In 2014, I was diagnosed with health conditions that I will deal with for the rest of my life. They affect my daily choices in many ways. There are days where I am stuck in the house for hours on end as my body won't let me leave. There are times when I have to take medication in order to function for the day. And I always have to be cognizant of today and plan accordingly for tomorrow. We always tell people that your choices today affect your tomorrow and for me that is doubly true. I say this not to seek your sympathy but to offer some reassurance about struggles.
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 that our suffering allows us to draw near to those that suffer as well. When we find peace and comfort in God, we can draw from that comfort and help others. When I was first diagnosed with my conditions, I did a good amount of research, but nothing helped me as much as my community of co-sufferers. Speaking to people who had the same condition gave me peace and strength. Knowing that not only were they in my shoes but also they had been walking in it much longer than me fortified me. Seeing them strive and learn how to function each day meant that I would find a way to function too. And when I had found my way, when I figured out what worked for me, I too was able to draw near to others and help them. It's a cycle of hope that begins with God and brings you peace that you can then share that hope with others.
When you think of the Apostle Paul, what do you think of? I would guess that most of us do not define Paul by his constant "thorn in the flesh" (2 Cor 12:7). We read about Paul's request for God to remove this constant pain, but God never does. Yet this mysterious condition is not our central image of Paul. When I picture Paul, I picture an evangelist, a missionary, a pastor, and a passionate friend. I picture a man who loves Jesus so much that he takes every opportunity to talk about him. I picture a man who dealt with a condition but did not allow that condition to define him. Did his "thorn" affect him daily? Did he make decisions based on it and how it limited or hindered him? Maybe. But his condition didn't make him anything he didn't want to be. Know that your health, your condition, your pain doesn't make you any less of a son or daughter of God. Know that you are not defined by your health condition. You are more than that.
Our Christian culture gets a little uncomfortable with people who are angry with God. There's a prevalent feeling that you must always be joyful and respectful with God. You are expected to praise God for today and the fact that you are alive. There is truth to these calls to joy, but let us not forget that God gives us space to lament, grieve, cry, and be angry. God is big enough to handle our fears and even our anger.
The book of Lamentations is a wonderful painful poetic crying out to God. Throughout this book we hear every pain and turmoil one can imagine and we are invited to hear their voices and give them space. From feeling abandoned and neglected to waning in faith, it's all there and offered up to God. One of the struggles I've had as I researched and preached on this book is that I want to find and give hope to the voices of lament. And while we declare the hope of Christ, we cannot ignore the pain of the poet's cries. We remember our hope and declare it, but also acknowledge our feelings and our pains. The book of Lamentations reminds us that there are times when the darkness is a reality so we shouldn't try to cover it up or sweep it under the rug. We can acknowledge our emotions and seek God's comfort and wisdom for the journey forward.
What I've had to learn over these past few years is that it could easily be worse for me. I know for many of us saying it could be worse is cliché. Me telling you this won't bring you peace automatically. But for me, knowing I remain blessed has been comforting. I've spoken to numerous people who are sympathetic to me and can't imagine going through what I have endured. I've appreciated people's words of sympathy yet I know that if someone were to tell me too easily, "It could be worse!" then I'd be upset with them. But knowing "it could be worse" is the truth I find peace in. For those of us who suffer from constant pain we need to realize that the FEELING of peace is going to come from a decision we personally make.
I had to grieve through to the truth and reality that this struggle was never leaving me. I had to reconcile myself with it, accepting it and moving forward. I choose not to dwell in it and allow it to run the whole of my life. So yes, it could be worse. Much worse. Our deficits don't define us, or change our God-given identity, or limit us in the Kingdom of God. You are still a child and heir. You are still a voice in the darkness who can bring God's hope and to others.
As a co-sufferer I understand what it is to suffer and endure pain. I pray that you will recognize God's presence as he walks with you every step of the way. God is faithful to walk with us and nothing will ever separate us from his love (Romans 8). May you be embraced by a faith community that supports and encourages you along the way.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra
Dr. Robert Ritzema