I had once read an opinion piece from the NYTimes: a personal account in a German hospital that was more or less a commentary on America’s overuse of painkillers — and even more profoundly on the function of pain. She was preparing for a hysterectomy and was asking (or pleading) her physicians for any prescription of painkillers. Beyond the ibuprofen, of which she complained was for headaches and not organ removals, she was prescribed rest, tea, and drinking coffee slowly. The philosophy was to tune in to the discomfort, since they are important cues from the body to rest and recover.
The most difficult part of her recovery process wasn’t the pain. It was the boredom, the deep desire for distractions, and the dread of sitting in pain for the long stretches of time. Taking painkillers would have allowed her to seek distractions, unhindered by the pain of movement and action.
This same attitude permeates my practice of fasting and self-denial. I am counting down the time until it is over (someone once told me that the passage of time is more bearable when counting down rather than up). As an avid planner, I pack my days with activity after activity to avoid boredom and indulge in distractions. I find myself grateful for the days when I have work, because in my busyness I fail to notice the discomfort of my hunger.
The hardest days are always when I sit still.
With a fasting period as long as Lent (and especially as we near the middle of it), it is important for me to have those reminders to tune in to my discomfort, not seek painkillers to mitigate it. I need those reminders not to just “get by” nor desperately strive to make things easier. I am reminded to rest.
I identify with the NYTimes author when she writes, “I know how to sleep but resting is an in-between space I do not inhabit.” When I fast, there’s an in-between space I traverse that feels adversely foreign. As pain is the body’s mark of vulnerability and weakness (and thus, a physical cue to rest and heal), discomfort in my fasting is a mark of my own helplessness (oh, the many many things I unfortunately depend on). It’s a space I am programmed to avoid using education, work, and sometimes even faith to build my competency so I’d never need to ask for help. For me to fast without distraction and to sit and dwell in my discomfort is to learn helplessness. It is my spiritual cue to turn to God in admission that I need His help — my cue to find rest.
As we’re seeing hints in our study of Ruth in community groups, our ultimate rest is found with our Jesus, our Redeemer, and discomfort in fasting serves to remind us of this. It drives us towards this truth. We, as Christ’s church and redeemed bride, can find our rest because he redeemed us in our helplessness through the cross. The LORD indeed has granted that we find rest, and it is well with us.