This week, we are taking a break from our year-long discussion of 1 Corinthians and the 21st-century church. I want to take you on a journey. It is not a leisurely trek through scenic terrain, and its end is not pleasant to the heart, the mind, or the body. I hope it is a journey you will never have to make yourself. But since many of you, in one form or another, have either already embarked upon this journey or will be required to do so at some point in your life, I hope walking with me will prepare you for the road ahead.
Illusions of Stability
I have always been known as an overcomer. My pediatrician realized there was a problem with my eyes at my first appointment. Even though I saw great doctors at prestigious institutions like the Harvey and Bernice Jones Eye Institute of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the Retina Foundation of the Southwest (an affiliate of UT Southwestern Medical Center), it took forty years to get a definitive diagnosis (Leber Congenital Amaurosis). Nevertheless, it was believed my condition was stable, so all I had to do was learn how to cope with it.
I was born into a family of hard workers who accepted no excuses. They understood life was hard. They knew from their own experience that life is not fair. And they also knew the only way to cope with life’s unfairness is to overcome it with faith, hard work, determination, and adaptability. Their support, along with that of a loving church and an encouraging small town, helped me tackle the many obstacles I faced and become a spiritual and intellectual high achiever.
What none of us realized was that my perceptions of God and self were being subtly but unmistakably shaped by all the striving and all the success. Indeed, the extent to which I identified myself with my ability to overcome did not become apparent to me until that ability began to wane.
You see, even though I came into life with a visual deficit as compared with other people, I still depended heavily on the vision I had. Unfortunately, my doctors were wrong—at least about the course of my own disease. My abilities began to deteriorate no less than twenty years ago, and, in the last five years, the deterioration has accelerated. Used to, it was simply a matter of finding a way around whatever challenges I faced. Now, there are many things I simply cannot do, and those things I can do require substantially more time and more effort.
Some of you know the process I am describing. You have lived it yourselves. You have wrestled with questions that have no answers. You have warred with the demons (figurative and perhaps literal) haunting the arid places in your soul. You have faced doubts about God’s love and your own worthiness, and you have worried about what the future holds.
For those of you who have not yet walked this path, it is my fervent prayer that you never do. But I know some of you will, and so I want you to get a sneak peek at the kinds of questions you will have to confront. I don’t have any answers. Answer’s aren’t the point. What I want you to have are some landmarks for the journey. I want you to know that your questions do not make you a bad Christian, and they do not mean that God has abandoned you. Rather, they signify God is with you, even in the midst of whatever challenges you face.
Here are some of the questions with which I have struggled. Add your own in the “Comments” section below.
- Why is this happening to me? Why am I receiving precisely the opposite of what I—and many others who belong to Christ—have prayed for?
- How can I continue to bear faithful and authentic witness about God’s love, mercy, and goodness—both to others and to myself—in the midst of my declining abilities? What does it say about the purposes and ways of God that He allows such things to happen, and what does it say about His disposition towards me that He has allowed me to experience this?
- Who am I if I can no longer define myself in terms of my contributions to God’s Kingdom, my professional success, or my avocational pursuits?
- How can I justify my existence if I can no longer be a meaningful contributor to society?
- How can I live a happy, fulfilling life if there is no meaningful work I can do?
- Will people look at me differently if I come to the end of my ability to adapt to my diminishing powers? If so, how can I survive their disappointment with my mental and spiritual health intact?
- Am I no longer of any interest to God, since my ability to advance His Kingdom is now more limited than ever? Or has God always been more interested in me as a person than He was in what I could do for Him?
- How will I provide for myself in the future, and if I am not able to provide for myself, who will take care of me? What does it mean to “be anxious for nothing” and “not worry about tomorrow” in the face of my declining abilities and a changing political and economic landscape?
- How can I use my newfound inability to overcome my circumstances to build empathy for others? Are there people that I have been trying to avoid because they remind me of my own inadequacies?
If you are asking questions like these, you are having a dialogue with God. If you are having a dialogue with God, you aren’t alone. Just don’t be surprised if the answers to your questions reveal themselves in unexpected ways.