For many the struggle with disease or disability drains their faith and hope. Through Barbara Edwards’ painful struggle with rheumatoid arthritis, she and her husband Brian developed a deep relationship with, and an everlasting hope in, their God and Savior.
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
Jeremiah 29:11 (ESV)
Barbara, my wife of 35 years, knew that God had a plan for her. The beginning of her personal relationship with Christ when she was ten was a demonstration of God’s sovereign grace and mercy on her life. It was just seven short years later that she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, an incurable and painful disability that spread relentlessly until there was not a joint in her body that was not affected. She could do nothing for herself. Chronic pain, surgeries, hospitalizations, more surgeries, and much pain became her way of life, and full-time caregiver became my way of life.
Barbara alternated between hope and despair, that paradox of the Christian with a firm faith in the future and a painful experience in the present. More than once I heard her pray, “Lord, I’m tired of the struggle. I just want to die.” But a day later her request was simply, “Lord, I long to feel better.”
As for me, all I had ever preached with conviction and passion was being thrown back at me. I never for a moment doubted the wisdom and care of God. But it was hard to make sense of it all as I watched her daily pain and her almost nightly cries in her sleep. Those who have gone through a similar situation may ask why I didn’t pray for God to take her to that better home where there is no more pain or tears. My answer is simply because I knew that the time of death is for God to decide. I knew that God had plans, and His plans would always prove to be “good, pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
Because of the foundation of faith and trust that God had instilled in my wife and me years before our time of trial, I can’t recall ever asking God, “Why?” But the question loomed over others, friends and family, wondering why God could allow such suffering in this dear, loving woman.
This is and always will be a pervasive question in the midst of human struggles and suffering. As we lived through our own personal suffering, we realized that our reaction and faith could affect the faith of others.
So often skeptics argue that if God were all-powerful and good He would prevent suffering, and if God can’t prevent it, He is not good or all-powerful. Their reasoning displays an assumption that God’s purposes can be fully understood simply by observing what happens to us, His creations, on earth.
They don’t consider looking to His Word, even to the very first book of the Bible, Genesis. Here God reveals so clearly that it isn’t He who causes this world of suffering, disease, death, and darkness. In His mercy and love, He created a perfect world. He saw His perfect world and behold, it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31).
But man chose to disobey God. Man was tempted by the lie that he could become like God. And, consequently, man’s pride and lusts brought chaos upon the earth and the entire human race. This is the cause of suffering. It is our deceitful and wicked hearts (Jeremiah 17:9) that continually turn away from God.
Knowing these truths from God, Barbara was able to approach her painful struggles with courage and peace. One consultant who worked closely with her commented, “Her courage was magnificent, and very few of us would have coped with such daunting problems with the dignity which she managed to produce and with a smile and with exceptional cheerfulness.”
What gave her the strength to persevere? What gives me the strength to continue without her? We continually drew from the living water, found in God and the Bible. Isaiah 41:10 was always a special verse for us: “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (NIV).
The only true hope found in the midst of suffering comes from Jesus Christ and His promise to bring the world out of chaos into a perfectly restored world where God Himself will dwell with man, where every tear will be wiped away, death will be no more, and mourning, crying, and pain will cease (Revelation 21:3–4).
The side room Barbara occupied when she arrived at the hospital overlooked a small quadrangle that was well-stocked with shrubs. Each evening two dozen pied wagtails would gather to roost for the night in the buddleia bushes. On the fourth day of Barbara’s hospitalization, machinery moved in, ripped out the shrubs, and leveled the ground. That night I stood by the window as the wagtails arrived for their usual night’s rest. It was a pathetic sight to watch the disorientated birds fly down to the wasteland and search for their familiar security. After fluttering helplessly above the churned earth and the torn and twisted bushes, they lined up on the surrounding roof. Their security had gone; life would never be the same again. The experience of those little birds is a close parable of the life of most who live with an incurable and progressive disability.
For Barbara and me, suffering may have stripped our earthly sense of security, but it also helped us to focus on the ultimate hope of Heaven and to see it in perspective. We often talked about Heaven, but whenever we thought together about this, it was never long before the subject turned to the present. There was a life to live and work to do. Our task was to find that task and do it.
Those who suffer are not alone, because there are others who understand. However dark the room may seem, there is always a window of light. There can be few things worse than suffering without hope—this leads only to black despair. But there is a rich value in disability when it is borne with horizons of hope.