Four Postures of Suffering

In her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross studied individuals who were dying and posited that those patients went through five distinct stages from the time they were informed of their illness until their death.  Since Kübler-Ross wrote, her theory has largely been debunked, even though some patients and family members do experience some of her “stages” from time to time as they work through personal loss.

While the Bible is my authority, rather than psychology and the social sciences, it has been my personal experience and my observation of other believers, that Christians dealing with internal suffering, shattering disappointments, and other forms of deep personal trials journey through a process of numbness, grieving and growth.  It’s important that I readily admit to the traitorous flesh within me and the savage spiritual enemy pursuing me, because I cannot claim that my responses have always been without reproach, like Job’s, Joseph’s, and Jesus’ were.

There are hundreds of Christians I know who are going through far deeper waters than my family and I are, and I am challenged by them to remain faithful and joyful.  But if I am to be honest in the hope of being helpful, I’d have to admit that over five-and-a-half years now, I have gone through the following “postures” of the suffering God has allowed: hopeful, numbness, fetal position, confidence.  Let me describe each briefly.

  1. When I awoke October 12, 2010, and fell to the floor with vertigo, the next three months could be characterized as hopeful.  We saw numerous routine doctors to deal with balance, nausea, migraines, the inner ear, and digestion, and I entered each doctor’s office with a sense that surely this visit would unveil the core problem and trigger the solution.
  2. From three to twelve months, I reverted to numbness.  We began to see specialists at Duke, Mayo (in Jacksonville), Cleveland Clinic, and other doctors of note; however, I tried very hard not to get excited about the visits or the diagnoses.  In fact, most of the diagnoses would have been downright discouraging, if I had set all my hopes in them, as I had previously.  Numerous brothers and sisters in Christ recommended homeopathic remedies, as well as medicines and doctors outside the mainstream.  It was impossible to try everything recommended to me, but I did try many things.  Even these remedies, which had reportedly been of help to missionaries and laymen around the world, became part of my routine with numb appreciation, but no real hope for change.  But I plugged along, trying to do my best to meet my obligations with a body that had symptoms that were only growing worse.
  3. Three years later, in December of 2013, my numbness was shattered by *the loss of two close friends, concurrent with the gentle, growing work God was doing within me, burdening me that it would be best for the faculty, staff, students, and ministry of Bob Jones University for me to step down as president.  This was a rending experience for me.  My love and burden was still for the ministry of BJU, but that love demanded that I do what was best for the University.  Since that December, a return to the numbness stage has not been an option.  After finishing the year on May 9, 2014, I moved into the next posture of my response to the trial God has chosen for my family and me: the fetal position.  Suddenly, the calling I have felt on my life since I was five was impossible, my family had to make multiple changes my children didn’t understand, our medical expenses skyrocketed, my wife became the sole bread-winner–and I felt I was the cause of it all.  My days were spent largely in bed because of my vertigo, nausea, and migraines, and I lay much of that time crying out to the Lord.  A friend sent the verse that comforted me most deeply in this “fetal stage,” which really was a kind of mourning.  It was Psalm 34:18: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.”  That was a verse for me!  Over and over I claimed it, cried it, prayed it, confident that God was with me in the same way He had promised to be with David and all His brokenhearted children.
  4. During this time, in the summer of 2015, Erin and I were referred by a pastor friend to a Lyme disease specialist.  This pastor’s daughter had experienced a range of symptoms similar to mine for years, and had found relief from this specialist in just the last year.  Still in my “fetal position,” we made the trip to the specialist and sensed from our first visit that this was the right place.  We made several trips to the practice for examinations and labwork, coming into December with a list of medicines to start taking.  It’s important to state, though, that even before the medicines started to have an effect, God was changing my outlook.  Instead of the fetal, discouraged, almost depressed way I had spent so many days, my repeated readings of Job had led to a place of confidence.

In Job 42:2, Job asserts with conviction: “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.”  That was what I needed to shake off my sense of forgottenness and despair!  God reminded me that He is perfectly able to say a word and deliver me from my sickness at any moment–if He sees fit.  But until He sees fit, God has a purpose for me–and for every suffering Christian–within the suffering!  Instead of trying to simply survive the day, I began trying to look for God’s purpose in it–calling to encourage another ill Christian, calling to witness to individuals we’ve worked with while I was well, trying to mentor younger brothers in Christ.

Suddenly–like Job and Joseph–there was a purpose (a Person) for me to serve each day, no matter how limited that service might be due to circumstances.  I was reminded that, should He wish, God is fully able to heal me at any second.  But each day He does not, it’s because He has other things for me to do–things I probably couldn’t do if I were well–things my illness enables, rather than thwarts!

Like Job and Joseph, suffering believers can look at Satan and at people who may have hurt us deeply and we can rejoice at the worst they can throw at us.  With confidence and whole-hearted forgiveness, we can look at all opposition and say, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20a).

For today, this blog is one of God’s purposes for me.  I pray He will use it to encourage many others who are hurting.

Stephen

*I adjusted this sentence slightly from the original post because my previous wording was distracting people from the point I was trying to make–the pain of losing close friends for ANY reason (a pain that Jesus also experienced as one of His sorrows on His way to the Cross).