When we are unexpectedly laid aside
About 10 years ago I concluded a short career as a school teacher and took up a course of theological study. A year into that course, at the age of 31, my health rather inexplicably took a turn for the worse as I developed a raft of rather debilitating and distressing symptoms. I received various diagnoses, tried numerous drugs and supplements, and often felt an affinity with the woman in the gospel that suffered much at the hands of many physicians. Eventually, I found myself in the too hard basket of what my current doctors would call Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The upshot of all this has been that my course of study was cut short and for the past decade I haven’t exactly been a productive member of society.
What I wish to share here is simply a reminder of a few simple truths that have encouraged me and which I hope might be of some help to others who may be walking a long and difficult path.
When you find that you cannot work and you cannot properly look after yourself, it is a wonderful thing to know that you are saved by grace. When a person is too sick to make it regularly to church, it really is good news that they are saved by grace and not by church attendance. The same may be said about daily bible reading. I have a friend who suffered a stroke during an operation and woke up no longer able to read. He is very thankful that he is saved by believing in Christ and not by being literate. What a relief it is to know that Christianity is not, as the sceptic might say, a crutch for the weak but a stretcher for the helpless.
“When a person is too sick to make it regularly to church, it really is good news that they are saved by grace and not by church attendance.”
However, even as I’m comforted by God’s grace, I must confess that I have often struggled to know how God wants me to live before Him in my illness. What does trusting God and following Christ look like when there is very little that you can do by any normal standard?
In Paul’s letter to the Romans there is a simple instruction, “Be patient in affliction”. It’s a command that requires less activity, not more. It’s impossible on the one hand without God’s strength, and yet it’s perfectly suited to the weakest capacities of his suffering children. What a mercy it is that God’s command to us in our weakness is not “pick yourself up and get it together”, but simply “Be patient”.
The book of Job is also very comforting in this regard. God’s test of Job did not require him to achieve or accomplish anything, as his body was wracked with pain after having lost so much, but simply to trust Him still. He is commended not for what he did but for what he didn’t do. “In all this Job did not sin, nor did he curse God.”
James draws on this example and applies it to believers who are suffering by saying: “We count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful.”
Sometimes elderly brothers or sisters with declining health may find themselves wondering why they continue to live. What is the purpose of so many days and months and years of weakness? They might say something like, “I don’t know why I’m still here. God must have more for me to do.” Possibly, He may. But I suspect the crucial thing is not whether we are able to do much more but whether we love Him still.
Thinking about passages of Scripture that speak of patience or waiting on the Lord have been incredibly helpful and comforting as I learn to navigate my limitations. There have however also been portions of Scripture which, if I’m honest, have troubled me.
“What a mercy it is that God’s command to us in our weakness is not “pick yourself up and get it together”, but simply “Be patient”
I remember at a very low point during my illness, when I was worse than I am now, receiving a bunch of beautiful posters from a Christian sister. They contained various Scripture verses which I subsequently put up on the wall of my bedroom. Verses like “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest” were incredibly comforting and they encouraged me to fix my hope on Christ. Another passage that talked about God’s people who “cry to Him day and night” made me feel less alone
in my distress. Others had also cried out to God in distress and were known and heard by Him.
There was, however, one quotation among them that initially stung. It was a poster with the words, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” How can I do that? I thought. I didn’t feel very thankful at that moment, nor did I find it easy to pray. However, it stayed on my wall and as I looked at it again and again over the following months and years, I began to see what a kind and gentle command this actually is.
As hard as this seemed, I had a better chance at that particular time of becoming more thankful and knowing more joy in the Lord, despite my circumstances, than I had of regaining my health. I had tried so hard to get better (I think I must have seen at least
30 different doctors or health practitioners in the first five or so years of illness, and that doesn’t count all the cyber ones referred by Dr Google!) and yet I failed over and over again. It was so discouraging.
What God asked of me was something much simpler. He wanted me to talk to Him, to find joy in Him and to thank Him. What’s more, such is His understanding of our weakness that He even says that if we are so weak that we can’t pray, we can ask others to pray for us (James 5). And if we don’t know how to pray as we ought, His Spirit will intercede for us (Romans 8).
I still have much to learn about rejoicing, praying and giving thanks. I still need His grace to cover me for my failures here. But I’m also thankful that the work He gives me to do which really matters doesn’t require a particularly healthy body. The point of all this is simply to say that not only is God’s grace a great comfort but also to say that “His commands are not burdensome”. “His yoke is easy and His burden is light.”
“What God asked of me was something much simpler. He wanted me to talk to Him, to find joy in Him and to thank Him.”
Finally, I also want to note just how tempting it can be to use suffering as an excuse for disobedience. The main reason “in everything give thanks” was (and sometimes still is) so troubling is not ultimately because of my circumstances but because of my sinful heart.
The late John Kinnaird, who suffered from a severe form of cerebral palsy, was often told by people that there must be a special place in heaven for him to make up for all he suffered here. His reply was that he didn’t believe in salvation by wheelchairs. Our greatest need when we are sick is ultimately the same as when we aren’t. We need His grace; grace to be saved, grace to endure and grace to die to sin and live to righteousness.
Keith Weeks is a member of the Christian Reformed Churches