My father started getting migraines the year after my parents got married. They swelled when I was born, and swelled even more when my brother was born four years later. And as we grew so did the migraines.
We tried different remedies. We changed our diet with him—cutting out MSG, nitrates, and caffeine. We whispered all the time because noise heightened my dad’s nausea. I learned far too much about prescription drugs than a girl my age should know. But nothing worked. Dad traveled to nearly every doctor in the country and tried every new medical technology, but no one had answers. Pain slowly took over his life.
The Great Physician?
When we were children, my brother and I bucked up against our atypical family situation. He wanted to know why my dad couldn’t play catch; I wanted to know why God wasn’t making him better.
Elementary school Sunday school hadn’t exactly got to that question—the only Jesus I knew was the one who healed around every corner. Why wasn’t Jesus stepping in like he did with the woman who only brushed his garment? The blind beggar at the gate? The blind man at the pool? It wasn’t like we weren’t begging. I prayed every morning and evening, every mealtime and every moment in between.
Plenty of people had opinions they slated as encouragement. “If you have faith, God will heal.” “Just pray the pain away.” But being told that “with a little more faith, God would fulfill my desires” pushed me into a crisis. Was my faith not good enough?
This kind of health and wealth wasn’t the boisterous message of Olsteen or Bakker. It was the more quiet sort, built up by years of capitalism and bad exegesis. If you loved Jesus, he would give you the desires of your heart—in our case, heal your migraines. But it just never happened.
Somehow, my parents continued to pray for healing without becoming frustrated by God’s seeming lack of action. My dad told me time and time again that he felt God wasn’t going to heal him on this side of heaven. Like Paul, this was his thorn to bear until he would get a body with no pain. Both my parents were quietly patient with God. I, on the other hand, was enraged.
A Resurrected Faith
I don’t remember when I stopped praying. I think it was in middle school. I didn’t lose my faith but I lost the faith that God could heal my dad. Petition was a waste and the root of my disdain toward Pentecostal friends. A God reliant on my faith to work in the world was not the kind of God I wanted. A God who can heal, but chooses not to is a hard God to face.
I tumbled into a total aversion to the health and wealth gospel and lost all faith that God was ever willing to heal anything. As I finished high school and began college, my Christianity was an intellectual pursuit and a cultural foundation, somewhere between Deism and Gnosticism.
It wasn’t until my junior year at college that I began to understand the hope my parents had. That year my anxious tendencies snapped into a full-blown disorder. Relationships began to fall apart. I could barely make it through a shower without a panic attack. God was nowhere to be found. I was alone.
I begged for relief and prayed for healing for the first time since middle school. It didn’t come. But this time I didn’t have the luxury of falling to disillusionment—I was still desperate for any kind of healing God may be willing to throw my way.
I started listening to the Psalms. I couldn’t bring myself to open the Bible—it was too full of broken promises—so I put on Ellie Holcomb to get through showers.
The words that I thought I knew so well washed over me as the emotion in the book astounded me. Slowly, I started reading again. How could God be faithful and present in the midst of deep suffering? Somehow, he was.
As holy week approached I understood Easter for the first time in my very churched twenty-two years. I sat in the tears and pleas of Maundy Thursday, the gruesome pain and death of Good Friday, the silence and doubt of Holy Saturday. This was the same God I was finding in the Psalms, a different kind of God than the one I had been appealing to since first learning to pray for migraines.
I began to see the only place you can look to when you can’t trust your own body, the only thing to help you when the healing isn’t coming or when the health and wealth gospel feeds you lies about what God has promised. The only place to look is to the resurrection.
How do we hold the promise of suffering, of chronic illness and fallen brain chemicals in tandem with the dramatic hope of resurrection? We look to a God who didn’t save himself from the cross but chose to face death and rise again. The hope that keeps quietly trusting through Holy Saturday to rejoice on Easter morning is the same hope that sustains the darkened bedroom days of migraines. We can celebrate Good Friday and the terrible stations of the cross because we know what is coming. There will be resurrection—it just might take a long three days in the tomb.
My dad still can’t work or read paper books or eat normal bacon. Christmases and summers are punctuated by dark bedroom days. My legs still shake and I still take a little blue pill every morning. But somewhere in the suffering, I’ve found the ability to hope again. A hope I can actually hold on to: a resurrected Jesus with scars in his hands.
Cover image by Biel Morro.
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