God-willing, at the end of this year, we will be relocating to Kenosha, Wisconsin where Jared will be stepping into a pastoral role at the church we were members of during Jared’s days at TEDS.
Since we decided to pursue this position at CrossWay, I’ve prayed fervently and specifically for two things. The first was for a return to the health and energy I enjoyed prior to the last 2+ years. I asked God to do this for me so that I could better fulfill the responsibilities of wife and mom that he has given me, and so that I could energetically serve at our new church. (The other request is the subject for another blog!) In his mercy, God has inclined his ear to me and has changed my health trajectory. I still have some ongoing trouble, but in the last two months I have enjoyed renewed strength, energy and health. Before spiritual myopia sets in, however, and I forget some of the struggles and lessons from the last couple years, I want to record them here. But first–a brief history.
Roughly 2 ½ years ago, I went to bed one night and fell asleep as usual, but within a couple hours I was awake and unable to sleep for the remainder of the night. That was the beginning of this season of ill health and chronic pain. For about six months I would skip two, sometimes three entire nights of sleep each week. And then a host of other problems began to emerge–some chronic, some disappearing and reappearing, some just irksome, others at times completely debilitating. Besides appointments with my general practitioner, I had regular appointments with my ObGyn, my endocrinologist, my rheumatologist, my chiropractor and most recently a kinesiologist. In addition to countless blood tests and imaging, I did a spell of physical therapy, jumped off and on the exercise bandwagon, cut out gluten, took several rounds of drugs and supplements, and finally completed a heavy metal detox. But for over two years I simply did not feel well, endured multiple infections, dealt with chronic pain, and faced debilitating pain (pain that would land me in bed for one whole day) on average once a week. The purpose of this post is not to dwell on my health struggles or to compare my struggles to anyone else’s. All pain is not the same. There are many who are sicker and suffer much more severely than I did, and there are those who live pain free lives. But regardless of where I fall on the chronic pain spectrum, these last few years have been given to me by my heavenly father in order to produce in me a “harvest of righteousness and peace.” (Hebrews 12:10-11)
The thing about chronic pain is that it is ambitious for all of your attention. It disrupts your thoughts and gradually begins to consume you. On my worst days, it was ALL I could think about. Chronic pain is well, chronic–it’s always there, threatening to take center stage, pushing every other thought to the periphery. My kids are fighting somewhere in the background, but I can’t make sense of it. Someone is asking me a question but I can’t discern what they are saying. Somewhere, someone is talking and I should be listening, or there’s a noise demanding my attention (washing machine off balance, city siren wailing) but I can’t perceive what it is. The pain eclipses every other stimulus. And If the pain doesn’t eclipse all other stimuli, it intensifies them–making them unbearable. If my child brushes up against me it feels like he deliberately pushed me and I overreact. My husband’s listening to music at a normal volume feels like he’s intentionally blaring the radio to drive up the chaos level in the house. This is why my favorite thing to do (according to my 7 year old’s answers on one of those mother’s day questionnaires is!) “lie in bed and read.” Reading is quiet comfort, and when pain shrieks at you for your attention, there is nothing more welcome than bed and a book.
If life is a choir with each facet singing its part, then I hear the sopranos leading with this melody: that God has loved this sinner, forgiving my every sin and blasphemy by freely offering up his own son to take my punishment. (Mark 3:28) If I concentrate on the alto, I hear and remember that God has faithfully met my needs these past 34+ years. If I tune my ear to the baritone, I hear the powerful, reinforcing harmony of my adopted brothers testifying to the faithfulness of a God who keeps his promises. And if I incline my ear to the tenor line, I sense the reassurances of the Holy Spirit and hear timeless truths from Scripture that God is good. Other harmonies join the chorus–the dulcet tones of answered prayer and the clear, effortless descant of memorized scripture. There are solo lines too–dear friends and family members calling out for me to carry on, spurring me on to greater love and good works. But pain is the dissenting voice. It sings alone, off key and out of step with the rest of the choir. It’s ugliness clamors for my attention. It’s the strident cry of unbelief, telling me that God is not there. He does not hear. He does not care. He does not answer when I call. He delights in blessing others, but not me. There is no point to this endless pain. It is anything but light and momentary. It tells me I am friendless–that there is no one who fully understands or cares to shoulder this burden with me. And it bellows these thoughts–wildly, loudly–straining to to be heard above the harmonious notes of the choir. And as I concentrate on this dissenting voice, the lovely chorus chiming out the truth begins to fade into the background. And after a time, I no longer hear the choir, but only the dissenting voice. And I too begin to chant its disharmony, giving ear to its false testimony and embracing its lies.
Pain, like any other type of hurt, can easily lead us into temptation. We might be tempted to forget that God is good and that he is working on our behalf. If our thoughts remain unchecked, we are tempted to think that this short life is the end–the only thing that matters–and that a God that doesn’t remove sorrows and hurts in this world cannot be good. Pain does the work of that great deceiver by casting doubt on what God has said, awakening fear in us that God is withholding something good and that the path to true joy is in rebellion toward this unjust God. And as we focus on our trouble, we find little solace in the fact that Jesus walked this road flawlessly before us. We care very little that he also suffered through many temptations before passing through death into the glories of eternal life in heaven. We take no comfort in knowing that Jesus sits at the right hand of God–his suffering over and his work complete–praying earnestly for us. We forget that as he prays, he remembers his earthly hardships and sympathizes with our own, so that he eagerly dispenses grace and mercy as we need it. We forget that that same Jesus is coming back and will take us to be with him. But that dissenter brashly sings on, and its lyrics resonate with something dark and ugly in our own souls, and the battle between spiritual forces rages on.
Through the temptations of the last few years, I’ve learned that there is still much wickedness in my own heart. And it is distressing to see what little provocation it takes to draw out that darkness. I am thankful for this course in self-knowledge however uncomfortable and disheartening it was. It has brought about a renewed joy in my salvation as I cling to God who loved me even in my faithlessness, selfishness, covetousness, self-righteousness, despair, envy and greed. And I humbly bow before him–the one who made me and has washed me clean. And I stand in awe again of this great God who has done this for someone so unworthy.
Another lesson I’ve learned is that my pain is not an isolated trial intended solely for me. It’s teaching my kids something. It’s a trial for my husband. It’s an opportunity for my church family to serve me. It’s a learning environment for anybody who’s watching. My kids need to learn that every family is not the same and to be content with what God has given them. My husband has had to learn to cheerfully work and to carry an unequal load in this marriage while still being called upon to have compassion toward me. My friends might need to recognize that others have troubles too and that though they are busy and facing difficulties of their own, they can reach outward and serve someone else. I can learn to wait patiently through my pain and not to judge other people. I can look around and notice that I am certainly not alone in my trouble, but that others are wrestling through the temptations of chronic pain, sickness, loss, financial disaster, stress, exhaustion, deprivation, relational difficulties, even persecution. I can sympathize with them without comparing their trouble to mine and alternately judging them for their faintness of heart or despairing that I have such little faith. And I can sing out gospel truths to them and to me.
In my weakness, I have seen God strengthen my spirit to resist temptation, to run away from lies, to forgive, to sympathize with people who suffer in different ways, and rather than retreating inward and thinking only of myself, to continue pushing outward–to stay invested in the lives and troubles of others. I have also seen God graciously remove temptations for small periods of time in a pain-free day here and there. And I’ve learned to rejoice in those without fearing what tomorrow might bring. Those days are like the first spring day of the year when you step outside and are surprised to feel the sun warming you, and your body–reflexively tensed against the expected cold–gradually begins to un-stiffen and uncurl from its defensive posture. Those spring moments happen during trials, and they are good gifts from a God who does not forget, from a God who keeps count of our tossings and stores our tears in a bottle. (Psalm 56:8)
I’ve learned that God delights in caring for our needs. He took care of the blight of sin in our souls. And if sacrificing his son wasn’t enough, he promises to care for our basic needs.(Luke 12:27-31). He promises to liberally dispense wisdom when we ask. (James 1:5) He begs us to call out for his help and then freely extends mercy and grace in our need. (Hebrews 4:16) He has given us the fellowship of other Christians, the faithful preaching of pastors, and his written words which he has promised to preserve. He pours out blessings like rain and even when temptation cages us in, he directs our attention toward a previously unnoticed escape hatch. (I Corinthians 10:13) He calls us to live faithfully in our various roles and then gives us the strength to do so. (I Thessalonians 5:24) In my sickest moments, I would beg God for the strength to do the next thing. And he would provide–sometimes in the form of help from family or a friend, sometimes in a small burst of energy, sometimes I would muster up resources of energy and determination I didn’t know were there, praying that those watching me would notice that God supplied what I needed to complete the tasks before me. I would pray for renewed physical strength, but for a time God chose to offer more physical weakness instead so that I could be a counter-intuitive display of his power. (II Corinthians 12:9) Through it all though, I could not deny the undercurrent of God’s love–“underneath me, all around me…leading onward”–pushing me toward greater christlikeness, toward more faithfulness, to a greater understanding of the God I serve. One day that love will ultimately usher me into that “glorious rest above.” Pain, suffering–whatever trouble we face in this life doesn’t have to be a temptation to doubt God. We can break free of sin’s deceitfulness and see our pain for what it is: a kind reminder that this world–full of beauty as it can be, yet tainted in every way by sin and its consequences–is not the end, but that another world, greater and eternal, is just ahead us. And in that world we will meet our maker, the one who calls out: “There is no god apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me. Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God.” (Isaiah 45: 21-23) And as one who has turned to this righteous God and has experienced his salvation, I wait expectantly for that permanent world where there is no pain and where God himself “will wipe every tear from [our] eyes.” And where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
So if I wake up tomorrow and all my old trouble returns, or if an un-looked for sorrow surprises me, I pray that I will remember the lessons from these last couple years–that I will check that rising doubt, turn away from that dissenting voice and that “lift[ing] up my feeble hands and strengthen[ing] my weak knees” I will stumble to my feet and–weakly at first–warble along with the choir of God’s people until the truths they proclaim fully disarm me and I too am singing full-voiced of a God who is there, of a God who does love, of a God who saves, of a God who will walk with me through the valleys and the shadows of life until he at last brings me home to him.