A couple of months ago, I twisted my ankle, and it hurt a lot. I knew enough to sit in my reclining chair with my leg elevated, but there was still a lot of pain. I popped an Ibuprofen pill, but that would take a while to kick in. I thought that, in the meantime, I ought to be doing something more pro-active to help calm down the feeling in my ankle. Instinctive memories took me back to how my mother had treated my childhood injuries, so I soaked a cloth under the hot water tap and wrapped it around my ankle. That made it feel better.

It was about then that my new-nurse grandson came in and discovered what I was going through. He questioned me enough to be satisfied that it was probably a sprain, with no indications of broken bones. Then he said, “You know, you should have cold on there, not heat.” He explained that when an injury is recent, much of the pain comes from inflammation, and heat increases the blood flow and actually makes the inflammation and swelling worse. I figured I’d test his medical knowledge and give it a try. I made a simple icepack and used it in place of the warm cloth. It also relieved the pain, though the ice was a little too cold at first. After I adjusted to the shock of the icy contact, however, I had a positive feeling that I was following the best course of action. I think I fell asleep in my chair.

As I reflected on this incident afterward, I realized that I had been faced with a profound choice: Was I looking for relief or healing? I had found that I could get relief from either heat or cold. In fact, if the only issue was immediate relief, I think I preferred the heat, because it wasn’t a shock on contact, and it gave me a feeling of comfort and security (maybe coming from childhood mothering memories). But my greater concern should have been healing, and cold compresses would be a lot more helpful in the long run.

Life brings many kinds of pain: from emotional stress, relationship frictions, job pressures, unfulfilled expectations, health setbacks, etc. We want and need relief. How do we find it? Is our way of finding relief likely to lead to long term healing as well, or is it more likely to make the inflammation worse and result in even more prolonged pain?

Every one of us has developed go-to strategies for relieving life’s pain. Some find relief in reassuring family relationships, others in diversionary hobbies, long runs or other physical exercise. Popular methods of de-stressing include yoga, meditations, biofeedback, acupuncture and aroma therapy. Binge-watching on TV is a common way of reducing the pain level for a lot of modern Americans.

Alcohol brings relief for some people. Over-dependence on this particular “pain pill” can lead to temporary relief, followed by increased pain, followed by another drink, followed by relief, more pain, etc. etc. In the long run, drinking can lead in the opposite direction from healing. Many people have found deliverance from alcohol addiction through the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. In order for AA to be successful, people have to admit that only “a power greater than ourselves” (AA Step 2) can bring them to health. The same is true for the rest of us, as we turn to our favorite way of finding relief from our pain. It’s only when we “turn our will and our lives over to God” (AA Step 3) that we find both relief and healing.

This brings us to prayer. Whatever is your usual way of handling pain and stress, if it isn’t combined with prayer, it’s likely to turn into nothing more than an addictive habit. It may continue to bring relief, but healing can only come when God helps you deal with the deeper spiritual dimensions of your suffering.

I’d like to urge you to treat your heart pains with cool prayer, rather than hot prayer. Hot prayer is anxious, fervent crying out to God, confessing, repenting, beating your chest, “praying through.” This may lead to some sort of temporary relief, the feeling that you’ve somehow risen above your problems to a higher plane. But in my experience, you always come down again, and the pain is still there.

By contrast, cool prayer involves turning from focusing on your suffering-self and remembering who God is, as he invites you to in Psalm 46:10,

“Be still and know that I am God!”

then letting the calm relief flow over you: “He has this; let it go.”

Relief AND healing! That’s cool.

– Pastor George Van Alstine