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When All Else Fails: God's Grace through Trigeminal Neuralgia

by Mark McGinniss on February 3, 2012 in Articles

Even through the haze of anesthesia, I knew my brain surgery had failed.

In October of 2010, I was diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia (TN), a nerve disorder characterized by episodes of searing pain that affects either side of the face. In my case TN affects the left side. Besides cluster headaches, TN is the most painful condition known to the medical profession. I’m told that even childbirth and kidney stones cause less agony. TN is so excruciating that it has been called the “suicide disease.” Only a handful of procedures manage the condition, albeit temporarily, and only one offers a cure.

My wife, Joy, and I chose the cure: a microvascular decompression (MVD). It is a type of invasive brain surgery. It is the only procedure that offers the chance of a permanent fix, with a 95-percent success rate. My MVD was scheduled for April. A world-renowned neurosurgeon led my operating team, and I was treated at a premier hospital. A company of people from coast to coast prayed fervently for success. I had the best possible prognosis. All the odds favored success.

But afterward as I lay in ICU among the numerous IV’s and beeps of various monitors, I realized I was in the 5 percent. My surgeon suggested a glycerol rhizotomy as an alternative to deal with my TN. A rhizotomy is less invasive, but it provides only temporary relief. The best it could afford (if successful) was a one- to seven-year respite from pain. Though not a permanent fix, it could be repeated as needed. Statistically this medical procedure offered a 90-percent success rate.

Two months later, I underwent a second surgical procedure. And in the recovery room my neurosurgeon met Joy and me. He explained that everything had gone as planned. He was very pleased, and from his perspective the chance of success was high.

But from my perspective, the left side of my face resembled the cheeks of an overstuffed chipmunk. I felt as if a dentist had over-administered Novocain. And even through the facial numbness of the rhizotomy, the pain came roaring back. With tears we realized that we were in the 10 percent.

Another medical failure. Hopes crushed. A certain future with tremendous pain.

When surgery fails, when the prognosis cannot be any worse, when intense pain is the only certainty, how do you face the rest of life? How do you get out of bed day after day when the only thing you are certain of feeling is pain or the dread of more pain?

And these are only the questions that trouble the body. What about the emotions of the soul, the deep disappointment that threatens to turn to despair, the plague of loneliness, the anxiety and fear that the life once enjoyed is over forever?

As I wrestle with these questions and contemplate a life with pain as a constant companion, I am reminded of certain truths that for those who must live with failure, the guarantee of a new order is a sure promise of new life without pain or tears. orient my view of failure. Unfortunately, these thoughts do not eliminate physical pain, but they may encourage the soul.

Failure Does Not Mean That God Does Not Love You

It is easy to imagine in the midst of failure that somehow God has ceased to love. We reason that if God truly loved us, He would grant success. We assume we must read failure as God’s lack of love. Failure, therefore, separates us from God’s love. While we may feel this way, the truth is much different. The apostle Paul anticipates such emotions in the midst of difficulties, and he asks a rhetorical question of the Christians in Rome: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” (Rom 8:35). Paul’s question is meant to elicit an emphatic “No” from his readers. Paul was convinced that nothing—even a surgical failure—could separate a believer from the love of God (Rom 8:38–39).

Failure Does Not Mean That All Hope Is Lost

Bodily failure may lead to despair, and despair breeds hopelessness. Yet in the face of a physical and emotional collapse, Asaph declared, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:26). Whether we’re enduring emotional or physical pain or both, life is not contingent on the strength of the physical body or the emotional self. While “my flesh may fail” with continual pain, and hope for relief may be but a distant dream, there is another present reality: “But God….” In the midst of physical anguish there is always God, whose presence is our strength, even when the body betrays us.

Failure Reminds Us to Look Beyond This Life

With the advances in medical science, we sometimes believe the newest surgical technique or the just released prescription drug will prove successful. Our hope is pinned on statistics that suggest success favors our condition. Yet when we sit on the wrong side of the medical data, we are forced to look elsewhere for hope and relief.

The new heavens and the new earth are not topics that one hears preached about much on any given Sunday. But for those who must live with failure, the guarantee of a new order is a sure promise of a new life, a life without pain or tears. In his vision from God, John writes, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4). While this may sound like pie in the sky or even morbid, it was meant to give comfort to hurting saints and to demonstrate that pain, suffering, and even death are confined to this world and not the next.

Even when medical options are exhausted and days clouded by painful tears, with this divine assurance those who live with failure look forward to the time when the Savior Himself will banish tears, pain, and death itself. In the new heavens and the new earth no one will experience failed surgeries.

Failure Reminds Us That the Outer Person Is Decaying But…

TN has taught me a significant theological truth about myself: I am a frail creature. Intellectually we know humanity is frail, but somehow individually we believe ourselves immune from experiencing the flesh’s weakness and decay. But the reality is we are dust (Gen. 3:14), and grass (Isa. 40:6–8), and our days are like grass (Ps. 103:15).

Yet in our frailty there is another significant theological truth: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). While our physical body may experience failure, our spirit is renewed daily. And our renewed spirit affords us the grace to live with a frail body that is subject to pain.

Continue with double earnestness to serve your Lord when no visible result is before you. Any simpleton can follow the narrow path in the light: faith’s rare wisdom enables us to march on in the dark with infallible accuracy, since she places her hand in that of her great Guide. Between this and heaven there may be rougher weather yet, but it is all provided for by our covenant Head. In nothing let us be turned aside from the path which the divine call has urged us to pursue. —Charles Haddon Spurgeon, from Letters to My Students.

Disappointment, discouragement, and pain accompany the person living with a broken body. There may be an apprehension that the pain may even get worse. But in the midst of brokenness, we can believe there is a God who loves us, who is present with us in our suffering, who is our strength in physical weakness, and who has promised that a day is coming that includes no tears of failure. These are truths that will not fail, even when surgery does.

Dr. Mark McGinniss (MA[BS], 1991) is associate professor of Old Testament at Baptist Bible College and Seminary in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania.

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