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I astonish myself sometimes with my own thick headedness. Life lessons that I thought I’d learned once and for all, lessons I was sure I had down pat, issues I was convinced would never surface again – rear their ugly head and remind me of my own frailty and need to depend on God.
I’ve been going through something like that in recent days. And it surprises me that this lesson is obviously still to be learned.
I once thought – not consciously, of course, but obviously thought nonetheless – that if I lived my life sincerely trying to please God, then I would somehow be rewarded for it. It’s not that I expected brownie points or gold stars. I didn’t go around thinking, “If I do A, then God will reward me with B.” At least, not that I was aware of. But somehow – I know that’s what I thought. I know it, because when bad stuff happened, I got angry at God and wanted to know “Why???!!!” My own sense of justice was offended. It just wasn’t fair. After all, hadn’t I tried to do right?
Jesus warned us that life would be hard, that we would suffer. “In this world you will have trouble,” the gospel writer records Jesus saying in John 16:33. So we shouldn’t be surprised when trouble comes. But somehow, trouble often catches me off guard.
I’ve had a disappointment recently and my old, bad theology surfaced once again. I just couldn’t understand how this thing, of all things, could have happened. Hadn’t I done everything in my power – almost my entire adult life – to ensure it never did? And once again, I found myself asking, “Why, God???!!!”
It’s been agonizing to be honest. Throat-clenchingly agonizing. Emotional-pain-that-I’ve-felt-in-my-physical-body agonizing. I’ve shed more tears, and cried out to God for His wisdom, guidance, and help more times in the past week than I think I’ve done in the entirety of the past year.
Sometimes life presents hard stuff that I just don’t know how to handle on my own.
But I know now that all the while that I was crying and raging by day, and tossing and turning by night, I wasn’t listening.
Yesterday – I realized I’d crossed a line. Expressing my hurt and anger, worry and fear had hurt someone I love. I knew I needed to rein in my emotions but felt completely incapable of doing so. And so I prayed for help, and then determined to behave as though help would be given. I would ignore the tempestuous voices on the inside – and put on a smile on the outside – going forward. I would no longer dwell on what’s past, what cannot be changed. I would focus only on loving in the present, hoping for the future, and trusting in God’s grace and ability to redeem what’s gone wrong.
And you know what? Help came. Today.
I heard God speak. Not in an audible voice of course. But His voice – which came through the words of others – again and again throughout the day - was astonishingly clear. It communicated that this battle – that I have been attempting to fight through all my internal worrying and wrestling – indeed, that I’ve been fighting for more than 20 years by trying to ensure this bad thing that has occurred never would – is not mine, but God’s. (2 Chronicles 2:15)
I received that message in various ways and through various people. Four times today. I wouldn’t have heard it, if I’d still been raging.
And tonight, I am at peace.
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
- John 16:33
“Such things come from God and from Him alone, and … before Him there can only be subjection, perseverance, patience – and gratitude. So every question ‘Why?’ falls silent, because it has found its answer.”
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer (writing in a letter to Hans von Dohnanyi, from Tegel prison, 1943
There have been seasons in my life when God has seemed very, very quiet. I have found such seasons difficult. Life feels dry, and faith plods. Spiritual disciplines become more about the discipline than the spiritual, a matter of going through the motions. The worst part of such periods is not knowing when they will end. Wondering if maybe this time – they won’t.
But there have also been times when I’ve seen God everywhere and in everything. Fool that I am – even such seasons as these are not without concern – for I find myself worrying that reveling in them too much might bring them to an end.
And then there are moments when God seems to intervene. Intervenes so obviously, so directly, it knocks the wind right out of me, leaving me breathless, gasping and on my knees, thankful for God’s mercy and grace.
Such was my experience today.
Our youngest, Jenna, was diagnosed with idiopathic adolescent scoliosis in the spring of 2010. Her first X-ray – in July of that year – revealed a curve of 19 degrees. Six months later, another X-ray indicated the curve had progressed to 25 degrees. At that point, our doctor referred her to the scoliosis specialists at Sick Kids hospital. It took until June, 2011 to get an appointment. By then, the X-rays revealed her curve had progressed to 35 degrees – but, they told us, Jenna had stopped growing so there was nothing that would be done.
Seeking another opinion, our doctor arranged for Jenna to be seen by the specialists at McMaster Children’s Hospital. They agreed with the conclusions of the doctors at Sick Kids, but arranged for Jenna to have an MRI to ensure there were no underlying medical conditions which might have caused the rapid progression of her curve. A follow-up appointment with a neurosurgeon assured us there were none – and the minor degeneration and bulging in a couple of her discs was no cause for serious concern, but the specialists said they would continue to track with Jenna for a while to ensure there was no further worsening of her condition.
Today was our first follow-up appointment. Jenna had another X-ray of her spine and then we went in to see the doctor.
“I have good news for you!” she said. “I’ve looked at this X-ray every which way and the only way I can read it is 23 degrees.”
My jaw dropped. Scoliosis doesn’t reverse itself. How was this possible?
“The only thing I can think of is that the June X-ray was wrong,” said the doctor. “We’ll bring Jenna back for one more appointment – six months from now – just to be sure this miracle is what it seems. If everything’s ok you won’t need to come again,” she concluded, offering me the Kleenex box.
We fairly floated out of the hospital. The curve labelled “moderate” in the fall is now considered “minor.”
It was only once Jenna and I were in the car that I told her that a dear friend of mine – named Jana (the woman for whom Jenna was named) had prayed for her this summer, in the wake of that 35-degree result. My friend is a woman of stronger faith than mine, and when she prayed that God would straighten out Jenna’s spine I remember thinking, “I love my friend and I’m grateful for her prayers, but I don’t think God works like that.”
I never mentioned Jana’s prayers to my daughter until today. “I didn’t think God worked like that,” I explained.
“Apparently, He does,” Jenna said.
Apparently, God does.
You can attribute this experience of ours today to a mistake or a miracle. I find I don’t need to give it a label. I don’t need to know “Why?”
I just need to give thanks.