My years as a student at Biola (1981-1983) were marked with lifelong friendships and a challenge to know God intimately. However, as I reflect on my life, I don’t believe that I really began to understand the role suffering plays in our walk with the Lord until recently.
In June 2003, my wife, Alma, and I found ourselves rushing our fifth child, three-year-old Danielle, in an ambulance to Loma Linda University Hospital. We had just returned from the emergency room of our local hospital, where doctors had told us our daughter’s condition was serious. While we were in the emergency room, I pondered how one minute you take life for granted and then, in an instant, you’re confronted with a turn of events that you innately know could change things forever.
Upon arrival at Loma Linda, doctors drew blood and said they would have the results in the morning. My wife stayed with Danielle that night while the other kids and I went home. I shared with my Sunday school class the next morning all the events of the previous day. I remember reminding everyone that our faith must carry us when our future is uncertain, that we must stand squarely on what we know about our Heavenly Father. I had no sooner said that when my cell phone rang.
I walked out into the hall and was instantly reminded of the many times I had challenged fellow believers to learn to be people of faith. And, yet, I confess fear swept over me as I brought my cell phone to my ear.
Alma was crying. Then she uttered the word “leukemia.”
I stood there stunned. I couldn’t comprehend what this meant for my daughter. I gathered my kids from Sunday School and walked to our car. I remember tearfully looking out the windshield, asking God to give me the words to help my kids understand that — even though this was a shock to us — God knew, and even chose, this bend in the road for our family.
Danielle was on intense chemotherapy for almost a year and, currently, will receive maintenance doses for another year. Our lives have changed so much that sometimes we don’t feel like the same family anymore. Because of the chemotherapy, Danielle’s white blood cells are so low that she can just touch a kitchen counter that hasn’t been disinfected and come down with an infection. For a year, we couldn’t go on vacation, eat out, or even let Danielle venture outside. We can seldom have people over or visit our friends’ homes due to potential infection. Yet, I can honestly say that this experience has been an incredible blessing of God.
Please don’t misunderstand me: cancer is an awful disease that is here because we live in a fallen world. But, as Christians, we have a blessed hope that God will bring all things about for our good. However, that good may not match the typical American evangelical idea of “good.” I believe we have contextualized Scripture to the point that many American Christians feel that suffering means they have gotten off track with God. Yet, we know, deep down, that a committed Christian brother in southern Sudan suffers for his faith daily.
I have seen the perfect hand of God in this tragic time in my daughter’s life. I have seen my church family pour out their love on our family as an incredible witness to our neighborhood. I have seen my teenage children truly put on their faith in a time of great uncertainty. I have watched my business clients grope for words as they hear tragedy shared in the perspective of faith and hope.
These things cannot be manufactured — they are the fruit of walking with God when you cannot even see your hand in front of your face. They come from God shaping our lives so that we are vessels for His glory and not our own. It is in that context that I can honestly say we have experienced blessings from God in the midst of uncertainty.
Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4:18, writes: “so we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” Dying to ourselves and offering ourselves as living sacrifices means that we are surrendering our will for His. And, in so doing, God desires to wean us of our addiction to have to see the outcome in order to move ahead.
The Lord often will do this through bringing trials and suffering into our lives, designed to grow and test our faith toward maturity in Him (James 1:2). The purpose will be to strengthen and purify our faith so that our lives will reflect less of us and more of Christ. And through this, we begin to know our Lord on a more intimate level. We also begin to look at family, neighbors and co-workers with a perspective of the eternal. The reality of our brevity on this earth flows through our minds and lends perspective to our struggles. We humbly stand in awe to see God choose us as a means for the testimony of His grace.
My wife and I live with the daily reality of not knowing if little Danielle will live past the age of five. I wonder if I will ever walk her down the aisle to the man God has for her or bounce her children on my knee and hear them say “Grandpa.” Yet, I know that the God of all creation has marked out the conclusion of her life for His glory, whether she lives to be five or 105.
I will never naturally (in my own strength) enjoy living in the unseen, but I have found God’s perfect peace there, and I am humbled to see Him use my family to touch the lives of so many other people in the midst of our suffering.