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Finding God In Affliction
by Jim Rotholz
7/19/2016 / Christian Living
I have had more than enough time lately to consider God's purposes in chronic illness. For twenty years I have languished in a myriad of pain and fatigue syndromes, struggling to get well against a tide of illness that has proven exceedingly stubborn. Unable to regain a significant measure of the vitality that befits my age, I have only recently begun to recognize God's purposeful hand in the midst of my ongoing battle with a tenacious dose of disability.
The names of the diagnoses I have received are legion: chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic Lyme disease, reactive osteoarthritis, cervical stenosis, dysautonomia, post-concussion syndrome, and peripheral neuropathy. The sum of their effect has been a very rude awakening from a previously active life that included a litany of outdoor adventure, overseas ministry, academic achievement, and an active family life. Youthful exploits have long since faded.
It was in my early forties that the ship began to list badly, and it has since seemed that I am slowly but inexorably being pulled beneath life's surface by an overwhelmingly malevolent force. My body has been under what seems like constant siegethe battleground for all manner of nebulous maladies. Everyday sensations, even those that once were pleasant, now cause pain from nervous system signals gone haywire. Whether walking, sitting, or laying down, I can never seem to get comfortable. At times I feel like pain incarnatea corporeal lightning rod absorbing the anguish and distress of a world gone awry. Despite the dozens of specialists and two decompression surgeries intended to correct underlying structural problems thought to be causative, the pain, weakness, and limitation continue unabated. Modern medicine has so far been unable to exorcise the demons of disability.
The struggle with years of unrelenting illness has left an ugly scar on my previously upbeat take on life. But the ongoing trauma has also permitted a fresh perspective to emerge from the fray. I have finally begun to grasp that God's call to me is now embedded within my aching fleshin the hard-core reality that exists in a rough-hewn present. Since countless attempts to shake free of illness have proven futile, what else can I conclude but that God has purpose for me within this place of difficulty and discomfort. I must now learn to listen intently for his loving voice in the moaning of mortal flesh.
There are no words to describe how difficult it has been to accept my plightthat I am no longer the healthy, active person I once was. The implications have seemed too jarring and the process of acceptance exceedingly slow. Yet there has been steady progress in coming to terms with the fact that I am unlikely to ever again know a significant degree of health (barring a miracle of medical or spiritual proportions). In the midst of this unappealing circumstance, however, lies a hidden blessing. Its dimensions are paradoxical in nature. The condition of human weakness, as it turns out, is the very theater in which God often performs his most spectacular feats. It is also the medium through which so many godly people hear his call to ministry. I have discovered that as I am able to let go of my highly prized pastincluding the remembrance of a strong body and active lifeI gain more and more awareness of a sacred path running smack through present circumstances.
At stake in this personal epiphany is a critical theological issue. It has to do with God's sovereignty over all that impacts our lives. In my own case, if there is nothing to be done to shake the monkey of disability from off my back, then I must concede that God's intentions for me now are simply not dependent upon good health. There are no two ways about it: either God is in complete control of my circumstances or not in control at all. A genuine biblical perspective does not support the half way stuffthat God would-if-he-could business made popular in recent years by those who could not otherwise deal with the impenetrable paradoxes of divine logic. So, then, if I believe that God is truly sovereign over all aspects of my lifea position that all serious Christians must eventually espouseand I have become permanently disabled, then his purposes for me are necessarily manifest within the context of that disability, the very one I have been chaffing against. Well duh! It is just a repeat of the lesson Paul reluctantly learned through his "thorn in the flesh" (2 Corinthians 12:7-10), but never one I thought would personally apply to me. (This is not to say God caused my illness, which scripture tells us he does not do. Rather, it allows for God to work redemptively through whatever our circumstances may be, whether they entail health, illness, or hardship of any sort.)
Although my personal revelation is in itself less than profound, I believe it lays bare a facet of the Christian life that is of great consequence to all who proclaim faith in Christ. Health, in the truest and fullest sense of the term, can only be found where God is. The biblical notion of health is not some external, disembodied entityan abstract state of biological perfection to be doggedly pursued as bloodhounds would an elusive fox. Rather, it is a state of being that is incorporated into the warp and weft of the believer's relationship to God.
Of course there is certainly nothing wrong with those who would seek to improve their reps on a Nautilus machine. But no one can live by abs alone. Yet that is precisely the message generated by popular culture, which constantly bombards us with the erroneous notion that health is a purely physical statea matter of optimum physiological functioning, as though we live encapsulated in biological machinery that needs little more than a regular tune up at the health club. To be alive and active in the modern world entails being inundated with media images of strong, sleek, "sexy" bodies that we are prodded to possess if we wish to be successful and self-respecting.
Complicit with this warped logic is the notion that health is a necessary accouterment of personal happiness. But buyer beware, for self-indulgence lurks in the shadows. Consider the case of the workout equipment models frequently seen on TVthose young, fit beautiful hunks engrossed in the admiration of their own immaculate physiques. How narcissistically they gaze upon their own finely honed musculature, gods and goddesses enraptured in self-veneration. By implication, however, lack of muscular definition and cardiovascular fitness is necessarily rendered bada secular sin of sorts. Ectomorphs like myself are made to feel inferior, if not guilty. And in the convoluted society of the admiration of physical perfection, the person who loses his or her health and vitality has to face the inevitability of social excommunication. In the cult of body worshippers there is simply no room at the inn for the weak and flabby.
We Christians ought not to allow ourselves to be seduced by the faux message currently being broadcast. We of all people ought to recognize that the quest to stay forever young is ultimately little more than a vain and pathetic attempt to stay relevant in a culture obsessed with youth and outward form. The Bible clearly teaches that real beauty lies within (Pr. 31:30; 1 Peter 3:3-4). And the better part of wisdom knows that whatever the program, sooner or later the grass must wither and the flower fade. If an internal life has not been nourished, there will be nothing to show when the day of reckoning finally arrives.
But what does one make of the verse in 1 Corinthians 3:16, which states that our bodies are the temple of the living God? Does it not imply that we are to keep those temples as fit as possible? Well sure, within reason. But it does not then follow that the fitter we are, the holier we become. If Christian theology were to equate health with holiness, then the disabled and aged would have to be considered as God's slumsa reluctant habitation at best. Rather, the biblical emphasis is that health has everything to do with spiritual orientation and very little association, if any, with physical conditioning. And it's a good thing, for not everyone can accomplish physical fitness; aerobic exercise is actually detrimental to some conditions. Health, then, is so much more than modern-day gym gurus preach. If it were not so, God would not come near to most of us. Yet the fact that he does is precisely the good news of the gospel. He sees us in the image of his beloved Sonthe only perfect one. And the faith we share in him is inclusive of all people, irrespective of skin color, intelligence, or "buffness."
Of course biblical characters attained a descent aerobic workout simply carrying out a day's activities, whereas most of us today sit on our cans in automobiles, offices, or at home in front of the TV and computer. But it was neither fitness nor the fiber-filled diets of our forefathers in the faith that put them right with God. It was, as David's mistake-prone life made amply clear, the condition of the heart that made the difference. And things are unchanged today, despite the overwhelming tide of a materialistic worldview that virtually worships the physical form as it simultaneously proclaims the supremacy of human intelligence.
Holistic healthor a biblical perspective on health, if you preferstarts from the inside out. It begins in the heart and radiates out through one's entire being. If the heart is right with God, then the outward form is in perfect order. Not one squat thrust is needed. God within means vitality for all aspects of the person: emotional, mental and, yes, physical. But it is a much broader concept of health than mere virulence or longevity. All that secularism associates with good healthproper diet, impressive aerobic capacity, excellent bone densityis little more than icing on the cake. It is a distant second and means nothing without the key component in the systema faith-filled life. And the wonderful thing is, where physical conditioning cannot follow due to infirmity, one's condition can still be whole. The bedridden are inferior to no one from a biblical point of view. Though perhaps repulsive by worldly standards, they are the very apple of God's eye. In fact, the Bible clearly indicates that God is present in a special way with those who suffer (Job 36:15; Is. 53:4; Matt. 8:3). It is almost as though spirituality increases in those who decline physically. But for the person who views health as mere physiological existence, death or serious disablement takes everything away so that there is nothing of value left. It's an all or nothing proposition borne from a purely materialistic focus.
By contrast, the biblical position is that only one condition can effectively keep a person from wholeness. That condition, of course, is sin. We are informed that the long-term effect of sin is death, both physical and spiritual, while the short-term impact is loss of communion with God. Now that is the true formula for poor health. To be without God is a state of being in which the body may perform with optimum physical capacity, but no significant interior life exists. Importantly, the opposite is also true: the body may function horribly, but the spirit can soar above it all.
History is replete with many examples of people who suffered affliction of some sort, yet allowed God to shine forth through them with a life-imparting beauty. Helen Keller is a notable example. Her calling came through her disability. Her gift to the world was the outworking of her own suffering, a childhood acquired blindness. Had she not lost her sight, most likely Ms. Keller would have lived just one more unremarkable life. But God, as he is prone to do, redeemed the situationindeed, he worked his unique intentions through it and thereby turned apparent tragedy into triumph.
This sort of divine salvage work happens all the time. In professional sports there is the remarkable example of someone who managed to perform at the highest level despite struggling with a debilitating illness. Michelle Akers, the unabashedly Christian soccer star of the 1999 World Cup Champion American women's soccer team, proclaimed her faith through her struggle with Chronic Fatigue Syndromecontributing important skills and experience to her team's unforgettable championship performance. Few realized the severe degree of exhaustion and debility it exacted on her physically and emotionally, requiring IV treatments after every game and eschewing all extraneous activities to garner her strength for each competition. Another Christian athlete, the British Olympic swimmer Tom Dolan, also managed to achieve an incredible feat by winning two gold medals while burdened with the same mysterious illness. And for sheer inspiration, consider the story of a totally blind mountain climber named Erik Weihenmayer, who summited Everest in his ongoing quest to climb the highest peaks on each of the world's seven continents.
While these examples are inspiring in their own way, there is danger in holding them up too high. Many, indeed most, disabled persons cannot "achieve" anywhere near those levels of performance. People whose faith is unequaled often live in bodies that, for one reason or another, do not allow the opportunity to work or excel in ways commended by the world. The crowning achievements of such unlikely heroes are often in the seemingly mundane realm: finding the strength to cook dinner and do the dishes, fix a leaky faucet, get a book from the library, or attend church. For many people with disabilities, everyday life is often experienced as a series of challenges that loom up as mountains more daunting than any Himalayan peak.
For some, praising disabled achievers like Akers and Dolan might mean that all disabled people should be held up to such standardsinappropriate given varying levels of disablement. There can be the expectation that if a few disabled persons can perform admirably, then all should be able to excel at something, and are made to feel small if they do not. The healthy often unwittingly project onto the disabled the need to achieve something notable or visible in the world of the healthythe only world they have experienced and can understand.
The attempt to fashion others into our own image seems a universal predilection. But it is wrongor at least self-serving and egocentric. God's approach seems to be the application of a sliding scale or an individualized formula, if you will. To whom much is given, much is required. To whom disability is given, unique manifestations of faith and purpose will follow. Lynn Vanderzalm, another casualty of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, wrote about her faith-oriented experiences in the book Finding Strength in Weakness. In it she writes, "Sometimes I'm too sick even to open my Bible for weeks, and yet I'm still loving God with all my strength. And he knows it...I came to believe that my value as a person lies not in what I do but in who I amWhat counts is not my accomplishments but my faithfulness to God's purposes in my life."
Vanderzalm recognized that her success is based on her faith in Christ, not on any external measure of achievement. But many other ill and disabled people are not able to achieve even as much as did Mrs. Vanderzalm. Some are too afflicted to even attend to their own needs. Previously healthy and active people are regularly struck down by illnesses such as fibromyalgia, lupus, or cancer. Not only are they fully alive and fully accepted by God, but their conditions make them no less whole as persons. And the marvel of it all is this: God extends a unique and appropriate calling to each infirm one, a uniquely designed purpose within the boundaries of individual physical and mental limitations. This is true even of those who are dying, with bodies spent by disease or old age. Theirs is no less important a calling than the traditional heavy hitters still in the active lineup: the teachers, pastors, and missionaries. If only to lie in bed and meditate on God's goodness, one's calling is of no less consequence. There is no hierarchy of achievement when it comes to being faithful to God's purposes. Quality and not quantity is the basis of divine math. The inclinations of the heart, not the flounderings of the flesh, are his real concern. As the Psalmist puts it, "His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, nor his delight in the legs of a man; the Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love (Ps. 147: 10, 11).
This is the point at which a person's afflictions, rather than his or her skills, become the medium for God's calling. Too much like the culture about us, Christendom often rejoices in the aptitudes of those who are sound in mind and body. Folks who do not measure up are then easily viewed simply as recipients of the gifts expressed by those who can. But the infirm do not only exist so the healthy can express their gifts of caring and compassion. Where cognitive and bodily health are absent, God showers special giftsvery specialthat are meant to be fully expressed and wonderfully efficacious toward his benevolent and redemptive purposes in the world.
The disabled have so much more than a passive contribution to make. They have a critical role in the outworking of the kingdom of God, albeit those involvements will generally garner little recognition. The disabled seldom occupy places of honor or fame. Their prayer closets are necessarily hidden. In the Body of Christ, the right hand (the healthy) often knows not what the left (the disabled) is doing. A housebound paraplegic happily humming a hymn of praise will probably never be the subject matter of a Christian magazine cover story. The ways of the world are too much with us. We want to see the outwardly dynamic, something obviously attractive or impressive. In this regard, the Church is mightily influenced by a secular vision of significance.
Mother Teresa has become the unfortunate model. She labored for decades in obscurity until the media latched onto her amazing work and made it a cause celbre, always mindful of some advantage that could be wrestled from the exposure. Believers, likewise, often point to her good works and saintly life to justify a life of faith among a cynical and disparaging world. But the model is inappropriate because few peoplehealthy or otherwisecan follow in her humble but efficacious footsteps. In fact, many saints cannot walk at all. Wheelchairs must suffice as pulpits, smiles as sermons, silent prayer for public ministry. But that is fine by God. He intends nothing more, nor nothing less.
Without a doubt, physical strength and mobility is a most wonderful part of living. Running, dancing, and even swinging a carpenter's hammer is inspiring to behold, and more inspirational to experience. Since the loss of my previous level of health and mobility, I must struggle each day to look forward and not back at the social involvement and sense of relevance I once enjoyed. As my body began to flag, my spirit has had to pick up the pace. Yet in a very real sense, I am much healthier now. I have become more whole. It may not appear so by the look of things, but God has been working in places invisible to the human eye. Perhaps his intention all along was to bring me to this deeper place. I finally grasped the rather basic truth that spiritual atrophy, rather than withering limbs, is a far greater danger to the believer. Through my decline I have gained more strength to counter our culture's misplaced priorities. My growing weakness has supplied a strengthened resolve to declare that fornication, not flab, is an authentic transgression, that callousness and not calories the real enemy we face. Like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who blessed the many years he spent confined within the difficult and dehumanizing Soviet prison system, my faith has become a source of certainty that God is in the business of fashioning good from that which hurts and maims.
Living in bodies that on the surface appear crushed, the disabled can be no less than victorious. Though outwardly they may be devolving further and further into infirmity, they are fully capable of being inwardly renewed as part of a glorious and hope-filled divine renovation project. Often placed high on society's list of the insignificant, the severely disabled are in reality fully accepted and appreciatedindeed, loved beyond measureby the One who gazes not upon the deficits of the flesh, but upon the inclinations of the heart. He sees his perfect image in every bent mind and broken body, and he is lovingly shaping us all accordingly. Victorious, glorious, loved and acceptednow that is a supremely healthy state to be in.
So whatever the vocation or circumstance that defines the believer's existence, we each share a call to live in and exude wholeness. To express that wholeness working in a soup kitchen or the public square is unquestionably marvelous. Praise be to God for those who faithfully do so. Yet to articulate that same wholeness through a simple smile or a silent prayer from the confines of a hospital bed is no less spectacular. God is equally delighted in all whose hearts are fully devoted to him, no matter their calling or lot in life. It's high time the Church follow suit.
Jim Rotholz, PhD, worked five years in missions and international development in Nepal, Somalia, and Ethiopia. He also served a brief tenure as Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Washington State University. His most recent book (his third) is Gospel Without Borders: Separating Christianity from Culture in America (Wipf and Stock, 2015). He has two grown children and currently lives in northern New Mexico with Louise, his gifted and adventurous wife of 37 years.
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