I have had something or other wrong with my bowels for many years. Initially, after returning from Malawi in 2005, I convinced myself that I had some kind of strange, exotic parasite that just needed to be zapped by modern medicine. Ten years later and no such parasite has materialised. My bowels have continued to niggle on and off, sometimes worse, sometimes better, but always noticeably not quite right. Most of the time, dysfunctional bowels are an embarrassment rather than a physical pain but having a digestive system that doesn’t do what it’s meant to do is pretty emotionally wearing and can often leave me feeling tired, grumpy and frustrated. The past three years, in particular, have been hard: visits to the doctor, referrals to various consultants at the hospital, endlessly having to explain and re-explain symptoms, tests, tablets, exclusion diets – and all to no real avail. And then there is the faith side of things: what to do with belief in a good God of healing when you don’t get healed; how to keep allowing people to pray for you when you stop really believing that it’s going to work; how to keep trusting in a God of both love and power when you are suffering and struggling and nothing seems to change.
I don’t have any answers.
It’s important to state that at the beginning because I know how frustrating it is when people try to give answers. It’s downright annoying. Sometimes all the well-wishing and love and good motivation in the world makes you want to hit people in the face. Sometimes when people optimistically look at you and suggest praying you have to bite back the cynicism that is itching to escape, swallow down the bitter comments busily composing themselves and begrudgingly agree to appease the other person’s naïveté.
I hate that about myself.
I hate that I have become bitter and cross and frustrated by the faith of others.
And in the midst of it all, I am trying to wrestle with what to think of God, how to talk to God, how to love Him and trust Him and believe that he is who he says he is.
A few months ago, I wanted to give up altogether. It was a daily battle of trying to hold on to all the seemingly conflicting parts of God’s character and each time my prayer for healing went unanswered, the doubts expanded, the bitterness soured. A ritual recitation of what I knew to be true: God is love. God is powerful. God is love. God is powerful. God is love. God is powerful. But if he loves me then why isn’t he sorting this out. But if he’s so powerful then why can’t he fix it. Maybe he doesn’t love me. Maybe I’m being punished. Maybe it is my fault. Maybe he’s impotent. Maybe he’s not powerful at all. Maybe God doesn’t really heal today anymore. He can’t. That was a thing of the past but it doesn’t happen now.
And, of course, once you start thinking like that prayer becomes pretty much impossible. Failure to hold on to the truth of God’s love birthed a steadily growing fear of him in my heart. I was too scared to pray to him, to try and talk to him, lest he was angry, vengeful, ready to laugh at me for my belief that I mattered to him. And failure to hold on to God’s power to heal birthed doubts that started to gnaw away at me: what’s the point in praying? Prayer was a futile exercise that wasn’t going to achieve anything. The skies were empty. Or, if not empty, then occupied by a distant God who didn’t really care very much.
The writer of the Hebrews says this: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 6:3) Somewhere along the line I had managed to sever the two halves of that verse from each other. I still had God. I still had faith but it wasn’t in the good God who rewards those who keep looking to him. It was in some slightly twisted version of God, God off kilter, God out of joint, God who either could do nothing to help me or didn’t love me.
And the continual prayers for healing weren’t helping. God doesn’t will sickness. God doesn’t want you to be ill. You need to have more faith. We just need to pray. In the name of Jesus I pronounce you well. I declare that your sickness is gone.
But it wasn’t. And I was losing grip on any frame work that could help me make sense of God and sickness.
At that point, I stumbled against Brother Lawrence. Hamish and I were on retreat in the Peak District and I had taken two books with me: The Practice of the Presence of God by Lawrence and The Pursuit of God by A.W.Tozer. Clearly God knew what he was doing in the choice: both books had been on my book shelf for months waiting to be read and I’d reluctantly grabbed them both last minute as I’d forgotten to buy anything else to take with me.
The last section of Lawrence’s book includes several letters exchanged between him and a sick friend. He writes this:
“I do not pray that you may be delivered from your pains; but I pray God earnestly that He would give you strength and patience to bear them as long as He pleases. Comfort yourself with Him who holds you fastened to the cross: He will loose you when He thinks fit. Happy those who suffer with Him: accustom yourself to suffer in that manner, and seek from Him the strength to endure as much, and as long, as He shall judge to be necessary for you. The men of the world do not comprehend these truths, nor is it to be wondered at, since they suffer like what they are, and not like Christians: they consider sickness as a pain to nature, and not as a favour from God; and seeing it only in that light, they find nothing in it but grief and distress. But those who consider sickness as coming from the hand of God, as the effects of His mercy, and the means which He employs for their salvation, commonly find in it great sweetness and sensible consolation.”
I do not offer his words as a universal answer to suffering. I do not suggest that they can be applied to any and every situation where a prayer has gone unanswered but, for me, in that moment of stumbling upon them, God provided a new paradigm inside which I could operate: it was possible to think of sickness differently. Not as punishment or spiritual attack but as a gift, a favour, something given by the one who knows what He is doing and always acts for our good.
Even as I type these words I am aware of a reaction that they will cause. I am also aware that, on most days, I do not view physical suffering and discomfort as a gift. And yet, the bible does say that suffering has a purpose. In God’s kingdom, suffering is not pointless, or random, or erratic. There is an intentionality about what God will allow his people to go through. Paul is given the thorn in the flesh and God will not remove it. (2 Corinthians 12). That does not, cannot, mean that God does not love Paul. Nor can it mean that God is powerless to help Paul. Something happens to Paul in the midst of his suffering that could not happen without him suffering.
do not understand this. But I can see something of it in my own life, and whereas I cannot continue this endless battle of doubting God’s love and his power, I can, at least in part, see how my struggle could be for my good. In one of his chapters, Tozer prays, “Thou be exalted over my comforts. Though it mean the loss of bodily comforts and the carrying of heavy crosses I shall keep my vow this day before thee.” As I prayed these words, I felt the Lord speak that he would have me fully well. Fully well. Not just physically well. He would have for me total shalom, total wellness. Not just a cure for IBS. He would have all my heart and all my mind and all my soul made well.
On a good day, I believe that my struggle with IBS is part of this. Physical struggle is only a fraction of what is really going on. Something bigger and greater that I can imagine is happening: God is refining my faith. God is making me the woman that he would have me be; God is making me one who will lean on him without question (Song of Songs 8:5), one who will not be swayed by circumstance (Philippians 4:11-13), one whose love for him is not dependant on whether he is answering my prayer or not, one who loves him deeply and honestly in the midst of hurt and confusion. One like Peter who, despite messing it up and getting it wrong and never fully understanding, can say again and again and again, Lord, you know that I love you, and mean every word every time.
At the start of his letter, James writes, “Brothers and sisters, consider it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete not lacking anything.” (James 1:3-4) This is a completely ridiculous thing to say. When you are suffering, even if it is as bad as it can possibly get and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, even when all the world tells you that you are a fool to believe, you are to think of what is happening as something completely and utterly joyful. Not just a little bit of fake plastic smile to cover the reality, but real, deep down, bubbling up, unadulterated joy. How can that be true? How can it be possible to view pain with joy?
This is what Jesus did. For the joy, the charan, set before Him, he endured. He endured the cross because he knew what was coming next. James tells us that we are to do the same: we are to view trials with joy because we know, as Jesus knew, that there is a greater end result. There is something more important happening than what is seen to be happening. James says that trials are what teach us to persevere. We cannot learn perseverance any other way. And we need to learn to persevere because only once perseverance has finished all the work that it needs to do – on our character and foibles, on our tendency to wallow and self-pity, on our suddenness to doubt and look at the waves, and forget who Jesus really is – will we be complete. And, oh God, how I want to be complete. I want to be mature. I want to have a faith that is strong and sure and immovable. The word that James uses for complete here is holokleroi. It’s a bit of a strange word. Holo means whole. Kleroi means a lot, as in the kind of lot that you would cast. Thus, the combination of the two is a kind of divinely allotted wholeness. To be complete is to have all that God has assigned to you entirely as it should be. God would have us complete in every apportioned part. Mind. Body. Heart. Soul. He would have us fully well. I believe that it will take suffering to get us there. There is no other way.
Much the same thing is said by Peter in his first epistle: “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer grief in all kinds of trails. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith –of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:6-7) In the Greek, a dokimion is a trial or test that is used to determine what is genuine, much as someone might test a coin to see if it is real or counterfeit. Thus faith that is proven to be genuine is faith that is approved, faith that has been tried and tested, faith that passes the test needed to prove that it is what it says it is. This is the kind of faith that God would have for his people. Our faith is more precious than treasure to Him. God places such a worth on our faith that he will do whatever is needed to ensure that it can stand up. God’s love for us is such that he will settle for nothing less than the very best faith for us. Complete faith. Genuine faith. Faith that can only be proved through suffering.
I do not think that there is another way.
That is not to say that I do not pray for healing for my bowels. It is not to say that I do not long for my body to be well and for whatever is wrong to be righted. It is not to say that I do not plead with God to remove the suffering, that I do not rant and rage and cry and get frustrated and start to doubt and despair.
But how I long to be mature. How I long to be complete. How I long to be one whose faith is proven to be genuine. And, perhaps, this is God’s way to do it. Perhaps it is the only way to do it.
He would have me fully well.