Only One Thing is Needed: On Chronic Pain and Work

One of the hardest adjustments for me since chronic pain came to stay has been my inability to work a full-time job. Not being able to work cuts to the core of where I have misplaced my identity. Not being able to work, at times, makes me feel like a failure. More than feeling like a failure, not being able to work makes me sad, depressed, and bored.

The few jobs I managed to work full-time before chronic pain took hold were jobs that I loved. I’m not sure how I managed to get so lucky. I never had to put in my time cleaning bathrooms, waiting tables, or working the cash register. Not that there is anything wrong with these types of jobs, I am simply stating that in the past I was blessed with enjoyable and fulfilling work, doing what I loved.

In college, I worked on a ropes course during the summers and as a resident assistant during the school year. After college, my first full-time job was at another ropes course where I worked as an adventure based counselor for adjudicated youth living at a residential treatment facility. This was my last full-time job before chronic pain took most everything away.

I sometimes think back on those years and wonder what in the world happened. Like, seriously, what. in. the. world. happened?  Now I barely manage to work 5-8 hours a week at a sedentary job. Now I save up all of my energy to make it out of the house for two shortened days of counseling. Now I pine after more work hours and agonize over whether I am healthy enough to add more clients to my schedule. To make things worse, the counseling center I work for is opening up a satellite office closer to my home, and I can’t stop wishing for more days to add to my schedule.

And it makes me angry. Not being able to work is the number one thing that makes me question God’s will for chronic pain to be in my life because I constantly think how much more I would be able to do for people if I weren’t so limited.  This is when all the “why” questions set in. Why, God? Are you sure this isn’t a mistake? Are you sure you didn’t get this one wrong? Think about all the people I could help if it weren’t for this damn pain.

Yeah, apparently I think pretty highly of myself and my ability to help people. It gets pretty bad when I start questioning God and telling him how much I could do for him if he would just take the pain away. I’m just being honest about where my thoughts go. Thankfully, he forgives me.

But lately, these thoughts have made me think about the story of Mary and Martha. I have always been a Martha. I have always been that person who thinks that work and taking care of tasks are the most important things to worry about in life.

The story goes like this.

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me.” 

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”  Luke 10:38-42

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Like Martha, I tend to make work the most important thing. And I have noticed that I am not the only individual with chronic pain or illness who tends towards the Martha personality. Many of us used to be go-getters and workaholics, finding identity in our jobs. We tend to put all of ourselves into our work and our ability to accomplish and complete tasks. Like Martha, we are worried and upset about many things.

It is exhausting being a Martha. When you have chronic pain, it is impossible to sustain being a Martha. Right now I am wishing for my life to be like Martha’s when perhaps something better is available. Perhaps chronic pain can wake us up to that one thing that is needed.

I am wondering what life could be like if I could be more like Mary. I am wondering what might change if I could stop wishing for work. I am wondering what might happen if, instead, I could stop, pause, and sit at the Lord’s feet and simply listen.

Jesus points out something important to Martha. He tells her that Mary has chosen something that cannot be taken away from her. Our work is something that can be taken away from us. When we place all of who we are in our work, it’s no wonder we begin to feel bored, confused, and depressed when chronic pain stops us in our tracks.

What is the work that God has called us to? Yes we are called to serve. Yes we are called to encourage, comfort, help, and be the hands and feet of Jesus to those in need. But the most important thing, our number one work is to believe in the one he has sent (John 6:29). This is our work. This is our job. This thing, this number one task, is something we can do no matter how bad the pain gets, no matter how much may be taken away.

Today I am trying to stop and listen. Today I am trying to let go of my own work agenda and remember it is not the most important thing. Today I am trying to remember and choose that one thing that is needed.

10 Comments

  1. Great post! You have good insights into yourself and where you find your self worth. It’s very hard not to find our self worth in what we do. Aging, chronic pain, have a way of whittling away at all those false idols we hold on to. What can’t be taken away from us is that we are beloved children of God. Still it’s not easy.

    1. I agree, Patricia. I have long realized that I place so much of who I am in my ability to work. It’s no wonder I start to feel so horrible about myself when work is taken away! It is so important to ground ourselves in the right places, but does not seem to come naturally. I agree – not easy.

  2. This is a beautifully written post, and it really describes my own experience living with a chronic illness. I miss working full time so much, and it can be so frustrating to search for value and meaning in your existence when you feel you are not able to reach your potential as a person. I believe that you are so right that a change of perspective is necessary; I just wish it were easier!

    1. I wish it were easier too! Thinking this way does not happen overnight. I really need to sit down and journal through this more for my own purposes. I think that is the only way I move from the “idea” of needing a new perspective to actually making it happen.

    1. This story has been on my mind all this past week. It has been such an important reminder for myself as well, one that I forget and have to bring back to mind over and over.

  3. Thank You for this well written piece. I too, am a Martha. I have learnt in my struggle with chronic pain, that sometimes the Lord allows us to experience such trials, not only to mature us, but to mature those around us Who now need to give up a lot more of their free time to help us achieve the very things that we depend on them for. The basics. I’m so grateful that you have this blog, as it is a very great encouragement to me! Perhaps if you worked full time and had a good health, to have this wonderful blog May not have been possible.

  4. I am happy that I found this website.I so feel like I belong. I use to feel that I was a Martha but now Ive realized I am a Mary..Those of us who suffer on earth..like chronic pain…GOD has great plans for us..We are suffering now but not forever..I finally feel like im at the right place. Thank you

    1. It’s so great to have you around! It is true…for those who know Christ, the suffering will not be forever.

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