My great aunt was a big believer in faith healing. She came to visit family in Canada while one of my great uncles was fighting cancer. “If you just had enough faith, you would be healed,” she told him. Within the decade, my grandma made a trip to the Netherlands to visit her sister who was by then fighting her own battle with leukemia and not expected to survive. The topic of faith healing was conspicuously absent from conversation between the sisters, my grandma later told my dad.
It’s not that I don’t believe in faith healings – I absolutely believe that God heals people miraculously. But what about when God doesn’t? What about when we’ve prayed and fasted and wept and proclaimed and believed all we can and yet God doesn’t give the miracle we’ve been waiting for?
If our response is to tell the ones suffering, “If only you had enough faith, then you would be healed,” then I think we need to ask some tough questions about our theology. Prosperity gospel ideas (that God wants you to be wealthy and healthy) have maybe invaded our theology more than we’ve realized, eroding the firm foundation that our faith can stand on when we are sick, lose a job, struggle with mental health or addiction, lose a loved one, experience a tragedy, or any of the things we know are part of being alive.
God wants goodness for us, of this I remain convinced. God’s plan for us, God’s design for us, and God’s desire for us is shalom, an idea so important to me that I have it tattooed on my body. All the pain and brokenness in our world is a result of sin, not God’s design or desire. And Christ has conquered sin and death… but we live in the “already and and not yet” of Christ’s kingdom, where there can be miraculous healing, and yet there is still sickness. Where there are answered prayers, and yet there are still loved ones who die, people who suffer with chronic illness, people struggling with mental illness.
I started thinking about this a lot in the fall of 2019. I’d had enough hospital visits and referrals to specialists where doctors had sort of shrugged and said essentially, “Whatever’s wrong, it’s not this. It’s not my department.” I needed the right doctor, and we finally found each other on Labour Day weekend in yet another emergency room visit. He took things really seriously, referring me to what felt like endless tests and imaging and blood work. I remember so clearly sitting in church the first Sunday after my first non-ER appointment with the new doctor. I went from feeling like I needed to fight to be taken seriously to worrying about how serious the new doctor was taking things. “Okay, God,” I prayed. “I know you’re in control. You already know what’s wrong, and with you, I’m going to be okay.”
“What if you’re not though?” I heard the Holy Spirit whisper in my soul. “What if you’re not okay?” Is your faith big enough to survive that?” I went home from church with that question still spinning in my head and heart.
Later that week, I wrote this in my journal:
It’s so tempting in the middle of this medical mystery to think, “It’s okay. It’s going to be okay. God’s got this under control.”
I see a little bit of that in the encouragement and reassurance of my friends who know a little bit about what I’m in the middle of. It’s not that I *don’t* think God is in control of all that happens… it’s just that I don’t think that’s a guarantee of a happy ending. It’s not a certainty that I’ll be okay.
My brain wants to justify this – my years of church life – to say, “Even if I die, that’s just God’s will. It will be okay because I’ll be with Jesus and not in pain or fear of the next bout of symptoms.”
But is that *really* God’s will for me? Is that really God’s deepest desire for me, for my family, for my friends, my students?
What if it’s actually more true to say, “Whatever happens, Jesus is with me? Whether it’s awful or okay, Jesus is with me. If it’s awful, Jesus can use that to shape me, to teach me who he is. If it’s good, Jesus can use that to shape me, to teach me who he is. If it’s awful, Jesus will mourn with me. If it turns out okay, Jesus rejoices with me. Life doesn’t always turn out okay.”
People live with chronic illnesses. People die young and we say their lives were cut off tragically short. This isn’t God’s desire. And yet God is with us anyway.
I’m still wrestling through this. I finally have a solid diagnosis and a surgery ahead of me that the surgeon tells me will make me feel so much better. Meanwhile, whether from the tumour or side effects of medication, I have a headache or migraine so frequently. I’ve had a headache for so many days of Christmas vacation that the days without a headache fade away and I start to feel like I can’t remember the last day when I felt good, like this is just my life now. I have to challenge myself to remember, to actively remember the truth, running my fingers over the word tattooed into my skin.
This isn’t part of God’s design. But God can use it. God is here with me, Emmanuel, in my suffering.
One thought on “What Do We Do about Suffering?”
Thank you for this post, Beth. Thanks for your vulnerability. I’m so glad you’re in my life.