My husband’s physical suffering began on his first short-term trip to China in 1996. Kidney stones. At the time we thought it was a one-time thing. Hot climate, weird diet. All he had to do was drink more water and he’d be fine. But then it happened again the week after our honeymoon. And over the past 20 years we have found ourselves routinely visiting ERs around the world: Manila, Hong Kong, Anchorage, Taiwan, Kansas, Chicago, Detroit. When the intense pain of kidney stones hits, everything stops until we can get Jon the help he needs. The last few years have brought about the additional complication of larger stones requiring more invasive procedures as well as infections leaving him in the hospital for longer and longer stays.
Watching someone you love suffer extreme physical agony over and over again is one of the most difficult things in the world. I have lain across hospital beds sobbing and begging God to give him relief that never seems to come soon enough. I have fasted and prayed for healing that has not come. I have watched my precious children wrestle with how God could let their daddy suffer over and over again. Yet each time I would run red lights and pass cars on the shoulder (which is thankfully accepted where I live) for yet another ER run, I would find myself honestly thinking “this could be the last time.”
But the last time has never come. And after so many years of hoping I began experiencing the truth of Proverbs 13:12 “Unrelenting disappointment leaves you heartsick.” The unrelenting disappointment finally caught up to me. Kidney stones had not only produced extreme physical suffering for my husband, but it had also left a pile of disappointment and unmet expectations in its wake for me. Cancelled trips, missed opportunities, changes of plans. Like trying to stand up as the surf comes in, I kept getting knocked down as wave after wave of disappointment crashed over our family. We went through a few years where the intervals of time between those waves grew shorter, each time seemingly without enough time to catch my breath in between.
After so many years of working to respond in faith I was heartsick. God had not answered the way I wanted. My experience of Him no longer matched my idea of the God who “loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life.” This did not feel wonderful anymore.
I didn’t realize I was angry, at least not at first. In between hospital stays, I continued to do Bible study, plan days of solitude and practice spiritual disciplines. But I felt nothing. During this time I began working with a mentor/spiritual director. She patiently listened for several months trying to help me figure out what was happening. Was it a dark night of the soul? Was it a spiritual response to trauma? Was I in a spiritual winter?
Perhaps. It certainly had elements of those things. But one day as we were Skyping, my dear mentor lovingly looked at me and said 2 things. First, she said, “You are angry at God” and second she told me “You are pining away for a reality that does not exist. Let go of your unmet expectations and live in the reality that is today.”
As I let her words sink in I realized she was right. Somewhere along the way I had stopped cooperating with God’s plan of suffering for our lives. Unlike I Peter 4:12 I was surprised over and over again at the trial we were enduring. I was angry with God for not giving me the reality I wanted and often times felt I deserved.
I was in fact doing the exact opposite of James 1.
-I did not consider it joy when these trials would come. I considered it a hassle, an interruption and unnecessary. I had started to believe that I knew better than God what things needed to be in my life (good, happy things) and what things needed to be removed (suffering, sad things).
-I did not let endurance have its perfect work. I was just gutting it out.
-I stopped asking God for wisdom. I only asked Him to make it stop.
-I stopped praying in faith and waffled in doubt. I wanted to keep my options open between submitting to this plan of suffering and hewing my own cisterns.
By doing the exact opposite of these verses, I had allowed myself to believe the lie that God owed me a better life because I was being obedient to him. I began to see that my problem was in trying to dictate to God what was the appropriate path for my life.
As this realization set in I began to realize that some of the internal suffering I was experiencing was self -inflicted. I was angry with God for not answering my prayers my way. But I was asking and not receiving because I asked with wrong motives so that I could spend it on my “pleasures,” translated: Jon’s comfort, my convenience, my plan. I knew I had to do the hard work of submitting to God’s plan of physical suffering in order to end some of my own internal anguish. I started the slow process of drawing near to God (James 4:8).
This process has been slow and painful at times. I used to love the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and the security it gave. But after 20 years of watching my husband suffer physically and the fallout that occurs with each painful episode, I have now had to work through how I feel about His sovereign will when it means accepting a life I hadn’t planned for. But I’m slowly learning how asking for God’s wisdom displays trust in His character and motives and helps me resist the temptation to doubt in the midst of suffering. God’s wisdom tells me that some times suffering serves a more eternal purpose than healing. After a season of anger and doubt I am seeing the words of Frank Laubach to be very true: “We have learned that the good days and hours come when we are very close to Christ, and that the poor days come whenever we push Him out of our thoughts.”
As I type this we are preparing for another surgery and hospital stay. Pray with me to let this trial have its perfect work as I seek to make good days out of suffering by drawing near to Christ.
Question to consider: How do you personally “work through how [you] feel about His sovereign will when it means accepting a life [you] hadn’t planned for”?