I have struggled with poor health for all of my adult life. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Currently, it’s shingles. For the second time in just under a year. (What is it about October?)
I’m better off than many. The frequent illnesses I have are not life-threatening. They have not permanently disabled me. They’ve just consistently affected my energy, my quality of life, and my family’s lives. They’ve imposed on me physical limitations that are frustrating, to say the least. Not to mention, it constantly challenges my faith.
You see, I stake my life on this man named Jesus, who was also God in human form. Besides teaching about the kingdom of God and shaking up the religious establishment folk, Jesus also healed people. He physically touched them. He brought restoration and healing and redemption and forgiveness of sins. After his touch, they were never the same. The disabled stood up and walked; the blind looked around and could see; even the dead came alive again. They could hardly keep quiet, afterwards, about what Jesus’ touch had meant to them. And then came the day where Jesus himself was killed and placed in a tomb, and for three dark days it appeared there was a limit to his power. That perhaps he could heal and raise anyone but himself. But then Sunday came and mourning turned to celebration and the ultimate restoration took place and the ultimate redemption was completed.
I believe in that Jesus and I love him. More than life itself. He’s proven himself to me over and over again through the years. He loves me – he’s crazy about me! His Word tells me so. He’s powerful enough to say the word, or even just think the thought, and I could be permanently healed this instant. Yet, he hasn’t chosen to do that. Not yet, anyway. And this is where I live. I hang out in this tension between “he can, perhaps he will, I’m trusting that he will, but he hasn’t…yet”.
“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1) I’m confident in Jesus’ great love for me. I’m confident in his healing power. I have complete assurance that I will spend eternity with Him and there, I will be whole and healthy and no longer encumbered by this body that frustrates me so. I’ve got one foot planted firm on the hope of heaven and the other foot reluctantly placed in the reality of my circumstances.
I’ve asked the Lord for healing many times. I’ve claimed His healing victoriously in advance. I try to do my part, too. I watch my diet. I avoid the many foods I’m allergic to. I’ve sought naturopathic help as well as traditional medicine. I do vitamin B12 injections and take probiotics and drink lots of water. I try to sleep and rest and curb my social activities and boost my immune system. Nothing seems to work for more than weeks at a time.
I live this reality on my son’s behalf, too, with his Cerebral Palsy and Autism and many developmental delays. I’ve seen the Lord heal him: over time, he learned to walk, though the doctors never thought he would! He’s able to do things now, physically, that I wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to do. I guess I’m greedy, though, because I want more. He’s eight years old and doesn’t speak yet. I want him to speak. I want it more than almost anything. I BELIEVE he will speak; but I really identify with the father in Mark 9 who brought his demon-possessed son to Jesus who, when challenged by Jesus on his faith, exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
I feel like this statement could be one of my life mottos. “I believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” It’s a foot in two worlds; an existence in two realities that often seem at odds with one another. Hope and despair; belief and unbelief; peace and anxiety; courage and fear. This is where I live.
I’m going to have so many questions when I finally plant both feet on Heaven’s ground. Why, God, did you give me a disabled son who would rock me to my very core? Why did you give him a mama who is so physically weak? Why do you allow the hard things in this world that you allow?
There have been times lately I’ve felt some kinship with Job, the famous sufferer of the Old Testament. He had some questions for God, too. As readers, we have the advantage of a “glimpse behind the curtain” and we get to listen in on an exchange between God and Satan that sets off a chain of events that would make anybody question God. But Job didn’t have the luxury of sitting in on that conversation. He just knew that he was being made to suffer more than just about any other human that he knew. Let’s listen in on this conversation in Job, Chapter 1:
8 Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”
9 “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. 10 “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. 11 But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
12 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”
Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
So it’s a moment where God is almost showing off. “Hey, check out my man Job! There’s nobody on earth like him! He loves me so much and he always does the right thing! Take that, Satan!”
Satan whines and says, “Yeah, well, he has an unfair advantage because you’re protecting him and everything. Totally not fair.”
And God says, “Fine. You can do your worst to everything he has. Don’t touch a hair on his head, though.”
And Satan proceeds to take everything away from this man and make his life a living hell.
What I find strangely comforting about this story is that there was more going on behind the scenes than Job was aware of. Not only that, but though his suffering originated with Satan, it was allowed by God. The things that touched Job’s life were not God’s choice, per se, but God was aware of it and allowed it. Nothing touched Job without God’s permission. This is easier for some of us to swallow in some seasons than others. There have been countless unspeakable tragedies throughout the history of man, and it almost explodes my little pea-brain when I think about how those terrible things had to get past God first.
I wouldn’t begin to pretend that I could theologically and satisfactorily explain the goodness of God in a world of suffering. Entire books have been devoted to this weighty topic and there’s still an element of mystery to it, because we will never understand the mind of God. But what I can say is that it has been strangely comforting to me personally to know that God is aware of my suffering, he sees it, and he has even allowed it for reasons beyond my understanding. Not only that, but he is somehow going to use it for my good. He is forming ashes into beauty as we speak.
28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. – Romans 8:28
11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. – Jeremiah 29:11
Not only will my suffering be used for my good, which is ultimately comforting, but it will also be used for his glory. One of my favorite stories in the Gospels is in John 9, when Jesus and his disciples encountered a man who had been born blind.
1As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. – John 9:1-3
This passage is comforting to me for two reasons. One, I often struggle with feelings of shame when I first get sick. I feel that it is somehow my fault. That it could have or should have been avoided somehow. Though there are many different contributing factors to illness in different individuals, this shows me that sin is more often NOT to blame. I was able to identify my feelings of shame in the first few days of this sickness as not being true conviction from the Holy Spirit, but rather the attempts of the enemy to kick me while I’m down and send me into a spiral of despair and self-loathing. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that over the years, God is teaching me to identify the voice of Truth and the lies of the enemy much more quickly and accurately so that I don’t have to dwell in a pit.
The second reason this passage is comforting is because it speaks of a larger purpose for my pain – God’s glory as shown in my life. Once again, it’s an opportunity for God to show off. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t fully understand it, except to say that when I am suffering, I’m identifying with Christ in some small way, and therefore growing in intimacy with him and becoming more like Him.
In my teens and early twenties, when I was young and full of un-tested faith, my favorite passage of Scripture was Philippians 3:7-11:
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Looking back over my life thus far, I have to chuckle a bit that I claimed I wanted to know Christ and “share in his sufferings” (verse 10). Oh, I really DID want to know Christ. But I didn’t want to suffer in order to accomplish the knowing! We often think we want to be that strong woman who exhibits great strength, perseverance, and grit in the face of any obstacle; like some kind of movie heroine, shown in slow motion, with hair blowing in the wind, silhouetted in front of a sunset at the conclusion of the film. Oh, we want the strength; we want the perseverance; we just don’t want to earn it. But that’s the only way it comes: through the extreme stretching of our faith by trials, pain, and suffering. By putting one foot in front of the other, taking it one day – sometimes even one hour – at a time. By doing the hard work of rest, not succumbing to despair or self-pity, and keeping our eyes fixed on His face, and the promises in his Word, and the hope we have in Him.
Somehow in the heavy-laden storm clouds that are the ugliness of suffering and the striving for hope through the pain, grace breaks though like a sunburst on a rain-soaked landscape. Grace is the gift that weaves its magic like a rainbow throughout the atmosphere. When I recognize my need for hope, He gives it. When my faith is faltering and I cry out in honest heartbreak, he meets me there. His grace is lavish enough to supply strength whenever I ask for it. He teaches me how to have grace for myself by demonstrating over and over again the unlimited grace he has for me.
The “hard work of rest” is both extremely difficult and surprisingly simple:
- I choose not to worry about tomorrow. It’s easy for me to begin to feel anxious and wonder, am I ever going to get better? I’ve learned I have to take things one hour at a time. This doesn’t come naturally or easily for me; that’s why I have to constantly have to make the choice.
- I choose not to wallow in self-pity. This is difficult when other people are feeling sympathy and pity for you. Why not join the club? But it’s a temptation to subtly shift my focus from my Healer to myself. One of those is a far better god than the other. (Hint: it’s not me.)
- I choose to turn my gaze to Him every day. In a world of easy entertainment options, spending devotional time can seem like hard work, especially when I don’t feel good. That is – until I get started. Then I realize how life-giving time in the Word and in prayer is. I’m pretty flexible what that looks like from day to day, however. When I’m sick, I spend a lot more time just lying there listening to worship music, often with tears streaming down my face. This works. This is intimacy with God. He’s meeting me there, and my spirit is communing with His Spirit in mysterious and meaningful ways.
- I choose to have grace for myself. I am definitely better at this sometimes than others. I worry about letting people down or not contributing at home or work as much as I want to. But then I remember that God loves me no matter what I do or don’t do. His love for me is an act of radical grace that I couldn’t possibly earn. It would be terribly presumptuous of me (not to mention sinful) to accept God’s grace but then refuse to extend it to others – even including myself.
- I choose to trust Him. I make the choice to believe, each and every day, that He’s doing something in me that has eternal value. I choose to believe that He has not forgotten me and He is in fact very close to me. I choose to believe that He is good and His promises are true and that He is who He says He is. I cling to the Psalms like they’re a life-preserver.
19 Your righteousness, God, reaches to the heavens,
you who have done great things.
Who is like you, God?
20 Though you have made me see troubles,
many and bitter,
you will restore my life again;
from the depths of the earth
you will again bring me up.
21 You will increase my honor
and comfort me once more.
Yes, rest can be hard work. But it doesn’t have to be. Jesus invites us in Matthew 11:28 to come to Him, and He will give us rest.
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” – Matthew 11:28-30 (The Message)
So perhaps my focus needs to shift slightly from “the hard work of rest” to “unforced rhythms of grace”. Yes. That sounds about right.
In every way, yes.