If you’d told my past self about all the things that would happen to me in the past twelve months, I’m pretty sure I would have sold everything and moved to Hawaii.
I can’t find trouble if trouble can’t find me, right?
Only twelve months ago, I believed I had all the makings of a good life—neatly assembled and measured out like ingredients at the beginning of a cooking show. I’d known trials, yes—I nearly died in 2014, midway through my Honours year at university, only months after getting married to the love of my life. I’d lost loved ones, including a cousin who was as a brother to me and a faithful—and hilarious—long-distance correspondent throughout our childhood years. I’d even struggled with bouts of depression at times, like a recurring flu.
But I’d overcome all of it. I recovered from emergency surgery in 2014, my life given back to me by the skilful hands of one of the best surgeons in the Southern Hemisphere. By 2016, I’d finally finished a lifetime’s worth of study to begin my career as a psychologist—a start not without many stalls and painful lessons, but numerous rewards, too.
I’d married a wonderful man, whose defining quality was faithfulness. If I lived a hundred lives of Mother Teresa’s calibre, I’d never be worthy of the gentle, forgiving nature of this man.
By 2018, I knew I was where I wanted to be. God was using me: my gifts, my talent, my passions.
And then came the unravelling.
By 2018, I knew I was where I wanted to be. God was using me: my gifts, my talent, my passions … And then came the unravelling.
In early 2018, I experienced a medical episode during a session with a client. Believing it to be a one-off, I cancelled the rest of my day, took myself off to the hospital, and spent the weekend trying to recover. Over the next few months, I experienced lingering neurological symptoms, but medical investigations declared everything normal. And then, about eight months after the initial episode, I had two more episodes, a day apart. My symptoms went from some days to every day.
Piece by piece, little parts of my life were chipped away. As unwell as I was, I couldn’t return to work, although I did try at first. Soon I was wondering how I was going to manage the short drive to see my doctor for the results of the latest tests and scans. Specialists were (mostly) compassionate, but baffled.
Life in the Valley
Horace Walpole once said: “The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel”. My whole life, I’ve prided myself on being both a thinker and a feeler, but in a valley like this, there is certainly nothing to do but feel.
This particular stretch of darkness felt longer than any other. Where was the approaching mountaintop? Where was the sunshine that I’d basked in all my life, broken only occasionally by patches of rain and thunder?
Where was the fruit of long-suffering—the happy conclusion to my story? And why had God stripped away so much good—so much fruit—in my life, only to replace it with nothingness?
And that was when I realised.
I’d had my eyes on the wrong thing.
A Gruesome Mercy
It was thinking about Jesus’ beautiful words about the vine and the branches in the Gospel of John (15:1-17) that unravelled me. I’ve posted an excerpt from it here:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. he cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful…
Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.
I’d read this passage many times before, but I’d never stopped to consider the gruesome reality of the pruning. How painful it would be to have those beautiful parts of my life—the parts I’d lovingly tended—clipped away. To see perfectly good grapes and foliage lying on the ground, wasting away.
Why would God do such a wasteful thing?
As Joanna Davidson Politano writes in her book, A Rumored Fortune: ‘Pruning involves difficult decisions. It’s about removing growth, even what is good and beautiful, to attain something far better.’
Just what is that ‘better’? What is the fruit Jesus has in mind?
Is it the joy and contentment I’ve discovered my friendships. The beauty of older connections? The forging rich new ones? Is it the closeness of my relationship to my dear husband—a closeness that has been strengthened and refined through these trials?
Indeed, there have been many surprising blessings along the road of this suffering.
But I don’t believe that any of this is all the ‘better’ that God wants to accomplish by his pruning. Chronic illness has stolen many of the things I thought made me me—the helper, the busy person, the lifesaver and the rescuer—but in exchange, I’ve gained something far more valuable. Not a reliance on myself—I always was self-reliant to a fault—but on God.
Chronic illness has stolen many of the things I thought made me me—but in exchange, I’ve gained something far more valuable. Not a reliance on myself, but on God.
I’ve had to learn that what I need to do is simply “hold on”—not to the things in my life, which are never certain, nor even to other branches, but to the True Vine—the only One who can see the future, and the One who knows the intimate details of our lives. As Charles Spurgeon said:
God is too good to be unkind and he is too wise to be mistaken. And when we cannot trace his hand, we must trust his heart.”
To hold to the True Vine means trusting the Vintner’s heart when I do not understand the work of his hands.
I also need to press on. The great stories of the Bible are a vivid reminder that to follow Christ does not mean living for—or even hanging on until—the next hill, as we often do. It means learning how to persevere in the valleys.
The Bible is full of men and women who spent years of their lives in such valleys, just waiting. We get to see how their suffering was part of God’s intricate plan—and not just his plan for them, but for the rest of humanity.
But for them, as they went through their valleys, God’s power was made perfect in their weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9).
If we live our lives for the mountaintops—always wishing for good things rather than bad or hard ones—we miss out on what God can accomplish in the valleys. Sometimes, we only see God’s plan once we climb the next mountain. Perhaps, for some trials, the most we can acknowledge is that God does have a plan, and we are the humble branch that produces a beautiful wine, the jars of clay through which God shows his glory (2 Corinthians 4:7-9).
I’m writing this in present tense, because I’m still in my valley.
Despite the little glimpses of the work being done by the Author of my life, I still cannot see the trace of God’s hand in its entirety. There’s no fixed diagnosis, nor a clear treatment, nor an endpoint to this illness. Specialists are still baffled. At the tender age of twenty-seven, I’ve somehow accumulated more ailments than bugs on a windshield after a road trip out west.
But then, maybe that’s for the best—because I doubt I’d be writing this, or feeling this, on the mountaintop. And I’ve come to realise that I’m no longer walking through that valley alone, but with Jesus, the author of the universe—the very one who braved that valley alone to bring me to the green pasture, bountiful table, and refreshing waters of the life beyond.