A God of Suffering? When God Says No...
I can still hear the doctor's words ringing in my ear "I'm sorry, we tried everything we could, but we just couldn't bring him back." Then we were ushered into the emergency room where his cold body lay lifeless on a slab. "Dad? You mean this is the last time I'll ever see you in this life? Yesterday was the last time I would ever get to talk to you?" That morning, he called home three times and the last time he called, he wanted to speak to my sister and I, but we were asleep, so he told my mother not to wake us, and as a result, I never got to say goodbye. Though I got to enjoy him for 23 years of my life, that's the day my father died of a heart attack, and I had to say goodbye. That day, I lost one of the most gentle, loving people I have ever known.
Fast forward one month from that date and I'm in Washington, D.C. going on an interview for admission into medical school and as soon as I get home, the pain of my life (that started when I was 17) takes a hold of my mouth and grips so tightly it doesn't want to let go. Trigeminal neuralgia strikes again...before, it would go away into its usual remission, but this time it seems like it's here to stay and for the next three years, I would lose so much weight, I would be in so much agony and pain that I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, I couldn't smile, and I couldn't talk but I had to work and interact with people sometimes writing notes when it was too painful to speak and surviving on a bottle of Ensure if not three teaspoons of water a day until the pain would subside enough to allow me to remember I was human.
Two years later and I'm in the ER again, this time it's for my mother and she's just suffered a stroke. Thank God she lived to tell about it, but it left her with something that would rear its ugly head a few years later. Today it has taken its full toll. She has dementia and somehow a bodysnatcher has invaded her body. Do you know what it's like to see your loving mother waste away day by day slowly turning back into a little girl that constantly longs to see her mother, and go back "home" and asks you a thousand times in one minute where am I, who are you, and what time do I have to be at school today?
Now we've moved up to the year 2012. I'm at Mt. Vernon enjoying the grounds of George Washington's beautiful home when I get a call that will change our lives forever..."Angie something's wrong with Marcus and the doctor's don't know what it is." I rush back to find out my five year old nephew has just been diagnosed with a very rare form of leukemia and each time we go to visit, the doctor's report doesn't seem so promising and so we see one helpless child after another in his ward going through the same or a similar fate. For the next year and a half, he would fight for his life, receive two bone marrow transplants and be left with the body of a sixty year old man complete with cataracts and high blood pressure. And through it all, not EVER for one moment did he complain, even when he gagged from the effects of the chemo and his body weight expanded up to twice his size.
The final clincher (at least so far, though nowhere near as serious as what my precious little nephew suffered through), this past February, I hear the doctor's words this time concerning me as I'm looking at an MRI of my womb. "I'm sorry Angela, there's nothing we can do. I can't in good conscience recommend a surgery for you that could endanger your life and not really solve the problem. The fibroids are just too large and too numerous to be removed. They've essentially taken over your uterus and if we were to try and remove the tumors, there would be no uterus left to put back together. You won't be able to have children and we can schedule the hysterectomy whenever you're ready." Of course I know it's not the end of the world, but it became the end of a dream for me to be able to have a little bundle that my body brought into this world. I may not have lost a child, but I lost the ability to have one and so that day I asked the painful question, "God, you mean you didn't make me to be a mother? That wasn't my purpose in coming here?"
Through all of these things, my faith in God and that of my family is stronger today than it ever has been and I share all of these things to ask a simple question - What would it take to separate you from the love of God? God says none of these things in Romans 8:35 (and even Romans 8:38-39) can separate us from His love for us: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress [dire calamity, extreme affliction], or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?" What if God allowed or has allowed the unthinkable to occur in your life? I have found that when some people bring up the name of God, there's a tremendous amount of anger associated with it. Whenever something horrific happens in our world, the number one question that comes up is "Where was God?" When a person says they don't believe in God, often it's not so much that they don't believe in His existence, but that they question His character. . ."What kind of a God would allow _________________ (you fill-in-the-blank) to happen?
So what does the "unthinkable" look like to you? If the unthinkable has already happened, has that changed your view of God? For a lot of people it has and will often result in one of two things: either they will abandon their faith altogether or cling even closer to God allowing these trials to build their faith in Him rather than destroy it. Trials have a way of bringing things out of us that make us stronger in the end if we allow the process to take its full course. We develop patience and longsuffering and are able to help others go through the same or similar difficulties as we become the survivors and no longer the victims. Sometimes trials really show us who we are and what we're made of and how strong our faith is or is not. The one thing we don't want to do is to put God on trial for Scripture warns us not to judge a matter before its time (1 Corinthians 4:5). At this moment in life, we don't have all of the available facts at hand so we don't know the "whys" behind what God allows to happen. We don't understand why God chooses to act in some situations and seemingly remain quiet or inactive in others.
There is a story in the Gospels concerning Lazarus and his two sisters Mary and Martha. Lazarus became deathly sick and the two sisters sent word to Jesus to come and pray for him that he might be healed. Interestingly they pointed out that "he whom You love [emphasis added] is sick” (John 11:3). This is someone that Jesus cared about, yet, the Bible tells us that He purposefully delayed His coming and He allowed the unthinkable to happen: "So, when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was" (John 11:6). He delayed His coming because He had a purpose in Lazarus' illness and eventual death, that He might be glorified in the people's eyes (i.e. their perception of Him and what He could do would be magnified). Any one present that day was going to see an aspect of His that they had never seen before - they were about to witness His power to resurrect the dead, to do the impossible.
So you might say well that was a happy ending for Martha and Mary - they're loved one was brought back from the dead (and if you're having trouble believing this miracle at this point, stay tuned for a future blog on the power of God as it relates to the laws of physics). What about the countless other people that don't get their prayers answered? Did God not hear them? Were they not good enough? Did He not love them too? The Bible says we all have an "appointed" time to die (Hebrews 9:27) and for some it may come sooner than for others. God gives each of us a free will and sometimes people choose to act on their free will in a way that violates others, wherein a death or some other horrible type of tragedy might result. So in this instance, death is the result of someone choosing to act upon their God-given freewill, though it is a violation or infringement upon another's. Sometimes disease or death happens as an act of nature (i.e. as a result of the fallen, imperfect world that we live in where mutations happen and things go awry in our bodies). The Bible never promised any of us tomorrow (Proverbs 27:1; James 4:13-14)...if we live to see another day, it is by the grace of God and for that we should be thankful.
I don't know the "why," but I know that God loves each of us and if He loves us, He's not out to do us in. There's a purpose behind everything that happens in this world and at this time, we're just not privy to see what that purpose is. For myself, looking back on my nephew's situation, for that year and a half that he was in the hospital, I had the opportunity of being a full-time mom to my sister's girls. I did everything from bathing them, to cooking, cleaning, helping with homework, to getting them to and from school and thankfully for me, their mother and I are twins so it made the difficult situation a little bit easier, for them any way...it was almost like they got to have mommy home with them (i.e. mommy's close representative). So though I don't get to have children, I did get a taste of parenthood and learned that it's not so easy, but it can be rewarding knowing that I had a part to play in the upbringing of these little people's lives. And though my mom suffered a stroke, she didn't pass away that day. It was just enough to take her off of a super stressful job and live the rest of her years in peace and though the dementia seems to ravish my mother's mind every day, as far as she's concerned, she doesn't have a care in the world. At least I have her here a few more days to enjoy the essence of who she is. I must also say that so much good has come out of my nephew's situation. One person even became a born again Christian after seeing my nephew's testimony played out before him. My sister vlogged their journey from beginning to end, and on one particular occassion, hanging on to life by a thread, my nephew requested a beautiful worship song to be played then proceeded to raise his weak little arm in the air and sing and praise the Lord with all his might. That's the video that led this young man to say, "If that little guy can praise God in the midst of all he's going through, then how can I complain about the trivial things happening in my life" and with that, he rededicated his life to God (for he was one that had fallen away from the Faith). And guess what, my pain came back, but by the grace of God it is nowhere near as horrible as it used to be and usually it returns if I've over tired myself or allowed myself to become stressed out. So what does it teach me? It teaches me when I've overdone it, that I need to listen to my body, to take care of my body and let the stress go...entrust it to God for I can add nothing to my life by worrying. And for me to function with Trigeminal Neuralgia, a disorder for which there is no permanent cure, is nothing short of amazing...after while, all of the available treatments run out and people wind up committing suicide because there is no more "earthly" help for them. I continue to live a "normal" life for the most part again by the grace of God. And the funniest thing of all is that a few years ago around the time of Easter, I happened to be watching a documentary about the Shroud of Turin. During the course of that program, they had interviewed a medical doctor who was describing many of the medical conditions Jesus would have suffered from as a result of the horrific treatment He received from the time of His scourging to the point at which He hung on the cross. What gave me chills then and still gives me chills to this day is this one observation the doctor made, that when the Roman soldiers placed the crown of thorns upon Jesus' head, that it could have triggered a condition known as Trigeminal Neuralgia. If this were indeed true, my Lord knows EXACTLY how I feel every time that pain hits me, even when it was at its worst. He identified with my suffering, and now I get to identify with His which makes me appreciate His sacrifice all the more. That is nothing short of amazing to me. Isaiah 53 tells us that Jesus was a man of sorrows acquainted with grief and Hebrews 2:17-18 along with Hebrews 4:15 tell us that Jesus identifies with our weaknesses, that in essence, He knows what it's like to suffer, so never for a moment are we alone in this.
Sometimes you have to look at the brighter side of the trial and thank God for what you do have with the pieces that are left and entrust the rest to God. That being said, I thank God that I got to have a wonderful dad for 23 years of my life, or that I even had a father at all and I thank God that my mother is still here to ask me twenty million questions in a minute, because one day, God forbid, I may not have that opportunity. We can't let trials rob us of our purpose . . . we're still here which means there's unfinished work in us that is yet to be done, so keep going and let God bring out that purpose in you, your very reason for existence as He heals and restores you to a new normal and a new place of contentment and peace.
And on that note, I will leave you with this final Scripture that we should all make a determination in our hearts and minds: The Bible says in Romans 8:36 that though it's as if we're being slaughtered all the day long, that we are more than conquerors (Romans 8:37) and we should remain resilient in this: "38 For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,39 Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38-39).