In April 2016 Mike Flinchum found himself sitting in Baltimore, 3,000 miles away from his home and the church community he loved. He had traveled to John Hopkins Hospital in desperate hope that a doctor there could discover the cause of the agonizing pain that felt like “hot lead” stabbing his right foot.
He had originally noticed discomfort in his foot in September 2015 after coming home from an evening walk with his wife Marcia. He had felt similar pain in his left foot before as a result of plantar fasciitis, and assumed the same thing was happening in his right foot. Two weeks went by and his foot was still very sore, so he went to a podiatrist who recommended new shoes. That didn’t work, so he went to another podiatrist who taped up his leg in an effort to heal it, but after only a few hours, Mike was back in the doctor’s office with even more pain.
For the next three months, he tried boots, orthotics, shoes, and tape. He kept searching for new solutions and new doctors, but it seemed like everyday the pain grew worse. He got an MRI that was inconclusive and was even given a bottle of opioids to numb the pain, but Mike was still hopeful that he could find a permanent solution and decided not to take the pills.
In December, he visited another doctor who decided to treat the pain by killing the nerve in his foot through radio frequency therapy, but the procedure didn’t fix the problem. It made it far worse and again his pain levels shot up to unbearable levels.
Finally, in February 2016 he gave in and decided it was time to take the opioids and powerful sedatives. He disciplined himself and would only take them at night. Because of this, he experienced pain throughout his entire day, “My brain was absolutely full,” he said. The only thing his mind would allow him to focus on was his agony, and the only relief he got was at night when he took the painkillers. “I hated going to sleep and knowing that I would wake up in sixteen hours and have no reason to exist.” The feeling of hot lead in his foot had become the new normal.
As a church planting missionary, Mike has experienced the existence of pain and suffering throughout the world. From Argentina to Brazil to Calcutta, he’s walked with people in poverty and through awful tragedy. He’s seen heartbreak in the people he served and “suffered with them.” In the midst of it all, he came to the realization that a “healing, saving, reconciling God allows good people to die in pain.” Although Mike knew God was with him in his own experience, he had given up hope that he would ever return to a normal life.
It was at this same time that a woman recommended that Mike and Marcia visit another doctor in Newport Beach. He wasn’t hopeful. How could this doctor actually help him after so many others had failed? To protect himself, he put up a “shield of cynicism,” but his wife Marcia made an appointment anyway. They went in, and after the doctor examined Mike’s foot he said, “I know what you have and why no one can find it. You’re not crazy, but you have to go to Baltimore.”
Mike told me, “I shut down. I couldn’t even go to church because of this, and I was expected to fly to the east coast?” Traveling wasn’t easy, but he arrived at John Hopkins Hospital and met the doctor who was supposed to help him. After taking a look at his foot, the doctor told Mike he had a rare form of nerve damage called Tarsal Tunnel Syndrome, and the radio therapy he had been through had damaged other nerves. “This was a doctor who listened,” Mike said. “A doctor who picked me up in his own car when mine wouldn’t start.” And so his walls of cynicism began to fall and he felt himself hoping again that he could be healed. Finally, there was a doctor who could empathize with his pain and knew how to address the problem, after a year of no one being able to.
In the months following that appointment, Mike underwent surgery and then traveled back to California to see a physical therapist who had experienced the same nerve damage, gone through the same surgery, and same recovery process as him. Slowly, Mike regained strength in his atrophied leg muscles and the pain gradually went down from a ten to a three. At first, he could only move his foot towards him and away from him four times, then he progressed to taking four steps, then walking for 5 minutes, for 40 minutes, and then without any assistance. His outlook improved as well, and he kept thanking the physical therapist and sharing his relief with the staff saying that he was thankful God was able to work through them to heal him.
As Mike looked back, he could help but ask God, “Why couldn’t that last doctor have been the first doctor?” After some reflection, he realized, “you only learn in suffering what you can never learn in healing.” Pain is a place few Christians want to visit. “Suffering is common and normal, but we don’t want to get close to it,” he said. Mike shared that when people in the church are walking through serious pain like terminal cancer, clinical depression, or the loss of a child, they are on a completely different planet from the people they sit next to at church, and it’s easy to feel alone in the midst of that.
So many people are suffering in our church. To be models of sympathy and comfort, we need to be willing to sit in pain for however long it takes. The comfort we offer could be something as simple as listening and making ourselves available for people to fully voice what they’re feeling. But most of all, in response to pain, let’s remind each other that Christ understands our suffering and he promises to redeem our pain, “My story isn’t about how great Christians are in hard times, but the greatness of God to hold onto you no matter how dark it gets.”
Written by: Robert Heckert