Whatever His reasons, God has allowed me almost eighty-five years on earth so far. Over the decades there have been many high spots, but also many times of struggle and indecision. As countless believers before me, I have learned that in hard times the best course of action is not to fight against it, but ask myself, “What is the lesson He wants me to learn in this circumstance?”.
Several years ago I realized that I am seriously out of step with many of my fellow believers. The formulaic solutions to spiritual struggles held as indisputable by much of the Church frequently just didn’t work for me. I was (and continue to be) extremely uncomfortable with much of the materialism and shallow values which seem to be creeping into our faith. I found myself growing farther and farther away from the generally held customs and “rules” embraced by many evangelicals. I wanted to strip away all the traditions and culture which seemed to have replaced a genuine One on one relationship with Christ.
I longed to understand Jesus from His words and actions alone, apart from all the interpretations which have been ascribed to Him. What does it really mean, I wondered, to follow Jesus with abandon and a whole heart? I realized that for me the path didn’t go through either legalism or an ultra-liberal intellectualization, but through a simple desire to try to follow Him through every circumstance in trust and obedience, even if the path was rocky and hard. I believe that my fundamental responsibility as a believer is to love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul and mind, and to love my neighbor as myself. How do I rightly translate this credo into everyday living? Is not every man my neighbor? It seemed to me it had less to do with following rules than with having a humble and loving attitude of heart and mind and simply living the Gospel in the best way I can.
I also realized that the secret to spiritual contentment and joy is found in submission to the will of the Father. A willingness to accept God’s provision of salvation is only the beginning of faith. We must recognize Christ not only as Savior, but also as Lord. To rest in the safety of salvation without being willing to submit myself to the will of God in the details of my life is a narcissistic kind of faith. There are circumstances in life that we can change, and there are those we cannot change. Sometimes the ones we can’t change may be difficult and we are puzzled as to why God has allowed this to happen to me. The question then becomes how to accept, with contentment, all that He allows ~ whether or not the circumstances are comfortable and pleasant. From last June through January of this year, God and I worked on this dilemma together.
At my age my body has been, as one physician put it, “around the block a few times”. Last summer an MRI of my back revealed a plethora of problems which explained the intolerable pain I was experiencing if I tried to stand for more than a few seconds. I had lost almost all my independence. I could no longer make my own meals, go to church, do my own grocery shopping. I needed a walker to go from one room to another, and was mostly confined to activities I could do sitting down. Sometimes even sitting was too painful. I needed to lie flat without moving until the excited nerves simmered down. Preliminary treatment with non-invasive methods didn’t bring much relief. Fortunately, I was blessed to have one of my children move in with me temporarily to provide the necessary assistance. Nevertheless, it was frustrating for a woman who has been determinedly independent to find herself confined to a life of inactivity. You can only read so many books, listen to so much music, write so many letters. My child was at work during the day except for mealtimes, and had other responsibilities on the weekends ~ which meant I was alone most of the time, in pain, and stuck on the sofa in the den bored silly. This was now my daily reality.
As a believer, how do I respond? This is where theory meets life.
As a believer for nearly seventy years, I knew all the usual wisdom. However, it is one thing to know the right thing to do and another to be able to apply it to your own life. Somehow, I needed to find the insight and faith which would allow me to say, “Yes, Lord” and mean it.
I found that immersing myself in the Scriptures had a great calming effect. When I remember all that Christ endured for my sake, it was hard to have the nerve to complain about pain which, although severe, was not always a steady thing. I realized that He is faithful in not putting on me more than I can bear, and was grateful for the hours when I was relatively comfortable as long as I stayed perfectly still. I was grateful that, in His mercy, He allowed my child to be here just at the right time. I could not have managed without help, and yet my every need was met, as He has promised.
I had to recognize that my unwillingness to be dependent stems from pride ~ my old nemesis. When I looked at my frustration I realized that it was because I took pride in still being able to function well when many of my contemporaries had been forced to throw in the towel. I was beating the odds, I thought. I had refused to think about the inevitable, when I would no longer be able to do what I was doing. “Wouldn’t happen to me”, I fanaticized. Within the framework of my financial and physical and emotional parameters, I thought I didn’t need anyone. Yet, God allowed me to be faced with the truth that we are all mortal; that I have reached the final stage of the seven ages of man; that heaven is a lot closer than it used to be. My pride was wounded. I do need other people in my life, and I am no longer able to be completely autonomous.
Heaven became one of my great consolations. As I began to think about heaven, I realized that it is a source of great peace to me. I thought about what it would mean just to close my eyes and slip into a place where I would no longer be in pain, where I would be a new creature in a new body, free of my old nature and fully conformed to the image of Christ. I found that material “things” are now of relatively little importance to me. I have a houseful of things: furniture and dishes and books and ornaments. Most now are only dust catchers. All that matters are the things I need for my basic existence. Age and pain change your priorities, and life is stripped down to its most basic components.
I found that most of my thoughts are about people. Pain has made me more compassionate. I find myself weeping for others in pain; I rejoice at the victories of others; I seem to be in prayer a lot more than I used to be. My heart breaks for those who may be Christian, but whose hearts are full of anger and hatred and mean-spiritedness. They are forgetting that the very nature of God is love; that over and over again we are called to love one another… even our enemies. I pray that the wisdom of God and the spirit of Love will change these attitudes, and they will realize that we cannot represent a loving God by hating others. We are to love and pray for our enemies, and return good for evil. I find myself yearning for a new Reformation within the Church and a re-awakening to the blessings of a humble, Christ-centered life of trust and submission to the will of God.
All of these things have been teaching me that it is not the circumstances of life that are important, but our response to those circumstances. Long, long ago Job came to the same conclusion as he faced far greater suffering than most of us have ever suffered. His eventual response? “Yea, though He slay me ~ still will I trust in Him”. Because I know that God is love, I can put all my circumstances in His hands and let go. I can endure, because of what Christ endured for me. I can understand that in pain and suffering of many kinds the love of God can bring blessing in the form of new closeness to Him. I have the promise of heaven before me as I wait for Him (for however long) to call me home, or until He returns. Maranatha!