February 14, 2018

When Pain Comes Knocking at Your Door

“Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to live worthy of the calling you have received.”(Eph. 4:1)

I’m 33, and was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) at the beginning of summer 2017. My husband Pete and I have three pre-school boys, and we are church planters in Barlanark, Glasgow.

After having our twins in May 2015, I started having excruciating pain in random joints. It would disappear, then reappear a couple of weeks later in a different joint. Every time I saw a doctor about it, the pain had either gone already or I was told to manage it with painkillers and come back if it worsened. This got quite frustrating.

Finally, I saw a rheumatologist and was diagnosed with an ‘atypical’ form of rheumatoid arthritis. RA is an auto-immune disease which causes joint inflammation. People are genetically predisposed to this, and it can be triggered any time.

When I received the news, I hadn’t appreciated how potentially life-altering the disease is. It was only after a couple of weeks that I read about it online, and then fear set in: fear of being immobile, of gnarled-up hands and feet, and of becoming a burden to others. Poisonous bitterness seeped in, and I was paralysed in my mind. I didn’t go to church that weekend, feeling utterly lost and unable to stop crying. All my theological convictions were put on hold while I flapped like a bird in a net on the day ‘life’ got in the way of my faith. Thoughts like Doesn’t God want me to be able to look after my family? were running through my head.

Like the disciple Peter, I was looking at the waves and sinking.

The pain has now mostly ‘settled’ in my knees and wrists, being worst in the mornings. This has impacted family life significantly, as Pete has had to take time off work to do simple things like dress the kids or help with nursery runs. This has been burdensome for him and affects others relying on him. I frequently feel guilty about this, and there have been many tears, but I am thankful for a patient, loving husband who points me to Christ at these times.

I began this blog with Paul’s words about living a life worthy of our calling. What am I saying, then, that a disease can be a calling? I believe it can be. Callings are not just for missionaries and pastors.

So how can RA be a calling when it gets in the way of my ministry as a church planter’s wife?

That question, which I often ask, shows my misunderstanding of the way God works. It is natural for us to see ‘circumstances’ as an interruption to life. When our church plant team dispersed last year and Hope Community Church Barlanark didn’t launch as planned, it would have been easy to see that as an interruption or a mistake. But we had to trust that God’s timing was perfect in the face of apparent failure. Don’t misunderstand me, we weren’t walking around with a holy glow, unaffected by what was happening. It was a discouraging time.

Yet despite my personal resistance to his plan at times, I know the truth: “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law”, as Paul describes in Romans 7:22.

Jesus reaches out his merciful hand to me daily and rescues me from the net. After ‘that weekend’ I eventually exhausted myself and asked Jesus what he was teaching me. Thankfully, God’s Word has lots to say on suffering. It’s one thing we are all guaranteed. Remember, God spoke to the greatly afflicted Job out of the very whirlwind that destroyed his family (Job 38), yet God remained blameless and good.

‘. . . we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance. . . .’ Romans 5:3

For the Christian, suffering is never wasted or meaningless. It is productive.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should feign joy even when we’re in agony. I hope you don’t find my words on suffering flippant. I know I’ve only sipped the cup many must drink daily. The Psalms are full of sorrow, but that’s not the end of it. There’s a golden thread of hope running through every book of the Bible—hope of a Saviour, and that Saviour changes everything. One day pain will end, tears will be wiped away, and our bodies will be restored to glorious perfection beyond our imagination. This is the assurance of every Christian.

At age seven, my brother was paralysed for three months by a virus in the brain, destroying his memory and abilities. My dad still speaks with tears recalling Jesus’ words concerning his dying friend, Lazarus: “This sickness will not end in death but is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4).

This is a passage God used to speak profoundly to my parents during that season, and ever since. My brother recovered to a far greater extent than hoped, but no one escaped unscathed. The pain continues, but we don’t despair.

So, shouldn’t we pray for healing? Of course! I have cried out to God to take the pain away, and thankfully the drug I am currently on is working. It does lower the immune system and has unpleasant side effects, however. This is a lifelong journey and there will likely be more pain ahead. But I praise God for medicine and doctors and this season of relief.

Of course we should pray for healing, but we should do so with a heart of obedience and trust, consciously aligning ourselves with His will, not bending Him to ours.

So, reader: what is your calling?

We are guaranteed hardships, but we are all called to suffer well to the glory of God, and the encouragement of others, knowing that: ‘Our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).

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