What I’m Learning from the Suffering so Close to Me

By Dave Smith

When I left for seminary more than 27 years ago, I had stars in my eyes and wings on my feet. I knew God was calling me to vocational ministry. After fulfilling my obligation to the United States Army, I resigned my commission and moved to Chicago.

200117711-001And what could go wrong? In my Disney World Discipleship, Candy Land Christianity view of the world, life was going to be easy. After all, why wouldn’t God protect me from difficulties since I was now training for pastoral ministry? And to sweeten the pot for God, I told him I wanted to plant a church for him! Wasn’t he fortunate?

It did not take long to discover life was not going to look like I had fantasized.

It began with little things: appliances breaking, and our condominium flooding from a neighbor’s washer that overflowed every time she used it. This, we discovered only after months of calling out the repairman to fix our washer.

Then it got serious. Nancy began experiencing double vision in her left eye and numbness in her left hand. A doctor referred us to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where we were told, “We think you have multiple sclerosis.” But at that same moment, I heard God saying to me, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.

Mercifully 1985 drew to a close, and we embarked on a new year. We decided it was time to have children, and Nancy became pregnant almost immediately. It was good to know God was finally getting on board with our plans.

In April we were told one of Nancy’s tests was abnormal. “Not to worry,” the doctor told us, it could be twins. Ever the optimist at that point, I began thinking of names, Martha and Mary, Joshua and Caleb, Cain and . . . never mind.

We went in for an ultrasound on a beautiful spring day. The technician performed the ultrasound, and then left the room without saying a word. Though deficient in medical training, I knew that was not a good sign.

Our doctor walked in and declared, as if she were giving a weather report, “Your baby has anencephaly, failure of the brain and skull to develop. We recommend immediate termination of pregnancy.” We refused. Thus began the most painful, but shaping experience of our young marriage.

I had always told God, even when I did not believe in him, that I did not want to deal with serious illness to one of my kids. Now we were hearing that our baby had a 100 percent chance of death.

 

Praying for Healing

We prayed for guidance and sensed God telling us to pray for healing. So we did. And so did hundreds, perhaps thousands across the country and around the world. And on November 20, 1986, my wife gave birth to Bethany Joy—stillbirth.

I remember holding her lifeless body, weeping at the disappointment of it all. I really believed God was going to heal my little girl. He did not, at least like I envisioned. I believe he took her to be with him. But I wanted to raise her here.

As I held her, I felt the presence of God come on me in a way I have experienced only a few times. Now I get it! I told God. You are going to raise her from the dead! That will show all these skeptics and pagans! But he did not. And I went home, got in the shower, and cried.

I said, God, you are God and I am not. I accept that. But what was that “presence” thing all about? Why did you come on me like that? Then, as clearly as if he were standing there (which, being omnipresent, he was), God said, That was for you, so you will know I am here, and I do love you.

I brought Nancy home a few days later. I remember waiting for the elevator. A couple was next to us. Both my wife and the man’s wife were in wheelchairs. She was holding her baby. We held nothing.

But God is faithful. He brought healing into our lives and taught us much through this trial. We learned to experience joy in the midst of pain. Every morning I would spend significant time with God, learning that the joy of the Lord is my strength.

Nancy and I played Scripture tapes at home and in the car, discovering, as Jesus said, that “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

As I ran, I would ask God to help me run the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:1, 2).

We learned how God uses his body, the church, to encourage and sustain us. And we learned that his ways are above our ways, and his thoughts are above our thoughts. I should say, I thought I learned this.

 

Fighting Mad

It took more than two years to become pregnant again. Then we miscarried. And I was mad, fighting mad. After all, we had already paid our dues. Wasn’t a stillbirth enough? Now, after years of trying, we become pregnant, and you allow a miscarriage? What kind of God are you?

I discovered God can take our anger. I prayed—hard. Not those pathetically emasculated prayers, devoid of life and passion, which so often characterize the American church, but biblical prayers—prayers like those of Moses, Jeremiah, David, even Jesus. I prayed like the Psalms, of which almost half are prayers of lament.

I laid my anger before God, and he loved me through it, reminding me, as he did Job, of his sovereignty. I learned again that his ways are above my ways, his thoughts above my thoughts.

If you are struggling with illness or any other challenge, be honest with God about how you feel. Go to the Psalms. Pray them. As you do, you will begin to rediscover a God who is loving, powerful, wise, and faithful. You will learn, as you walk with God, to accept his sovereignty and your limitations.

Depend, commune with Jesus, and experience the rest he alone gives. “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28, 29).

Along with his rest, God allowed us to experience two more miscarriages. He also gave us three healthy children. And he gave us more opportunities to grow.

 

Our Greatest Challenge

Nancy’s MS progressed slowly for several years. Then in the mid-1990s, it started affecting her legs. In 2000 we bought her first walker. By 2002, she was in a wheelchair. The disease has continued to progress, affecting not only her legs and feet, but hands, arms, and other functions.

Dave Smith and his wife of more than 30 years, Nancy, and their daughter Amy.
Dave Smith and his wife of more than 30 years, Nancy, and their daughter Amy.

It has been the hardest thing our family has ever experienced. I have prayed to God to take it away, for our sakes, countless times. And he has seen fit—for our sakes—not to. But suffering does not guarantee growth. Many people simply become bitter.

One of the few things on earth we can truly impact is our response to trials. But even then, we need God’s empowering to allow suffering to do God’s work in our lives. What are some of the lessons we have learned along the way?

My wife has learned God still loves her even in the midst of this debilitating illness. She has had to work to believe God can still use her, even with a broken body. He has and continues to do so. She is the godliest person I know. She inspires so many others with her faith in this inscrutable, unfathomable God. And God sustains her and continues to mold her in his image.

Nancy has learned to allow others to serve her. It has been difficult for her to watch others work hard for her. She is learning to say, “I trust you God.”

She also continues to learn God does not always (dare we say often?) meet our expectations or desires. Do we really believe God knows what he is doing? Can we learn to affirm “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28)? Do we believe God will not allow us to be tested beyond what we can bear? Can we learn to live more fully in the power of Jesus, knowing “He is the vine, and we are simply branches; apart from him we can do nothing”?

My three children are at different points in understanding what MS has meant to their lives. Certainly they know Jesus is telling the truth when he says, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). They are at different places in applying his encouragement to “Take heart! I have overcome the world.”

 

Continually in Training

I am learning that not only has Jesus overcome the world, but he can overcome my own selfishness, as I surrender to him.

Sometimes I struggle most with the sheer amount of work that caregiving demands. Jesus is teaching me to more fully rest in him, to be still and know he is God—which means I am not. I am not God. I am not Superman. I am not even Underdog. Often I am just plain tired.

Sometimes I struggle not with all that must be done, but all we are not able to do because of MS. Like Nancy, I remind myself God does things for his glory and our good.

I am learning to move from resisting suffering to accepting it, for God declares, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).

I am learning, slowly, to say with Paul, “But we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).

This same God is helping me move from accepting to embracing suffering, because as Hebrews 12 reminds us, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves,” so we are to “endure hardship as discipline,” knowing that “no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (vv. 6, 7, 11).

I find myself continually in training. I am discovering God can use hardship to break the tyranny of self. I find myself experiencing the freedom Jesus promises when he says, if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed (John 8:36). I am learning that if we seek to save our life, we will lose it, but if we lose our life for his sake, we will find it (See Matthew 10:39, 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24, 17:33).

If you are bearing fruit for God, but facing illness or other hardship, let God do his work in you, for God prunes every branch that bears fruit, that it may be more fruitful.

 

Dave Smith serves as executive director of community outreach and church planting at East 91st Street Christian Church, Indianapolis, Indiana.

________

 

Walking Your Path with Suffering

Pray
Pray for healing, but pray also for God to help you know him better, become more like him, and do the things he does.

Love
Love those in your family afflicted with illness. Love those impacted by the illness. Ask God to fill you with his overwhelming love.

Live
Live the life God has set before you. It is easy to look at someone else’s

life and want it. But run with endurance the race God has marked out for you.

Let
Let God be God. Be still, cease your striving, and know that God is God— there is none like him.

Follow Him. Love Him. Trust Him.
“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19).

—D.S. 

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