Saturday, November 26, 2011

Suffering, Disability and the Will of God

We had Thanksgiving with my wife’s family, in the upper part of the state. A great time as usual, filled with relatives we don’t get to see often and lots of catching up. Also loads of food. I’m still recovering.

My wife’s father suffered an accident two years ago—at the age of 74—that left him almost completely disabled. Up until the moment of the accident he was vibrant and energetic, a minister looking forward to well-deserved retirement in two short months. In a matter of seconds, though, everything changed. His neck was broken in one of those inexplicable events that leave us at a loss in trying to understand why God allows some things to happen. 

Today, while he has some functioning in his arms and legs, he still requires a wheelchair much of the time. It’s a tribute to God’s grace working through modern medicine that he’s alive at all and is now able to reside at his home, where my mother-in-law provides for most of his care. It’s been a long two years for the two of them. Their faith is extraordinarily strong. Their marriage is remarkable. Insurance has provided for all their financial needs. Still, the struggle of trying to come back from the brink of paralysis has been a long one.

Our Thanksgiving celebration was held at their home. While we were there, I had some thoughts, not just about our family’s experience but also about how families everywhere deal with loved ones going through disability and what we can learn from one another:

·         Life can be transformed in an instant. A car wreck. A medical diagnosis. A fall down the stairs. You can be the picture of health one moment and the next be looking at a lifetime of disability. No one is immune. Earlier generations understood better than we do how fragile life really is. The more we come to terms with this, the better we’ll live each moment in fullness.

·         When our loved ones become disabled, their needs for love and companionship don’t change. It’s a function of, especially, a Christian marriage to be there when our spouses become disabled. Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson recently was dragged over the coals—as he should have been--when he told a caller that he could divorce his wife and marry another woman because his wife had Alzheimer’s disease. Contrast that with former Columbia International University President Robertson McQuilken who resigned his position in order to care for his wife when she developed the same condition. Our wedding vows include the phrase, “In sickness and in health, for better or for worse, as long as we both shall live” for a very good reason.

·         Our loved ones’ disability becomes in some mysterious fashion a sign of grace. I first considered this when I read of how Pope John Paul II, in the later part of his life, refused to hide his Parkinson’s disease from view of the public. Instead, he would meet with people, preach and publically minister, slowly and with great difficulty, obviously suffering from his condition. His very presence became for those around him a confirmation of what the apostle Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 4:7, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” I’m not trying to minimize the pain and suffering our loved ones may go through. But as believers, we’ve chosen to embrace a perspective on life where there are always higher purposes at work in whatever we’re going through.

·         Suffering is real and can’t be explained away. I’ve heard way too many times that disease, accident, suffering and pain are somehow the will of God. And when people go through tragedy, God brings it about. No he doesn’t.  I don’t believe for one moment that when a child contracts cancer that God somehow willed that to happen. Nor the car wreck that took my mother’s life. Nor the puddle of water on the floor that cause my father-in-law to slip and break his neck. God isn’t capricious or cruel. The fact is that we live in a broken world, a fallen world, where things don’t work the way they’re intended to work. Where disease and accidents can and do happen. The great mystery of faith is precisely at this nexus, why a good God allows evil to happen. And in ways I’ll never fully understand, the cross stands at the same place, bringing the hope of redemption to our dark world.

·         Long-term disability is an exhausting condition. With no end in sight, those who are chronically disabled deal each day with an unending series of medicines, therapy and doctors. It’s easy to understand how that can wear a person down. Whatever physical condition they’re dealing with is bad enough; the mental, emotional and spiritual repercussions can be almost as bad.

Romans 8:35 asks the question, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” The answer is given one verse later: “No, in all these thing we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” For the chronically disabled, that’s a precious promise.

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