaching me to play chess as a little girl, his baritone laugh filling the room when I made a strategic move. I tried to engage him in conversation on this particular day, but he was not feeling well. Afterward, we sat by the fire in silence, a silence filled by his solid presence. Then he spoke, and I have never forgotten what he said.

“Mary, the gospel is all that matters. It is the blood flowing through my veins.”

The Gospel. That God left the glory of heaven and condescended to earth and wrapped himself in mortal flesh, flesh punctuated by a myriad of nerve endings, flesh exposed to every painful brutality of this world. That as a man, he lived a perfect, sinless life, experiencing the temptations of sin, the hurt of rejection, the injustice of false accusation. That he died on a cross, His blood spilt for sins, the sins of the world. That he was buried, taking to the grave the pinnacle of pain, death itself, and that He rose again, triumphant over it. “The gospel is all that matters.” And the longer I have lived in a world riddled with pain, saturated by sin, that truth becomes more real. As I have sat with friends who are overcome by chronic illness or torn apart by the grief of loss, that truth becomes more real. As I have observed loved ones crushed by the weight of failed relationships or tormented by the past, that truth becomes more real. The Gospel is all that matters.

It is how I know that God, who sits in the heavens, understands the pain I am going through.

Because “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Christ willingly left his throne in glory and entered into the pain of this world. He yielded His magnificence to the constraints of time and place and brokenness. If it was anything, the cross was painful, excruciatingly. The emotions Jesus experienced were debilitating, leading him to sweat great drops of blood, a physical manifestation of the most crushing anxiety. He took the punishment for my sin. Jesus engulfed the pain of sin’s ultimate consequence, rejection by the Father, so that we can “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16). In Jesus, I find mercy for the suffering; I find grace in my time of need.

Your pain is doing something. It is propelling you toward the One who has overcome, the One who will one day wipe every tear from your eyes. And in the midst of your pain, “when [your] heart is overwhelmed” (Ps. 61:2), look to Jesus, and you will find joy in the sorrow, healing in the brokenness, beauty in the ashes. When my Dad died and exchanged his pain wracked body for a crown, there was rejoicing in the tears.

Pain is an overwhelming presence, but Christ is a greater Presence. When I touch Him, the Presence of the Eternal One overwhelms everything else.


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