In keeping with my Monday post, I’m writing the bones, the nitty-gritty of where my real life meets my faith. I write to give hope to those in pain, whether physical or emotional.
Over the course of twenty-five years, quietly and insidiously, I developed several autoimmune diseases. My body’s increasing attack on itself gradually came together and flattened me in 2012, making me sick, weak, and mostly bedridden.
Though, at that time, none of us knew why I was so incredibly sick, our church elders gathered twice to pray over me. My dear friends and my family prayed fervently. But, the Lord chose not to heal me.
Several years later, my husband’s job caused us to relocate. My pastor and friends at our new church prayed for me at various times. I began to feel relief, enjoying the weekend our daughter bought her wedding dress, as well as the weekend of the bridal shower. Then, when I flew in early for the wedding, people I had never even met before prayed over me in the airport. My autoimmune disease then took a miraculous turn. I felt great! The wedding was enjoyed with plenty of energy, gratitude, and thanksgiving.
When I returned, I still felt good. It looked as if I had been healed. Thanks be to God! I welcomed this reprieve. I felt normal. I have no dark and painful memories from any time during the wedding events. It was a gift from God. After returning home, I experienced almost two months of pain-free living.
But then, I noticed my heart. Quietly, in the dark recesses of my emotions, I felt relieved that I was no longer needy. Neediness makes me feel like a burden to those around me. I hate feeling needy. I had once been a strong and independent woman, a workaholic, the one who doesn’t quit until she falls down. And now, the old me was back. It felt normal and right.
And yet, recognition of our constant need for Christ and dependence on him should be the norm for every Christian, not just for those who are sick. None of us can get through any day without sinning in thought, word, or deed. Our gut reactions are typically broken. Our flawed responses and judgments, when we don’t pause to consider our words, fly out of our mouths, damaging others.
We need Christ, and we need others. Pain reminds us of this.
When I first became sick, I had been writing our church’s Bible Study material for about a decade as we worked through the entire New Testament. Over those years, as I dug into Paul’s writings, I discovered that I could relate to his weaknesses of reliance upon his personal strength and credentials. I also knew that I needed to learn his total dependence on Christ, who empowered him to press on in spite of his horrific injuries and his “thorn in the flesh.” My sickness made me more aware of these realities:
“If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more:”
(Here Paul lists his credentials and strengths. Here we list ours.)
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 Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in 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 death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:4b, 7-14 NIV).
When I became sick, I recognized more fully how much I need Christ. When I’m strong, I often don’t. Being strong, healthy, and independent, thus, can be the “garbage” (v.8) that keeps us from relying on Christ and of gaining deeper intimacy with him.
Pain and other hardships can, therefore, be a privilege.
In pain, I came to know him intimately as One who suffered, who endured horrific pain, and who, therefore, could comfort me in my suffering in ways I had never even imagined. He carried me through unbearable moments. He held me together as my body betrayed me. He was as necessary as air.
My sickness allowed me to see my deep need, just as my early period of being a prodigal teenager opened my eyes to why I must have the Lord in my life. Sickness made me daily aware that I needed to press into Christ, rather than going about my own business. He was the goal and the prize.
When I’m well, I tend to give Jesus a morning quiet-time nod. But then, throughout the day, I often don’t recognize my abiding need for him. My heart was and still is prodigal at the hard-knotted core of my sinful self.
“Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7b-10 NIV).
Death and sickness are Satan’s domain, only allowed to touch humanity because of the Fall of humanity. And yet, in our fallen state, the Lord uses sickness, death, and trial to teach us the most beautiful lessons of our lives.
Yet still, in God’s immeasurable kindness, the Lord gave me a reprieve from illness during a time of great joy in our family. Jesus must really love weddings. To heal me for our daughter’s wedding was entirely in keeping with his character, just as it was for him to make gallons upon gallons of fantastic wine at a wedding for his first public miracle. One day we will dine and drink with him at a bridal supper, a time of great joy!
And now, the Lord has allowed this trial to return. My autoimmune diseases have surged active again. God knows what is truly best for me. His grace is perfected in me when I am weak, because I know that I must rely on him. I know how incredibly precious it is to identify with Christ’s suffering, to remember again during my own suffering what he suffered for me and how he did it willingly, to lean on him for each moment of functionality.
I remember this best when I’m in pain or hardship, and so do you. Our default should be to turn to the Lord, and yet, we’re sinners. Our sinful default, instead, is to turn to our own resources. Yet, the Lord Jesus wants us to turn to him, to recognize our need for him. Suffering is allowed in our lives specifically to teach us this, to remind us of our great need for him.
When we know we are weak, we are strong in Christ.
This past week, a Christian writer, K. J. Ramsey, posted this perspective on social media, a view that captures an even more glorious view of pain:
“Last night I cried in the back of our church during the lessons and carols service, where I sat to inconspicuously massage my swollen hands and stretch my screaming spine.
“I cried because I was tasting, as tangible as bread and wine, the reality of the Kingdom of God. God became human, with a body that would ache and break and die, and here in this hurting-like-hell-on-Christmas body, I realize my body is the place Jesus Christ lives, the place heaven meets earth, as it always is, as it forever will be.
“Pain makes Him palpable. If Christmas feels far from what you hoped or wanted I pray your pain would make this palpable: If you know Christ, your body, your life, and your story are the place Christ dwells.”K. J. Ramsey
An awareness that Christ lives in the broken body that we each occupy, a mental image of his presence, not only around us, but dwelling with us inside of our clay-like form, filling us with his Spirit, making us more into his image through any and all means he knows are most effective — this viewpoint is life changing. For this perspective, I yield.
Come, Lord Jesus. Dwell powerfully in me. Let my pain remind me always to turn to you, for this is its purpose, for my good and your glory.
“Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, Lord, take and seal it. Seal it for Thy courts above.”