Pain and Glory
The phone call I had dreaded for years finally came. Since my mother’s minor stroke fifteen years ago, I knew it could happen any time. She had had a massive stroke, and the doctors didn’t know whether she would live. If she did, the size and location of the stoke in her brain did not bode well for her recovery. She could lay speechless and paralyzed for the rest of her life.
Flying high above the Rocky Mountains the next morning, I cried out to God to please not leave her like this. My mother had often spoken longingly of being home with the Lord. As confused as my feelings were, I asked God to take her life, rather than to leave her so severely disabled. Then I prayed earnestly that He would give us a miracle: that He would bring about a full recovery and give her back to us. A third option was unthinkable to me: that God could leave her imprisoned in her own body indefinitely.
As the days went by, it became clear that she would live. There were signs that she recognized us and understood some of what was being said. But she could not respond, even with blinks or nods. I struggled daily with how God could allow her to remain here, and yet here she was. She had spent the past thirty years of her life trusting God. And now, in the twilight of her days on earth, this same God was asking her to lie helpless, unable to speak or blink, for who knows how long. At a loss for how to proceed, I began reading aloud the book of John, unsure whether she could understand the words or not.
I have read the book of John many times. I know the story well. This time, however, I understood something I had not understood before. It was clear to me that Jesus knew exactly why He had come and what His life on this earth was for. Jesus had understood from the beginning that His purpose in coming here was to suffer and to die. How could I be so arrogant as to believe that my life, or my mother’s, should hold something different, something easier?
Other biblical authors confirm this perspective and urge us to keep it in view as we follow Jesus’ calling. Peter points struggling believers to the example of Jesus, who went before them and suffered the ultimate in injustice:
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps….he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. [I Peter 2:21, 23b, NIV]
Jesus knew that whatever God brings into our lives, He judges justly. Similarly, the author of Hebrews encourages us to fix our eyes on Jesus, saying, “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” [Hebrews 12:3 NIV]
These authors are encouraging us to press on in hardship, following the example of our Lord who went before us on this path. We are to entrust ourselves to Him who has promised to make all things right and who will guard our souls along the way. In doing this, we witness the real miracle: we see His glory.
In following the path into our suffering, rather than around it, we are given deep patience, courage, strength of character, calm acceptance, bright hope, and a genuine willingness to take from God’s hands whatever He chooses to give. These are virtues we do not possess, until He gives them. These are qualities that we do not value, until He changes our taste. Through a painful, laborious process, He is shaping us into people who share His character.
Our culture tells us not to feel pain. It bombards us with the message that all of our problems will be solved if only we drive the right car or drink the right beer. We take drugs for whatever ails us. There is no need to feel pain; relief is readily available. Having bought this message hook, line, and sinker, we have imported it straight into our Christianity.
We have developed a Christianity that corresponds to our culture’s value system. We do not value what God values, and we do not wish to be taught by our pain. Instead, we avoid it at all costs, seeking fast relief. We justify our avoidance, even creating theologies that tell us it could never be God’s will that we would suffer. If we suffer, therefore, we believe we have stepped out of God’s will or we have not understood how to get God’s power to flow into our lives. We have decided that God’s will for us is victory and comfort, and we seek safety and security, rather than the purifying process that He mercifully has given us on our journey to the kingdom. This is the way of the world, not the way of Christ.
God’s ways are not our ways. Because God is interested in faith, He has designed the process of suffering, whether with the mundane or the tragic, to purge us of our worldliness. As we aspire to heed the wise counsel of sorrow and suffering, we follow the only path to true wisdom and beauty. Although still far from the Kingdom, we see God’s glory in the miracle of His intervention in our lives. And it is His mercy and grace that will keep our souls along the way.
Pain and glory are inexorably linked in our lives. Corrie ten Boom saw this during her imprisonment at Ravensbruck, one of the most feared concentration camps in Nazi Germany. In her autobiographical account, The Hiding Place, she tells how she and her sister, Betsie, suffered incredible injustice and atrocious brutality. They had descended into hell, she wrote, and yet were convinced that God was there with them:
Sometimes I would slip the Bible from its little sack with hands that shook, so mysterious had it become to me. It was new; it had just been written. I marveled sometimes that the ink was dry. I had believed the Bible always, but reading it now had nothing to do with belief. It was simply a description of the way things were–of hell and heaven, of how men act and how God acts. I had read a thousand times the story of Jesus’ arrest–how soldiers had slapped him, laughed at him, flogged him. Now such happenings had faces and voices.
The blacker the night around us grew, the brighter and truer and more beautiful burned the word of God. ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.’
I would look about as Betsie read, watching the light leap from face to face. More than conquerors….. It was not a wish. It was a fact. We knew it, we experienced it minute by minute–poor, hated, hungry. Life in Ravensbruck took place on two separate levels, mutually impossible. One, the observable, external life, grew every day more horrible. The other, the life we lived with God, grew better daily, truth upon truth, glory upon glory.
Corrie had discovered at Ravensbruck that “no pit is so deep that the love of God is not deeper still.”
Three months after my mother’s stroke, it was becoming clear that God’s answer to my desperate prayer on the plane that day was the unthinkable third option. My mother would survive her stroke and would likely remain silent and severely disabled. She was able to communicate, but only with facial expressions and head nods. I learned to ask “yes and no” questions in order to communicate with her.
In one of our conversations, I shared how I was struggling again with what God was doing with her. Her expression was one of surprise, and when I pursued it, she seemed to be saying, “Don’t worry–God is right here with me.” The following day, she tried very hard to speak. Finally, she managed two words: “I” and “love.” I said them back to her, “I love?” She nodded. Finally, she uttered a third word, “God.” I repeated, “You love God?” She nodded yes with great enthusiasm. I asked her if she were trying to tell me that she loves God, that she is in His hands, and that this is the right place to be. Again, she nodded an enthusiastic yes.
Corrie ten Boom and my mother have something in common with each of us. We have been called to proceed toward the Kingdom of Light, and we have been given sorrow and suffering as faithful guides for our journey. Corrie and my mother have something else in common. Corrie spent the last five years of her life silenced and severely disabled by a stroke. I won’t know what this experience is like for either of them until we meet in the kingdom, but I know that God is with my mother, as He was with Corrie, as He has been with me in my darkest times. I know that my mother struggles and that she is often in physical pain. But I can see the honor in her being asked to follow in the footsteps of our Lord and the glory in her accepting this calling from Him, humbly, patiently.
This is the real miracle. I had asked for her healing. Instead, I have received a greater miracle: her calm acceptance, and my own, of God’s path for us through pain. My mother has taught me many lessons over the years. But the lessons she is teaching me now outweigh them all.
Copyright January 1997 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.