So this is a little different. I’ve recently felt that God wants me to write a testimony to share with my church about what the last couple of years have been like. It’s not a nice, neat testimony, where a crisis hits, God acts or we learn something and now it’s all better, which is kind of the point, but it’s left me wondering what it is if it’s not that. I’ve struggled to be honest. And I’ve struggled with how to keep it brief – it’s going to be a small part of a church service so it kind of has to be shortish, but how do you condense so much mystery and nuance and paradox, so much ‘it’s this, but it’s also not.’ It’s made me almost give up on the idea, but I won’t, I’ll try and it won’t be perfect … but isn’t that also kind of the point!
There is so much I could say, or talk about, about the mystery of suffering and healing, about hope and redemption and waiting. I have been wrestling and lamenting, questioning and waiting. It’s difficult to pull out one thing that I can share with you about the experience of long term unending suffering, and all that God has been saying and doing especially in the last 2 years. And this won’t be succinct or concise, because that is the very nature of life for me; it is incomplete and messy and uncertain.
Two years ago I began to relapse, the latest of many, but for many reasons it was particularly devastating. It felt like everything good in my life, everything that God had given me and affirmed and brought into my life was just slipping through my fingers like sand, it was like trying to grab water. And all the coping strategies and resources that I’d fallen back on before just deserted me. I just didn’t have the energy and they weren’t enough. It totally shattered me and I was punch drunk and weary from so many years and no end in sight.
So much of the time we kind of think God’s comfort will anesthetise or numb our pain, even if he doesn’t remove the cause, and we can kind of use him and doctrine and scripture to try and do that, to try and rise above it, I know I certainly did. I was good at enduring, at just gritting me teeth and getting through it, bolstered with a good dose of positive mental attitude and counting my blessings, and when counting wasn’t enough, using them to distract and numb what felt unbearable. I got through many hard times like that, and they’re not altogether bad strategies, especially if what you need to endure will be short-lived, but I found at year 24 they ran short! I kind of operated with a set of scales with all the hard stuff on one side and I piled all my blessings and good things on the other side to kind of balance them out and if I could make the sum total of my life add up to blessing, then I’d be alright and God would be proved good.
But the trouble is that all those wonderful things didn’t actually balance out the painful things. No matter how hard I tried, family, friends, children, home, church, sunshine, couldn’t make my pain hurt less, and they were never supposed to.
When I’m sick in my room I sometimes open my window a crack so I can listen to my girls playing in the garden, and it is so joyful and beautiful. It comforts me and lifts my heart and I am so grateful. But it doesn’t remove or negate my suffering. In many ways it makes it worse as I am sound sensitive so it’s actually physically painful, and as lovely as it is to listen to them laugh and play, I want to be down there with them and I can’t, so it’s bittersweet. It’s comfort, but it also hurts and the original suffering is still there, hurting just as much as it did before.
So while all of these things are a kind of comfort, they aren’t the comfort that sustains you when weeks turn to months and years and decades, and a lifetime of suffering. What God has done for me in the last two years, and what I want to share with you, is what comfort looks like when suffering doesn’t end with healing and lament doesn’t end with rejoicing.
When I eventually agreed to stop trying to numb and pretend I was OK with everything that was happening, I began to try and actually feel my grief and my struggles, and be honest with God about how difficult my illness is. I thought that I would sit awhile, grieve and process and then be able to make peace with my new situation and get back up, renewed and able to go back to coping like before.
But it hasn’t been like that. Instead God has taken my hand and begun a new way of living with me. Because what I have found is that real sustaining comfort only comes from the presence of God, sitting beside you in the ruins and rubble and dust of your life, putting his arms around you, weeping with you, listening to all that pours from your broken heart, and saying, ‘I know’ and ‘I’m here.’
I still desperately want him to rebuild my life, heal my body and bind up my broken heart. I still pray for that and ask him why he hasn’t. I’m trying to figure out what the Bible says about healing, and how that lines up with our experience of it and what it all means, how we should pray, how we should understand God in it. I am wrestling and questioning and crying and yelling. And in it all he sits with me and he listens and he feels my pain as I pour it out to him, he doesn’t silence me or correct me, instead his heart breaks for me, he holds me and he gently whispers that he will never leave me and one day, somehow, it will be OK, that I will not be destroyed, I will not despair.
My experience has been that lament has been the gateway to true heart to heart connection to God. As I have opened my heart to him, he has opened his heart to me and I have seen and felt the love and compassion that pours out of him directly in to my broken and bleeding heart. And the lament becomes threaded through with worship and joy, it becomes a love song between us. It is bittersweet and unbearably beautiful and painful. It is the comfort of Christ himself that sustains me, and so I no longer think that I can do this for a time, then dust myself off and get on with things. Even if I were to be healed tomorrow, the world is still broken, and death and mourning and crying and pain are the order of things, until Christ returns. So although I still fall back on old habits to distance the pain of sin and suffering from my heart, I no longer want that to be how I live. As painful as it is, I want to live in the fullness of all that life is, and to know Christ and for his presence alone to be my comfort and my strength. Everything else will fail, and when you have an illness that means that even speaking to your husband, or seeing the sunshine is agony and makes you sicker, you begin to experience what that really means.
I am not OK with my illness. I’m not OK with all that it’s taken from me, and all that it continues to steal today, or the future that it promises me. I cry out to God for deliverance, for healing, for a long life to bless my children. I do not thank God for the evil that has torn through my life like a juggernaut, any more than I thank him for sin entering the world. Instead I weep over the brokenness of the world with him and he weeps over the way it has broken me, and in his presence and in his heart I find hope and redemption, albeit not yet fulfilled. I find him in the agony of mystery and of promises as yet unseen.
I have a playlist of lament songs because music helps me so much, this is one that I sing to God and I’m grateful that he always answers, and I’m grateful that others answer too and hold me and let me hold them.
[nb – it came out about 15 minutes, I think that’s about as concise as I get!!!]