A few weeks ago I did a talk for a Cancer Council morning tea on living when you can’t see God working and my own personal story about waiting for Him to fulfill His promises and bring something good out of chronic illness.
It’s not a neat, polished story, tied up with perfect conclusion, because real life isn’t like that. But it’s my story, and all I have to offer. Here is the transcript:
Firstly, standing up here today, I want to tell you I feel inadequate. There are two reasons for this. Firstly many of you have lived through difficulties I never will. There are harder stories to tell than my own. I want to acknowledge that.
The second reason I will tell you after my story.
“God will make good come out of this – just you wait.”
That’s something I heard a lot growing up. Perhaps you’ve heard it too. Or maybe it’s something you’ve said yourself to someone going through a hard time.
You’re sick in bed – but God works all things for good.
You’ve been diagnosed with cancer – but God has something special planned for you.
It sounds cheap doesn’t it? A bunch of useless words and as we all know, words don’t make pain stop or take away chronic illness.
If they did, I wouldn’t be standing here today, telling you my story.
My mum has always been sick. At least, that’s how I remember it. Not necessarily an in-bed, can’t-leave-the-house sort of sick, although sometimes there was that too – but a nagging, persistent unwell-ness which disrupted plans and ruined mornings.
Type 1 diabetes, pernicious anaemia, chronic migraines, hypothyroidism, macular degeneration, gastroparesis. They’re big words, but they simply mean she is tired, dizzy and in pain almost all the time. Her stomach doesn’t work properly and she’s going blind.
She can’t promise she will come to things, she might have to leave early, she might have to sit out of a conversation. Her health is unpredictable – yet if you looked at her, she looks normal and that carries its own challenges.
I’m not saying this to make you pity me, but rather so you will understand me when I say that for a long time my mission was to save my mum. To protect her. To look after her.
To fix her.
When I was little I brought her blankets and glasses of water – whether she needed them or not. I stood in front of her in the shops when she tested her blood so people wouldn’t stare. I said I didn’t care whether she came to special days at school, and I promised myself I would be the sort of daughter she would never have to worry about.
Then I entered high school and realised two things:
- Cups of water didn’t fix anything, and neither did blankets or hugs. Not really.
- God could fix this – and he hadn’t
All the while people reassured me that “God brings good things out of suffering” – after all that’s the big Christian answer to pain and illness – “God has a plan” “God is in control – trust Him”.
Trust him, I thought? Trust him? How could I possibly do that? I had done everything and it hadn’t been enough, and he could healed her and he hadn’t.
My mum’s favourite verse is Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Good? What good was there in this? I believed in God, but I decided that I couldn’t trust Him with my Mum’s life. I could never, ever smile patiently as I watched her suffer and say “God is working through this” – not unless He actually showed me some good thing that was coming about as a result. Something to make it all worth it.
I waited and waited. Years went by.
Then one Friday afternoon my sports teacher gave an impromptu devotion. I can’t remember a single word, but what I do remember is a phrase taken from the book of James in the Bible “God cannot be mocked”.
God cannot be mocked.
For the life of me I don’t know why I chose to tune in at that moment. It was the end of the week. I was hot, tired – and yet that phrase stood out to me.
God cannot be mocked.
It sounds corny, and silly, but with that phrase a sudden realisation came out of the blue.
If God was God I could not pick and choose when I trusted Him. I could not say, ‘Only when you show me how you are using my mum’s sickness, will I depend on You.’
To do that, to bargain with God, to shake my fist at him – if God was God, that was mockery, and that was awful.
All this time I thought those people who had told me “good will come” had been the insincere ones – and now I saw, all along it had been I who was the hypocrite. I, who had said, I love God, but had refused to trust that He had a higher plan.
Do you know how hard it is to live out a belief in God? It’s awful, it really is. It meant I had to admit once and for all I couldn’t fix the situation. It meant I could no longer give in to frustration and anger at God. It meant that suddenly my mum’s suffering was not about me anymore – it was about her, and most of all, it was about God.
I struggled, and I continue to struggle.
Years passed after I made that decision. I didn’t see a single good thing come out of my mum’s suffering.
Then, at the end of 2015 my little sister was diagnosed with a brain tumour. It was big. It was in her pituitary gland, the part of your brain that produces hormones. It was pressing on her optic nerve and it had to come out.
I couldn’t believe it. Really God? Here I had been waiting for years and years for something good to come from my mum’s situation, and instead more ‘bad’?
Over 3 months in hospital, ten plus operations. They called in a doctor from America – but then God healed her miraculously in between operations. The doctors didn’t understand, but we did. She turned 17 in Randwick Children’s, alive on replacement hormones and without her peripheral vision.
She was tumour-free but far from healed.
And so we praised God because there could have been worse side-effects. There could have been radiotherapy and chemo and brain damage and total blindness and a loss of other valuable bodily functions – and instead my sister completed her HSC in 3 terms and is studying Occupational Therapy at university as we speak.
And yet, she came out of hospital a changed person. One who could quote her medical number, inject herself with hormones and knew what it was like to not be in control of her body. She had been through things her friends had not. I had not. None of us could really understand.
But mum could.
Would my sister have survived those terrible weeks and months without her?
I don’t know – but she didn’t have to. Mum could sit beside her and say not only ‘I love you’, but ‘I’ve been there’ and ‘I understand’.
Was this special relationship what God had in mind during those forty years my Mum lived with daily suffering?
Was this the ‘good’ He had been planning? Seven years after I had listened to that devotion on mocking God, 13 years after I had first begun to try and save her?
I don’t know.
Can we look at forty years and the saving of my sister and say that one is worth the other?
I don’t know. But God does, and I know God – and that has become enough.
And so, I’m not going to stand up in front of you here and tell you this is the happy ending to my story. In some ways it is – and in other ways it is not. I suspect that one day in heaven God will show me many other good plans which involved those forty plus years and that brain tumour.
What I am going to say, is that I understand what it’s like to watch someone suffering. To stand by them and love them, and be unable to fix anything. To walk beside them for years and years and months and months and see no glimmer of earthly good come out of despair and pain.
I am also going to say that it is worth turning to God even when you can’t see Him working. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s this. He’s still there, and He is still God. He suffered himself in order to redeem this broken world, and He can forever sympathise with us, as Mum can to my sister.
And I see now that all those times I thought I could see no good at all, the good was right there all along. Because God is good and He was there. And now I can say my mum’s favourite verse “all things work for the good of those who love Him,” and know it to be true – at the same time as I’m still waiting for it to be eternally true.
Now, the second reason I feel inadequate. God is bigger than my words. Everything I’ve said so far only seems to scratch the surface of my experience of God and who He is and how He works. And so I invite you experience God for yourself. Don’t take my word for it.