After my mother had lived with us for eight years, she woke up early one Sunday morning and called for me. I walked into her room and knew immediately she was having a stroke. Brian and I rushed her to the hospital. Throughout the day the physicians ordered various tests, but we knew from observing her that things looked grim. At first, her speech would come and go. Then it became garbled. Finally, it stopped altogether. It was heart- wrenching to stand by her side, hold her hand, yet be powerless to help in any way.
I’ll never forget the next morning as I stood by her bed in the ICU. Her doctor walked in and proceeded to tell me that she could no longer walk, talk, or swallow. He recommended that I give serious thought to taking her off life support. I’ve lived through some very difficult and painful things in my life, but nothing comes close to the agony of that moment. It was as if I had been handed the power of life and death. As the doctor left the room, I closed my eyes and whispered the only three words I could form in my mind: “God, help me.” I knew I could never make such a decision.
Thirty minutes passed and the door opened again. In walked my pastor from the church we attended when my mother had first been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Somehow this beloved man had heard about my mother’s stroke and came to the hospital. There’s little of our conversation that I remember, but what I do know is this—I was drowning and God provided a lifeline to rescue me. My kind heavenly Father heard my cry for help and answered.
The following day God gave my mother the ability to swallow ever so slightly. Within three weeks, she was transported to a nursing facility near our home where she lived until the Lord ushered her into His presence two years later.
When I look back on these events, I can now see how God strengthened me mentally, physically, and spiritually in the years leading up to my mother’s mental decline. In the midst of it, He was with me every day while I cared for her, chipping away at my selfishness, impatience, pride, self-pity, and a host of other sins, with the goal of making me more like Jesus. I learned to let my dreams die and trust that my Father knows what is best for me. His fresh mercies arrived every morning right on schedule, teaching me to live one day at a time totally dependent on His strength. My weakness drove me to Christ over and over again.
A Chinese house church pastor once said that seminary for Chinese Christians is learning how to jump through second story windows and survive the fall (as they flee from government agents). Spending a decade of my life in Christ’s school of suffering taught me much about the Calvary road. Young mothers often feel like failures as they try to raise their children in the Lord. Caring for the elderly is no different. There wasn’t a day where I didn’t feel broken and inadequate. The truth is I was those things and more, and there was only one place I could go—to the cross.
One of the beautiful discoveries I made after caring for my mother was how perfect Alzheimer’s disease proved to be for training me in children’s ministry. I’ve been teaching children and young people since I was twenty-seven years old. The content of my teaching now is no different than it was years ago, but I am different. There is little that a child could do in Sunday School, Children’s Church, or Vacation Bible School that would rattle me after living for a decade with the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Whatever issues arise, God desires that we respond to them with His love, grace, and patience.
God has given us many great and precious promises to encourage and sustain us in and through our trials. God promises to never leave us or forsake us. He promises new mercies every morning. God uses suffering to make us more and more like Jesus. How else is our faith going to grow and mature? Also, suffering is more often than not the means God uses to reveal our sin and idolatry and lead us to godly sorrow and repentance.
Rather than telling us to avoid trials, James exhorts us to embrace them with joy: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4
Endurance, character, hope, steadfastness in faith; these qualities are the outcome of trials, afflictions, and suffering. God gives us the gift of suffering as His means to complete the good work He has begun in us. He designs our trials according to our need so that they work for our eternal good. The Apostle Paul reminds us that the things we suffer in this world are only “light momentary affliction” and this affliction will result in “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (2 Corinthians 4:7) Why would we desire to avoid trials when there are so many blessings birthed in our suffering?
One of my favorite books is The Crook in the Lot written by Thomas Boston. The book’s secondary title is The Sovereignty and Wisdom of God in the Afflictions of Men Displayed. You really have to give it to the Puritans for their long descriptive titles. Every time I enter a new trial I re-read this book. Boston says, “Every one knows what is most pleasant to him; but God alone knows what is most profitable.” [Silver Trumpet Publications, pg. 28] This simple sentence holds a profound truth that protects my heart from grumbling and complaining when things don’t go as I wish. Sadly, I don’t always act like I believe it when pain comes my way or someone I love is suffering. But God always brings me back to this truth.
My prayer for you, dear reader, and for me is that we will enjoy the comfort of the Holy Spirit as we cling to God’s promises in our trials and wait patiently for our wise Father to work His good purposes through them, even when our deliverance from them is delayed. Peter encourages us with these words:
And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. (1 Peter 5:10-11)
In the late 1990’s I thought life was good. I’m well on the other side of that now and would more accurately describe life as hard—but God is God and God is good! I miss my mother very much, but I know that God loves me with a Father’s tender care. That care reminds me daily of His grace for me in Christ. And I’ve come to learn that what looks to me like failure, defeat, and death of dreams always opens up a larger doorway to knowing Christ more intimately.