The Best of Days, The Worst of Days
I was handed two pieces of paper that Monday. Both signed by doctors. One in the morning, one in the evening. The latter was classy, formal, and embossed; the sort of thing you frame. The former was a photocopy of a facsimile; tilted, blurry and plain. One told me I’d officially graduated after four years of study. The other told me my wife had a degenerative neurological disease.
I struggled to conceal my shock when I read my wife’s MRI report. I remember that I gasped a little, covered my mouth, and got a little teary. I perused it slowly—the readability of the imperfect photocopy was only exacerbated by the medical jargon. But between the radiographic lingo the words “lesions highly suggestive of demyelinating plaques” reached my heart with piercing clarity.
The readability of the imperfect photocopy was only exacerbated by the medical jargon. But between the radiographic lingo the words ‘lesions highly suggestive of demyelinating plaques’ reached my heart with piercing clarity.
That night I struggled to shield the “after-shock”. I could feel myself consciously pushing to try and match the mood around me. For the most part, I was fine and managed to enjoy the moment. Though I remember at one point after the graduation ceremony a good friend asked in passing if I was alright. I think I was walking around searching for someone in particular for a photo, but I was caught off guard by the question. I reflexively half-smiled and said “yeah, I’m fine”, or something like that. The reality was that all night my mind had flitted between the settled present (ceremony, celebration, congratulations) … and the uncertain future (disability, doctors, disrupted plans).
I’ve learnt a lot about Multiple Sclerosis in the last few weeks. As the son of a nurse who spent too many evenings watching RPA and ER when I was younger, I have a tendency to be too clinical about things like this. Knowing as much as I can about the problem is both my way of trying to help and my way of trying to cope. MS harasses and persists. This is an unrelenting frustration for my wife. Like pestering notifications from an app you can’t delete, little reminders pop-up constantly, ensuring it’s always on your mind. Though many of the symptoms are unseen, the effect of the diagnosis leaves deep imprints on our life right now. Decisions about treatment options; worry about the ambiguity of progression; sadness about the potential loss of function to come. We have had to process some “big-life-decisions” very quickly.
God’s Multiplied Grace
Recently at a conference, I heard a minister say that the doctrine of God’s sovereignty takes on a whole new meaning when significant illness strikes. So many helpful and weighty reflections have been written on suffering and Christian theology. I’m thankful for a lifetime of good teaching that hasn’t left me with a misshapen understanding of God or my relationship to sickness.
I kind of expected to have something more profound to say when I reflected on all this. What is God doing about disease? What does the Bible say about the bigger picture and God’s purpose in suffering in light of eternity? But in this space what has struck me most is the very simple and tangible ways in which God is there in the midst of our pain and suffering.
There are multiple lesions on the nerves in my wife’s brain caused by her own dysfunctional immune system. And we are left reliant on the fact that God’s means of grace, the varied ways in which he is good and kind to us, are overwhelmingly more “multitudinous”.
- Our co-workers have fed us.
- Our family has taxied my wife to hospital appointments while I take care of our daughter.
- Our doctors have been prompt and kind and honest.
- Our hospitals have provided technologies that let us see inside skulls and medicines which improve symptoms.
- Our friends have prayed and texted and dropped off care packages for hospital visits. Some have dropped everything to come and sit in the ashes with us.
The sceptic would reply that I’m thanking God for doctors and friends when I should be thanking the people themselves. Trust me, I thank them too. I’m not not thanking them. And if I shared the worldview of my atheist friends, I’d look at someone thanking God for the work of a neurologist and be similarly baffled. But I believe that ultimately God gives me and her and them their life, breath and everything else (Acts 17:25). The Christian God is the God who is sovereign and the God of means. He acts and he acts through.
When God says No
It just so happens that our church is in the middle of a topical preaching series entitled “What do you do when…”. Many months ago, my name was written on a roster beside the topic “What do you do when God says no?” Here too was God’s provision. MS was a clear and definite no to particular plans for future ministry that we had been prayerfully pursuing for years. Just a few months before we found out, we had taken a fairly serious step forward in our consideration of overseas missionary work. For now, that’s off the cards. Having to preach that question taught me more of the answer when I needed it most.
All around us we see the love of brothers and sisters. The marvels of modern medicine. But most of all we’re kept upright by truths that have been steadily reinforced over the years. Like a fire safety plan, a theology of sickness needs to be in place before catastrophe strikes.
All around us we see the love of brothers and sisters. The marvels of modern medicine. But most of all we’re kept upright by truths that have been steadily reinforced over the years.
Nancy Guthrie gives a beautiful illustration in the introduction to her book Be Still My Soul of a tree in her yard that continually fell over until her handy father drove a stake in the ground and tethered the two together firmly. If I wasn’t tethered to the God of grace, I’d be blown over right now. When he delivers a painful no to my prayers, I can trust his grace is more than enough for me (2 Cor 12:8–9). I actually find it deeply unsettling to consider what my life would look like without a biblical understanding of suffering.
Two years ago, when my wife was sick, but we knew less of the reason why, I wrote a poem (I really am a hack of a poet). I called it “You’re Still Sick”. On this side of my wife’s diagnosis I find the final lines have become even more real for me:
“If the Now and Not Yet means anything
I know, someday soon
You are not sick.”
Until then, the God who knows what it is to be weakened and hurt by multiple scars is a source of multiplied consolation.