When Your Friend Is Suffering and Sinking

I’ve spent most of my adult life living in pain. I’ve spent most of my adult energy fighting an army of lies.

The migraines started in my 20s. They quickly became chronic, afflicting me almost daily. I have an autoimmune disease that has wreaked havoc on multiple systems in my body. When I was 37, I developed a neurological disorder called trigeminal autonomic cephalalgia, also known as cluster headache.

Not My Greatest Enemy

The pain from these headaches comes on fast and furious, often waking me in the middle of the night. It’s like a burning hot screwdriver jammed into your eye socket and twisted around by a mad gorilla for a couple of hours. The pain is so fierce you can’t sit still; you have to pace around the room or rock back and forth holding your head and screaming out for mercy. Physicians often describe it as the worst pain known to medicine.

Physicians often describe it as the worst pain known to medicine.

Once the pain passes—after around two hours—you feel like you have fought a war with your face and given birth through your eye but have no cute baby to show for it. You’re physically exhausted and an emotional wreck. But there’s no time to catch you breath, because the next attack is coming soon, usually within a few hours. The clusters have a notorious nickname—“suicide headaches”—because the suicide rate for people who suffer from them is reported to be 20-times the national average. They often result in clinical depression, anxiety, or PTSD because of the emotional toll of fearing the next attack. As the name suggests, they come in clusters—some people have three or four a day for months at a time.

It’s a dark illness.

The lesson I’ve learned from decades under these grim conditions? My greatest enemy isn’t pain. My greatest enemy isn’t cluster headaches. My greatest enemy is the Enemy and the lies he hurls at me.

Under Attack

My recent season of cluster headaches lasted for six months. During that time I often thought of the story of Moses holding up God’s staff so that the Israelite army would prevail against the Amalekites (Ex. 17:11–13). When Moses’s arms were too heavy to hold up on his own, Aaron and Hur found a rock for him to sit on. Then they stood on each side of Moses and held up his arms.

Many times over the years, I’ve felt like Moses, unable to hold up my own arms. I’ve been unable to clean my house, fold laundry for my children, drive for carpools, cook healthy meals, and complete my own work projects. I’m not fighting the Amalekites (thank God, because they sound horrible), but I am fighting despair, frustration, and hopelessness. My Amalekite army is the lies that attack me all day and all night.

Lies especially thrive in the darkness. When I wake up at 2 a.m. with searing pain yet again, the pull to believe lies is strong. It’s hard to believe God is really for me. It’s hard to believe he loves me.

Lies thrive in the darkness.

I hear things like: If God really loved you, he’d heal you. Your life was supposed to be better than this. Your children deserve a better mom. Your husband deserves a better wife. You deserve to be normal. No one cares about your pain. This is pointless pain. It would all be over if you’d just drive your car into an oncoming semi. Those are just some of the lies I’m tempted to believe in the dark.

God’s Love in a Squash Soup

During this latest season of suffering, God brought friends to serve our family in practical ways like making meals and picking up groceries. As they carried out these everyday tasks for me, it felt like they were Aaron and Hur, standing next to me on the rock, holding up my arms. But they were doing more than chopping sweet potatoes and roasting chicken. They were doing more than meeting my physical needs. They were fighting this spiritual battle with me. They weren’t just picking up a spatula; they were picking up a sword.

They were fighting the darkness with me, reminding me what’s true about God.

  • When I was tempted to believe God had forgotten me, a friend remembered to call to check how I was doing and see if I needed milk.
  • When I thought that God didn’t care about me, a church member showed up with tacos and a card that spoke of God’s tenderness and compassion.
  • When I believed all this pain was pointless, a friend showed up at my door with squash soup and testified to the ways they’d seen God working in our lives.

The love of God was poured out on us through human hands. I felt strengthened to fight the great army of lies because these faithful friends listened to the nudging of the Spirit.

When you make a squash soup, pick up groceries, or drop off some crispy yuca fries, you help your suffering friend to see truth clearly. You remind them of what they believe. It is holy work to come alongside suffering friends to hold up their arms and hold up their faith.

Speaking the Truth in Actions of Love

Chances are, there is someone near you feeling forgotten, questioning if God is really good. Shine light on the dark lies they’re fighting. Bring them a meal, send them flowers, or watch their kids for an afternoon. It doesn’t have to be food. Any act of love can have a mighty effect.

It is holy work to come alongside the suffering friend to hold up their arms and hold up their faith.

Through your actions you say, I am going to help you get through this. You aren’t alone. God hasn’t forgotten you. He is for you. God sent me because he loves you and cares about your pain. You are a vessel of love. You are a reminder of truth. You tell your friend that God is on their side. You are arm-holders and lie-destroyers.

That’s a pretty successful day in the kitchen if you ask me.

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