The Pain of Being in Pain at Church

Mandi Eatough is a senior at Brigham Young University studying Political Science.  She is originally from Redmond, Washington.  She writes this guest post as an Open Letter to Latter-Day Saints About Growing Up Sick in A Church That Emphasizes Healing as The Result of Faith.

I was born sick.

For a long time nobody knew how sick I was. When I was three it was just asthma. When I was ten it was just growing pains. When I was thirteen it was just in my head. When I was a junior in high school it was just pneumonia. When I was a freshman in college I just wasn’t eating right.

When I was a sophomore in college it was a clearly late diagnosis of autoimmune disease and a nervous system disorder that had been destroying my body for more than twenty years without treatment.

I was so angry. I was angry at my doctors for dismissing the pain of a child that had no way to defend themselves. I was angry at my parents for believing the doctors when they said there was nothing else they could try. But most of all, I was Angry at God for not healing me.

As a born & raised Mormon I was taught that when you’re sick, you ask God to heal you and if you have faith in Christ, you will be healed. This message is repeated so frequently, and with such surety that I was certain that I couldn’t be sick. Over and over these messages get repeated:

“And Jesus went about all the cities and villages… healing every sickness and every          disease among the people.”

“And Alma said: If thou believest in the redemption of Christ thou canst be healed.”

“Lay your hands upon the sick, and they shall recover.”

I mentioned my anger with God. This anger came in that moment of diagnosis where I felt like my illness was a broken promise. It felt as if each healing blessing I had received throughout my life had been a waste. I thought that I had shown faith in Christ when I asked for these healing blessings, and that if I asked enough I was supposed get better.

I didn’t get better.

What we don’t talk about enough in the context of the healing power of the priesthood are the caveats that comes with the promises of healing. As Elder Oaks said in his general conference talk Healing the Sick:

“The words spoken in a healing blessing can edify and energize the faith of those who hear them, but the effect of the blessing is dependent upon faith and the Lord’s will.”

I knew I had to have faith to be healed, but I didn’t think about healing as something that may not happen for everybody if it’s not the will of God. I don’t think that this is some big secret that was kept from me. I’d wager we talk about the will of the Lord in church just as often as we talk about the healing power of the priesthood. But in my experiences in the church, these two concepts had such a large disconnect that I couldn’t even begin to understand how I could fit into a gospel that promised healing when I was still sick. Part of this disconnect stemmed from the pain I experienced growing up in a church that emphasizes healing as the result of true faith.

In my first set of scriptures I crossed several verses out of various sections of the Doctrine & Covenants with a black sharpie at some point while I was in Primary. Each of these verses promised healing of physical afflictions. I don’t remember how old I was when I did this, but I remember the primary lessons where my teachers promised that if we were hurting we could ask for a blessing to make it better. I did, and it didn’t.

As I got older, my illnesses got progressively worse. By the time I was in Young Women’s my undiagnosed illnesses regularly kept me from church activities and meetings. After missing a ward youth temple trip because of yet another infection one member of my ward told me that I had been “deceived by the devil”, and that “there was really nothing wrong with me.” I believed them.

In a YSA ward at college (after diagnosis) my Bishop counseled me that my church attendance was suffering too much because of my illness. He informed me that church meetings more important than my medical treatments and continuously insisted that I would be healthier and a better member if I were to discontinue them. I had to go the stake president to get my ecclesiastical endorsement that my bishop refused to give me so I wasn’t kicked out of school.

I don’t recount these instances because I want to call these people out or because these experiences are representative of my experience in the church. I recount them because people don’t understand what I mean when I say that church can be painful for people who are already in pain.

I mean that I am exhausted by the burden of dealing with the spiritual pain brought about others who are unable to understand how a sick person could possibly have true faith. I mean that the addition of this pain to the physical pain I already experience because of my illness has often felt unbearable. I mean that it has made me question my place in a gospel that is supposed to be for everyone.

In the last session of General Conference, Elder Hallstrom posed the following question:

“Do we have the faith ‘not [to] be healed’ from our earthly afflictions so we might be healed eternally?”

I cannot describe how that moment felt to me. I was overjoyed to hear those words spoken in a discussion of healing and faith. Particularly in a setting with such a large audience. I have spent years in the church trying to learn how to have the faith to be not healed. I did this alone. I couldn’t even find the words to express the concept until a couple of years ago. No one was there to tell me that it was okay that I wasn’t getting better. Hearing Elder Hallstrom use this phrase meant that the words I had used to express my own experience in the church were far more accessible to other members looking for the same.

For so long, my church experiences came with messages of ensured healing for the faithful. This message, meant to give hope, often caused me to doubt. However, knowing that Christ’s love for me isn’t any less because I’m sick has been a blessing that, for me, far exceeds the potential blessings of healing that I have not received.

This doesn’t make my pain go away. For me chronic illness comes with this pain beyond the pain that comes with the conditions I deal with every day. The pain that comes with knowing that no matter how many hours a day I dedicate to keeping my body from getting worse, it really isn’t going to get better. No matter how badly I want to be better, no matter how much faith I have in the healing power of the atonement, this isn’t something that I get to fix.

If you’re in pain at church, whether physically, emotionally, spiritually, or in any other way you may not even know how to correctly express, I want you to know that it’s okay. It’s okay to hurt, and it’s okay for church to make that hurt worse. That pain doesn’t have to go away for you to belong in the gospel.

If you aren’t in pain at church, or if you are interacting with other members in your ward who are, please don’t assume you can heal the pain of those around you. Compassion, empathy, and charity are key to honestly bearing one another’s burdens, mourning with those that mourn, and comforting those who are in need of comfort.

Comments

  1. Love this so much. I could have written this. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for expressing this so beautifully. The gift of healing comes to some, but not for many, many others. Your thoughts above are so valuable for all of us.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Such an important perspective; thank you for sharing.

  4. So wonderful. I wish we could study your words for a first Sunday Relief Society council meeting.

  5. Thank you for this. Your words will speak to so many people.

  6. This is powerful. Thanks so much for sharing your story.

  7. Thank you so, so much. I do wish there were more we could do to help others see our faithfulness when we can’t make it to so many meetings. I spent two hours doing sealings on Saturday and couldn’t get to church on Sunday. Sitting through all three hours on uncomfortable chairs is nigh impossible. It’s embarrassing to come help with people moving in and have to leave after a short time in the hopes I won’t be in too much pain to so other things later.

    The occasional testimony doesn’t seem to be enough; people take your faithfulness on how much you do. How do you gain that when you can’t do so much?

  8. Excellent and necessary. Thank you.
    When I was “normal” healthy I heard complaints and concerns from (especially) people who were chronically but invisibly sick or in pain. When I joined those ranks I learned.
    I am bothered particularly by the power-of-positive-thinking message “pain is just a feeling—you can/should think it away.” (I don’t need any reminders. I’ve got the script already.) Also awkwardly connected to faith healing, especially in the ecstatic traditions.

  9. No matter how badly I want to be better, no matter how much faith I have in the healing power of the atonement, this isn’t something that I get to fix.

    Yes. I wish we could be a little more frank about this instead of sweeping the often staggering burdens of chronic, degenerative and terminal illness under the rug with platitudes (and worse, as your experience shows).

  10. Kent Gibb says:

    My father was diagnosed with a terminal illness. At one church meeting a woman approached my parents and told them, that if he would truly repent of his sins and have faith, he would be healed. What a terrible, unfeeling thing to say. She laid the blame for his illness on his sins. What did she know about his life? All too often people, when seeing others in affliction, ascribe that affliction to the person suffering and something lacking in their lives. We need to be very careful of our judgments less we also be judged.

  11. What is so sad here is that we have to post things anon or under a pen name or obscured with a pseudonym, me included.
    Oh that we could be a Zion Society where the pain one feels is felt by the whole, internalized and experiential effect on the whole…mourn with those that mourn. Life and living would be so different.
    We spend so much time judging others and feigning understanding that why they suffer is because of their sins and depravity compared to ourselves as we look in the mirror.
    I love this article from so many vectors; I’ve had to read it three times to see some of those.
    Kent Gibb —
    Stinging words, not soothing words that your father felt repeatedly. I admire those who keep the faith even through seemingly unfathomable hardship and pain.
    Thank you again for a refreshing look at myself through your perspective….Thank you.

  12. In the New Testament, Saul was struck down by the Lord, and, was left in what could be called a coma. He was healed. Later, as Paul, he was stoned, to the point of death, but, was healed. Yet, later on, he plead for a “Thorn in the flesh” to be removed from him, but, it was not granted. Was Paul not righteous enough for healing that last affliction? I doubt it.

    George Albert Smith & Spencer W. Kimball had a number of physical afflictions, yet,could you blame those on them not being “righteous enough”? No.

    As someone with chronic fatigue & depression, I can feel for you.

  13. Anonymousthistime says:

    I watch this weekly, as my husband struggles to be able to make it through Sacrament Meeting, and is judged by many in his HP group because he cannot stay. I am treated as tho my husband has gone inactive. He has a terminal illness as well, which is affecting his immune system, in a ward with more than a few anti-vaccination families. It is, quite frankly, not safe for him to attend all of church, even if he were physically able, which he is not. They see him go to work, not understanding the sacrifice he is making to provide for those he will leave behind. When he cannot come, those in the YM do not understand why he does not want the Sacrament brought in. We have been blessed with a wonderful bishop & stake president (who know), but my husband prefers to keep the details of his health private, as far as the rest of the ward is concerned. It is hard to have to be anonymous this time, but he has the right to have his wishes concerning his privacy respected. On bad days, I remind myself that those who are judgemental will feel like jerks when all is known, but it doesn’t make “now” any easier.

  14. This is an important message. What Elder Hallstrom said is what others leaders have taught in other General Conferences.

    I read about a man who had Cystic Fibrosis. It is a terrible disease. He learned in a vision that in the Spirit World he volunteered to have this disease in mortality to accomplish something he desired. After learning this, he said that his perspective changed and he now saw his disease differently. He now knew there was a purpose for his disease.

  15. I’m glad the man had a vision that helped him, but that kind of thing tends to be used as a platitude, cold comfort to those afflicted. “You volunteered for this”, “it’s all part of God’s plan”, “you’ll grow stronger because of this”, etc., is too often used to dismiss the real need that exists.

  16. Kevin Anderson says:

    This is from a journal entry I wrote some years after my son’s death:

    My adventure began with a phone call on a January night in 2007. The caller ID said “Utah Valley Hospital.” I quickly made the connection to my son at BYU. The person on the phone said
    Ivan had collapsed after playing basketball with friends and that his heart had stopped.

    At that moment, I knew with a cold but certain assurance that Ivan was gone. Since that time I
    have contemplated how I could have discerned this fact with such confidence. It was not the warm, peaceful feeling of the Spirit, but it seemed more a recollection of a prior memory
    that had been planted in my subconscious all my life and suddenly remembered. While the thought of Ivan’s death filled me with dread, it came with a familiarity that left me somewhat calm and unsurprised. While every parent’s worst nightmare became our reality, there was also an evolving, quiet confidence that this event was planned and consistent with the always-intended outcome for Ivan’s life.

    After the phone call, I gathered Suzanne and Jenna in the living room and we kneeled to pray.
    I wanted to desperately exercise my Priesthood power for the benefit of my son and implore God to grant the worthy desire of my heart – to spare the life of my child. As I cleared my mind to pray, the whispered voice of familiarity came again, and the only words that formed with an unambiguous clarity were, “Thy will be done – help us to accept thy will.”

    When a loved one is miraculously healed or protected from harm or death, we praise God for his tender mercies. This is as it should be, but while not the intended consequence, the counterpoint to these sentiments suggests that when bad things happen, God must love us less.

    I want to affirm that the miracles and blessings we have experienced since that difficult night – and continuing through today – evidence as much the mercy and love of God as if my son had been fully restored to health. Whether it be in prosperity surrounded by loving family, or in misfortune and personal loss, the love of God can be manifest and his tender mercies experienced.

  17. Kevin-thank you so much for being willing to share your experience, today, here, and now.

  18. My sister has a terrible degenerative disease and is in a lot of pain most of the time, but since she LOOKS healthy, most people have no idea. One of the things that has hurt her the most at church is that even though she can’t attend a lot of meetings or activities, most members of her ward aren’t really interested in learning why. Her pain gets minimized or ignored altogether.

  19. Tendermercies says:

    Kevin- A wonderful insight for all to remember. God’s love,mercy and healing power will always be there no matter the outcome. May I think of your strength when I am not healed the way I want to be healed or on my timing.

  20. Thank you for writing this. This past winter, I’ve been dealing with major depression and suicidal tendencies, coupled with having type 1 diabetes for the past 18 years. There have been many many angry prayers to God asking why. I don’t really believe I ‘signed up for this’ and every time I read a story of healing, I get frustrated and pained all over again.

  21. Chadwick says:

    Thank you for sharing. It’s a great reminder to learn to listen to and love those who suffer in silence. I can do better to learn these stories in my own community.

  22. When I got sick on my mission, my least favorite district leader suggested that maybe I just didn’t have enough faith to be healed. I glared at him and said that maybe I am just appointed unto death. I had already wrestled with God; I knew I wasn’t going to finish my mission. I have no patience with people who think you can just…faith yourself whole.

  23. Mortimer says:

    Amen. Thank you for this post.

    My spouse is in this boat. A few years ago the prosperity doctrine was raging in church. We were constantly preached to that if we were spiritual enough, the temporal would follow. Both sickness and poverty were the result of spiritual deficits. Conversely, leaders (local and GAs) were both healthy and rich for a reason.

    If a ward can’t fix the situation with a week of casseroles or a Saturday moving activity, they aren’t interested. It’s more than not knowing how to help families with chronic conditions, it’s a firm boundary that protects their time and resources. Chronic illnesses push charity to the limit. Using doctrine to point fingers is just an excuse for not wanting to engage long-term.

    I’ve lived with a chronically ill person for nearly 20 years. We went inactive after the first five. I couldn’t hold down a church job and be a care-taker. We were constantly being judged by leaders and members, and there was absolutely no help after the first week. Soon, we were labeled less-active “projects” and nagged by everyone to be more active-more like them. I finally just had to stop the cycle and make a break.

  24. It’s true, there are many kinds of personalities in every ward in the church. Lots of things occur that make our church experience less than perfect. When we get right down to it, thinking it through with the scriptures and talks by GA, we conclude–how could it be otherwise?

    The key is to do our best to accept that church members are not perfect. When we run into their imperfections we might decide in advance how we’re going to respond. The Lord would tell us to forgive, and be patient. That is the message of the scriptures.

  25. An early experience got me thinking along these lines (not to a conclusion, but for a start) —
    Freshman year in college my non-Mormon roommate woke me early one Saturday morning with a pronouncement: ‘Your church president [referring to Spencer W. Kimball] had cancer. He can’t be a prophet. A real prophet wouldn’t ever have cancer.”

  26. I’ve often wondered why there are no accounts in the New Testament or Book of Mormon of Jesus responding to a sick person, “Sorry, but you are just meant to suffer. I won’t heal you.” Why do we tell ourselves these stories, then, about his interactions with us now? Has he changed? Apparently so. I also wonder about those obviously false statements in scripture such as, “Ask, and ye shall receive” or “What man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? . . . If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” Oh, I know all the contorted rationales for explaining these statements away. But so often—most often, in fact—the good gifts I ask God for are routinely denied, most often without any acknowledgement that he even heard the plea. Silence is not an answer. What are we to think when it appears God is just ignoring us?

  27. Amen Ralph.

    “God’s love,mercy and healing power will always be there no matter the outcome.”
    I’m not even sure what this means.

  28. Rexicorn says:

    I think there are a lot of people in the church who are “fixers.” They think it’s their job to make things better. And they use God as a way of maintaining a feeling of control. You put those things together, and you get a lot of rhetoric about how everything can be made better if you just do the right things. It’s frustrating.

    Those people look at a situation that’s unpleasant and never going to change, and they just can’t process it. They feel helpless, and they don’t know how to cope with feeling helpless, so they avoid you instead. It’s cowardly and hurtful, but it’s understandable in its own way too.

    Learning to sit with unpleasantness, accepting it just as it is and never expecting it to change, is both the most difficult and (I think) the most redemptive thing we can do in this life. If you believe in a god who weeps for his children but still allows them agency in a fallen world, then it’s probably the most uniquely godlike thing you can learn to do as well.

  29. Rexicorn says:

    (I say this as if I have it figured out when in fact I have the same conversation with my therapist every week in which she patiently explains mindfulness to me and I say “That’s good but how does it make it *go away*” and she says, “It doesn’t go away because it can’t go away, that’s the whole point” and I stare at her suspiciously before agreeing to try it out. So…)

  30. Mortimer says:

    JK,
    No.

    When people are sick and needing help themselves, you can’t expect them to manage the difficult personalities in wards all alone.

    You joined the enclaves of victim-blamers when you concluded that I and others like me just needed your “righteous” advice. In my post I specifically said that such advice and those assumptions were a significant part of the problem. I don’t need Job’s friends, I need church leaders and members to lay aside the false prosperity doctrine and to show a modicum of empathy for people dealing with horrible health issues. The underlying assumption that abusers (difficult ward personalities) need absolutely no direction, doctrinal corrections, or boundaries while the victims shoulder all responsibility completely alone as they are asked to confirm to whatever formula random members prescribe -is a massive problem. Perhaps it is more of a disease than the many physical ones described here.

  31. Michael D says:

    From the article: [quote] As a born & raised Mormon I was taught that when you’re sick, you ask God to heal you and if you have faith in Christ, you will be healed. This message is repeated so frequently, and with such surety that I was certain that I couldn’t be sick. [/quote]
    I’ve been in the Church 25 years now (I was an adult convert) and I’ve never heard that said once.

  32. Rexicorn says:

    Michael D, you’ve never heard a story in church about someone being healed by faith, or the power of blessings for the sick? Because I hear them all the time. Is it possible you don’t hear the message the same way because you don’t have a chronic or incurable illness?

  33. Thank you, Mandi, for your post. I found much of it familiar from my own experience struggling with chronic, undiagnosed illness, beginning in my youth. For a time, I was so ill I could not attend church at all. Priesthood blessings promised healing, and though it took many years, my health has improved, but not completely.

    For me, “the pain of being in pain at church” is both physical and spiritual. It was only a few years ago that I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Even with medication, there are weeks when the pain and fatigue is so great that attending the entire 3-hour block is impossible. If I arrive too late to get one of the padded folding chairs, I must choose between being distracted by the agony of spending an hour sitting in a metal chair inside the chapel overflow, or sitting in one of the comfortable chairs in the foyer, where people look at me with curiosity and confusion as they shuttle their young children in and out of the chapel.

    I recall bearing my testimony at a young women’s camp fireside when I was 14; I’d been unable to attend church for some time due to my illness, but my family was moving and I desperately wanted to spend one last week with my young women sisters, so I pushed past my symptoms and went to camp. I knew that a lot of my peers thought I’d gone inactive, and I wanted them to know that I remained faithful despite my trials. In my testimony, I talked about my health problems, the priesthood blessings for healing which I had received but which had not yet been fulfilled, and how my faith in Christ helped me to bear this burden. After the meeting ended, the bishop’s wife, who was a camp leader, hugged me, and with tears in her eyes, she told me she knew without a doubt that God wanted me to be able to attend church, and if I would exercise faith and pray to be healed, I would be able to. Her words were a dagger in my heart; the uplift that I had felt a the culmination of that powerful testimony meeting where my peers and I had shared our faith was completely deflated. I didn’t lose faith in the gospel, but I did lose faith in my ward “family.” I believe she meant well, but she did such terrible harm, and she had a sacred duty to avoid such harm to those under her stewardship. I realized that in the eyes of many, as long as I remained sick (which was likely to be my whole life), my faith would be questioned by healthy members, and that I could not always trust my leaders to succor me in my infirmity.

    I loathe the “prosperity gospel” in all its guises. I feel a mixture of grief and anger that its tendrils have worked their way so far into our congregations. It does so much harm. It harms the poor and sick among us who need others to exercise faith to lift us up, rather than expecting us to exercise faith to be lifted up on our own. But it also harms those who go through life comfortably, confidently self-deceived that their prosperity is a sign of their faith and God’s favor, only to be shaken to the core when sore trials come.