How Can God Help You Deal With Chronic Pain, Disability, and Illness?/Program 2

By: Joni Eareckson Tada, Dr. Michael Easley; ©2012
Dr. Michael Easley served as president of Moody Bible Institute and was a well-known Bible teacher across the country. Yet painful back injuries forced him to resign, stay at home, and endure risky surgeries that continue to leave him with daily, chronic pain. Why would God allow Michael to face such tragedy? How would he use Michael in this limited physical condition? From high-profile leadership to life-threatening surgery and now back again in service as a pastor, we’ll see the pains and the ways God has used Michael’s struggles to change his life and the lives of others. As we do, we’ll discover God often uses similar problems in our own lives to lead us on unexpected journeys that drive us closer to him.


Today on the John Ankerberg Show, how can you find help from God when you are suffering from chronic pain, or facing a life-ending illness?

Easley: I remember sitting on the sofa talking to Cindy about this, and tears running off my chin uncontrollably with the pain and the distraction of the medications, and going, how do we do this? How do we keep on?

Tada: The apostle Paul was writing to his brothers in Asia, and he inasmuch says, I don’t want you friends to be uninformed about what we endured. We were facing conflicts far beyond our ability. Far beyond, to the point where we even despaired of life. Hello! I get that, because I’m there often.

My guests are: Joni Eareckson Tada, the founder of Joni & Friends, an international ministry for people with disabilities. And Dr. Michael Easley, President Emeritus of Moody Bible Institute and lead pastor at Fellowship Bible Church in Brentwood, Tennessee. We invite you to join us for this special edition of the John Ankerberg Show.



Ankerberg: Welcome to our program. As you heard, we’ve got two great guests with us today. We’ve got Joni Eareckson Tada and we’ve got Dr. Michael Easley. And we’re going to talk with Michael, and the topic is fantastic. Michael’s in chronic pain all the time. So is Joni, and so are a lot of you that are watching. What do you do when all the props are knocked out, and your husband can’t help you, your wife can’t help you, your best friend can’t help you, your doctor can’t help you, your attorneys can’t help you, and your church doesn’t help you, and you and God are all alone? Is that where you’re at right now?
Michael, I want you to tell your story of what’s happened to you in the last few years. I want them also to know, you’re responsible for me being on 1,000 radio stations every day, okay. This is the guy that said, “Ankerberg, you’ve got to go do this.” We wrote a book together, and before I knew it, I was doing this, and God’s taken that thing and it’s going all around the world. This is the guy that’s responsible. But, along the way, stuff’s happened. And I want you to tell what has happened.
Michael Easley: Well, you start out saying “fantastic program” to live in chronic pain. And, you know, I just disagree. That’s wrong. (Laughing) Probably 2001, I started having hip pain. And I played racketball three times a week. I had a weight trainer. I was in great shape for a 40-something. And little by little they discovered I had lower back issues, L-4, 5 S-1, technically. I’ve had two surgeries in that zone and live with the chronic sciatica pain down your legs, referred pain. And then in 2008, Cindy and I did what we call the medical tour. We have friends in high places, and so we were able to go to five leading spine doctors around the US. And they all said at some point I would need a large surgery in the back of my neck, in the cervical region. So that was the good news/bad news. That whole process, living with chronic pain when the drugs and the doctors and everybody’s got an opinion. You know, Cindy’s a remarkable wife, and I know Ken’s a remarkable husband, but there are things that you have to do that are between you and God. And those are lonely places to live in—that level of pain when the narcotics don’t help; the drugs are, you know, I call them diversion therapy; they create new issues for you that might take you off pain, but they really don’t solve anything.
Ankerberg: Yeah. Listen, I remember when you were president of Moody Bible Institute. You are still one of the best conference speakers we’ve got in America. I love hearing you speak, and so do a lot of other people, and you were traveling from corner to corner. I couldn’t keep up with you. You had like 10-15 meetings a day when you were at Moody. And you had all these students at Moody. And then I remember this pain coming in, and you trying to take these pills, and they were not helping you, and you were in straight agony.
Easley: I was down to about 170 pounds. I need to be about 200. I was on so many narcotics, and they were managed, but I couldn’t drive. I had to have someone take me places because the level of medication I was on. And I remember sitting on a sofa, not necessarily in the sequence of time, but talking to Cindy about this, and tears running off my chin uncontrollably with the pain and the distraction of the medications, and going, how do we do this? How do we keep on? And I told her, I said, “You know, I want to jump off a cliff.” Now, I wasn’t suicidal. I wasn’t intending to, but that’s how you feel when you get to there. I don’t want to live with this. Lord, if this is my lot, take me home. And she said something to me; it’s one of those defining moments. She said, “You know,…” I said, “How, how do you do it? How do you press on, Cindy?” And she said, “I look back on our life, and God’s been faithful to this day. Why would He not continue to be faithful?”
Ankerberg: Yeah. I love what you said. And one of the things that struck me is, you said you didn’t tell God, or ask God, why has this happened? You haven’t been concerned about the why, but you have majored on the question of, how in the world do I cope with this thing?
Easley: You walk into a pain doctor’s waiting room and see humanity in different piles and different stages of pain. And I really have not asked God why. I’ve not blamed God. I’ve got some good theological answers that I could, you know, distract myself with. But it’s, okay, Lord, how do I live with this? How do I go on the next day? How do I not bite my kids’ heads off and treat Cindy unfairly and be rude to people I work with and snap at people in meetings? Because when you’re in that level of discomfort, it’s a constant distraction. It’s like a rheostat, you can’t turn it down, and you keep trying some new thing. And it’s a hard place to live, but a lot of people do manage. And so the question is, Lord, I often say, I’m not asking for a miracle; but I’d like to have an immovable faith. You know, Lazarus got a miracle. He was raised from the dead. But he had to die again. I always thought that was sort of a bad deal. So, how do I live between now and that ultimate?
Ankerberg: Yeah. When you came out of your operation, okay, even before you went into the operation, we talked. And I said, okay, if you’re able to walk, if you’re able to get up—and you can talk about what they did to you in a minute here—but the fact is, I said, you’re going to Billy Graham’s Cove and you’re going to speak. And you’re going to probably talk to those people about what God’s showed you out of this. And then you’re going to practice on them; then you’re going to come here. And I’ve listened to those sermons; they were fabulous, okay. And I want you to tie in what you were talking about to those folks with what happened. You said you take, you named all the pills, and I’ll let you name them, because the folks out there, they know about it, okay. When the pills don’t help you at all, okay, you said you turned to Jesus. And I want to know, what does that mean? Where did you get that from? And explain it.
Easley: Yeah, Probably two pivotal passages, and Joni referred to some of these last week. But when the disciples were trying to leave Christ because the sayings were getting too heavy, He turns to the 12 and says, “You don’t want to leave too, do you?” And it’s a great picture of the humanity of Jesus and the reality of the people around Him. And Peter says, “Lord, You alone have words of eternal life. Where else are we going to go?” And so you get to that juncture where when the Opana and the Oxycontin and the Lyrica and the Gabapentin and Celebrex and whatever else they throw at you doesn’t tune it down enough. And the passage in Hebrews has been a rich passage to me about, you know, we have a high priest. And I love what the author of Hebrews says here, is that I’ve got a high priest who understands what I’ve been through.
Ankerberg: Let me read it, and we’ll put it up on the screen for people, and then you can comment whatever you want. Hebrews 4:14: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” [Heb. 4:14-16] Now, take that apart for us.
Easley: Well, for me, John, when I started studying this passage, and memorizing it when I was recovering from the surgeries and the pain, you know, to see that I have a priest, the great high priest. The priest is an intercessor. And in both Old and New Testaments, we have the great high priest. So we have this picture of someone who has passed through the heavens into a heavenly place, Jesus, the Son of God. So the first thing it tells me is I have someone who understands. In fact, the author goes on to say He sympathizes with us. Sympathize there doesn’t mean just to “feel with,” but that He is in that with us; the word sumpathes. We talked about empathy and sympathy, feeling sorry for, feeling with; Christ identifies completely. So I have this advocate, this priest that completely understands chronic pain, depression, discouragement, the wounds of a loved one who’s left someone, losing a child, the greatest grief I think we could face. All the litany of things in life that happens to us, MS, diseases, He understands. There’s not one emotion He does not comprehend. And, for my theological brain, that’s hard to get there, but the more I study this, that’s the type of priest we have. The fact that He understands.
And then it says to “hold fast our confession.” So, to me that says, what do you believe? And when the props are knocked out, do I hold fast to what I have said I believed, no matter what my experience tries to tell me? My experience rarely aligns with my theology. My experience tells me to doubt God, to doubt the church, to doubt God’s people. Why am I in this situation, in the sense that it’s not working? There ought to be a way to control the pain, Lord. I don’t want to be a grump. I don’t want to be unpleasant to be around. But He sympathizes with us. I have a dear friend who is an orthopedic surgeon. I had, the back of my neck, you have seven C [cervical] vertebrae and they have fused C-3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and T-1. They have taken all the discs out. They’ve put rods and pins and bones and plates, and who knows what else back there. And there’s probably a smiley face back there. I don’t know what they put in back there. But,…
Ankerberg: They had to do that to save your life basically.
Easley: Basically I was going to be in a wheelchair. And they said you can either do this operation or be a quadriplegic. And so, given that option, you say, “I’ll try the surgery.” So, with that surgery comes the recovery, which is very elongated. And I talked to all these doctors; they all have an opinion. Surgeons cut for a living. I have one friend in Virginia who does this surgery for a living, and he also has the same problem I have, degenerative disc disease and spinal stenosis. So I call him and I say, “What should I do?” I give him the ABC approach and he says, “Absolutely don’t do that one. This is the one you want to do and why.” And so I said, “Alright, Tom, I’m going to do that because you told me to.” He has the same symptoms I have. He performs these surgeries for a living, and he’s following me very closely to see how I’m doing because he doesn’t want to do the surgery, because of the outcomes, they aren’t a 100%. I trust him more than any doctor, because he knows the surgical aspects; he has the pain himself; and he performs this on people. He can sympathize with me in a way….
Ankerberg: He gets it.
Easley: He gets it. Christ gets it. And there’s not a problem or a pain or a disappointment that we have in life that this high priest doesn’t get. So, draw near to that throne of grace.
Ankerberg: Alright, hold on to that. We’re going to come back. We’re going to take a break, and we’re going to come back and say, yeah, this is great about our high priest. Now, how does that get to you? Okay, how does this work? How has it worked in some of your hairy experiences, okay, where it’s just been you and God alone and a ton of pain? Alright, we’ll talk about that when we come back. Stick with us.


Ankerberg: Alright, we’re back. We’re talking with Joni Eareckson Tada and we’re talking with Dr. Michael Easley. And Michael’s telling us about the pain that he’s living with on a constant basis, and where he turns for help. And you’ve turned to Jesus. And you’re talking about, He’s a great high priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses. Tell us a little bit more.
Easley: You know, to live with chronic pain is,… it’s hard to define. They give you this scale: 10—you know, you’re jumping off a cliff, to 1—you’re fine. And I hover somewhere in the 6, 7, 8 realm. If I can get to 6, I’m praising God and functioning okay. And it’s ambiguous, but you kind of know yourself. I tell people, when you have to stop and go take ibuprofen because your headache’s so bad, just multiply that by about 10 or 12 times, and that’s sort of my index for how I live with it. I grind my teeth. I look older. My kids say, “Dad, you look really old compared to the way you used to look.” “Thanks for that encouragement.” It wears on you over time.
But to know Christ is, He’s deity, He’s incarnate. And the God-man suffered. He was tired. He was hungry. He was crucified. He endured bludgeonings. And to know that that great high priest also endured physical trauma that is beyond our understanding; but a spiritual separation trauma that even defies theological understanding. So when we think about having this high priest, I envision—sanctified imagination—Christ on my behalf, on Joni’s behalf, on your behalf, interceding before His Father by name for us. And only the incarnate man can understand. That sumpatheo, that sympathizing. He knows our weaknesses.
So if it’s MS, if it’s trigeminal neuralgia, if it’s a liver disorder, if it’s dementia, if it’s Alzheimer’s, if it’s chronic pain, He knows. He knows all about it. And to reframe our picture of this Christ, not as some deity in heaven sitting on a throne, but as the God-man—fully God, fully man—interceding on my behalf before His Father. And to know that His Spirit somehow indwells me. I don’t understand all that, but He indwells in me. And then I have, as a son of God, as a child of the King, a connection through Him, through His Spirit, to Christ, through His fellowship of suffering, to the Father. I get right to the throne room.
Ankerberg: Let me use an illustration. I was reading the commentators. You’ve got me looking at this thing, and one of the commentators said, “Picture two pianos in perfect tune. If you hit one note on one piano, that same note on the other piano will start to resonate. Jesus is the perfect man. He understands. He’s got the feelings. And when we feel pain, He resonates with our pain. He resonates with what we’re feeling. Keep on going.
Easley: “No temptation overcomes you but such as is common to man.” And we could go all through the Psalms, the Messianic Psalms, where He’s crying for help at Gethsemane, where He’s crying for help on the cross—“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” And I think we over-spiritualize it, in a sense; or over theologicalize it, and we make Christ out to be you know, Iron Man, Superman. He’s fully God, fully man. We’ll never figure that out. But the fully man aspect, He had to be human to experience that, to pay for our sin. To be able to die, He’s got to be fully man. And He’s got to be fully God to be resurrected from that, for life. So, to reframe our view of Christ, and to know how He lives in us, and I don’t understand all that, John, but somehow there’s a connection there. When I’m at my worst, I’ve got three things in a dark tunnel. I’ve got me, God and pain.
Ankerberg: Alright, now the question is: He tells you to do something about it. And you say, when the pills don’t work and none of the drugs even touch you, you run to this spot. Why?
Easley: I have nowhere else to go. I have nowhere else to go. I’m going to draw near to Him. What good is it going to be to take more medications, which may or may not help you? If they do, fine, but they don’t me. And to become clinically depressed, to become discouraged; you alone have words of life. So I’m drawn to this high priest. And in that drawing, I receive two things, the author of Hebrews says: I receive mercy and grace in time of need.
Ankerberg: Yes, he says approach the throne of grace, and do it with confidence, Michael.
Easley: Yes, yes.
Ankerberg: So that you can receive these two things. What are those two things?
Easley: Well, grace, I like to define as a little differently than you often hear it. I say it’s undeserved favor in the face of deserved wrath. Because grace isn’t just this kind thing God gave us. We all deserve wrath. We’re on a freight train going to hell with no hand brake, no conductor; and there’s no one to stop it. Grace is undeserved favor in the face of deserved wrath. Mercy is withheld or suspended justice. So, if my almost 18 year old boy wants to drive a car and he’s got bad grades, bad attitude; he’s in trouble; if I gave him a brand new car, a set of keys and a credit card, that’d be grace. (Laughing.) But if I give him mercy, and I say, you know what, your grades aren’t what they should be. I want you to do this, this, this; I’m going to be merciful. You can use the car for X. So grace is undeserved favor in the face of deserved wrath. And we have that positionally. Mercy is when He suspends judgment, or He suspends consequences. If He was not merciful, we’d all be toast all the time.
Ankerberg: Because we sin every day.
Easley: Every day, all the time. And if you don’t think you’re sinning every day, all the time, you’re in worst jeopardy…
Ankerberg: Yeah.
Easley: …because actions, thoughts, glances, lusts, avarice, greed, all the things we wrestle with on a daily basis. So mercy is suspended judgment, suspended justice; and that’s, of course, dealt with on the cross. So, to understand those two and to know when I’m on the cusp of jumping off the cliff, metaphorically, I’ve got one place to turn. I can go isolation or I can say, “Lord, I need to approach You with confidence, because my experience tells me otherwise. But I’m going to approach You.” Why does the author say, “Come to Him. Hold fast your confession.” Tendency: “God, You’re not playing fair; You’re not answering my why. You’re not coming through for me. Those other people are being blessed. You’re not blessing me.” That’s a spiral that leads nowhere. That’s why I do not ask Him why. I just ask Him how. Give me the faith, the temerity, the grace, the tenacity to get out of bed, to start functioning, and to trust You by faith.
Ankerberg: You’ve got a great illustration of a friend who was nailed down in an MRI because of a disease that he had, and he had this “just in time” grace. Tell me about that.
Easley: Buddy had brain cancer, glioblastomas, astrocytomas, in your brain. Maybe you get a year to live, maybe a little more.
Ankerberg: Yeah, he had a G-4, so he was in a tough spot.
Easley: G-4; gammanized radiation. They make a mask for you and you’re bolted to a table. And he had this brain cancer toolkit. It was a section of Scriptures he memorized and he would recite. And they put him in this chamber and they bolted his head to the table. He can’t move. And he said, “Michael, my nose was itching like I can’t describe, and I’m going to be in this tube for half an hour.” And he said, “I can’t get out of it. I can’t reach up and do anything about it. I can’t stop the procedure.” And he says, “I’m praying like a madman, ‘Lord, I need grace right now, just in time grace.’” And he goes, “I’m not an experiential theologian, but my nose stopped itching.”
And I’m sure Joni and we could both share stories of how you get to that edge where you just don’t think you can last any more, and something comes along, something happens. Maybe it’s a verse, maybe it’s just a thought; maybe… It stops! But you get to that cusp and I think “no temptation shall overcome us but such as is common to man.” But, you know, sometimes He may not come when we want Him, but He’ll be there right on time. And that’s what it means to have an immovable faith. My experience is going to tell me otherwise about my God. And when I’m in pain and I’m discouraged and depressed and I’m tired of it, I just, I come back here. I draw near, hold fast to what I believe, confidently go to Him. Lord, I need a break. I need a break.
Ankerberg: Yeah. Five years ago, I went in for open heart surgery. I was supposed to go to a conference. One of my best friends, who’s an emergency doctor said, hey, I think you’ve had a heart attack and you’ve got a bunch of things blocked. Found out I had to have the surgery, had 10 bypasses, 10. You’ve only got five major arteries, so…,
Easley: Most people have five; you have to go over the top at 10.
Ankerberg: Yeah, that’s right. The day before I went in, I told the Lord, “I can’t handle this. I don’t have the emotional strength. I don’t have the physical strength.” I mean, this is too quick. It’s all [snap] like this. I don’t know what to do. I said, “Unless You show up tomorrow and help me Lord, I’m toast.” Could have died. Next morning, I got up, it was like liquid peace. I mean, it was like going out to lunch with your best friend and having a good time. Joking around with the doctors. I’ll never forget that, Michael. He was there when I desperately, desperately needed Him, and nobody else. All the props were knocked out.
Alright, next week, we’re going to continue talking about this and Joni and Michael are going to tag team on this one here, and we’re going to talk about depression and discouragement, along with this chronic pain. Because when you have the disease and you’ve got this constant pain, boy, it’s easy to get discouraged and it’s easy to be depressed. And you both have been there. And a lot of our folks that are watching are there right now, okay. Folks, join us next week, and we’re going to talk about these topics.

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