When I was not yet 50 years old, I completed perhaps my most impressive athletic event—I walked a 5K race using a cane, with my wife beside me and my daughter at the finish line to greet me. Among hundreds of other participants, I easily wound up in last place, and I was thrilled.
It was all downhill from there.
Since that day, physical decline associated with middle age has gotten the better of me and my lifelong moderate cerebral palsy, a birth condition that has caused muscle spasticity and limited my ability to walk, although I have done my best to live an active life. In recent years, arthritic pain in my knees and weakness in my legs have immobilized me, except for very short jaunts. I have seen a steady decline in my ability to go shopping, climb stairs, stroll around in our backyard, and walk into church from the parking lot. Sports are definitely out.
Making this problem even tougher to deal with, I’ve torn the rotator cuff in my right shoulder, not once but twice.
Not wishing to return to a wheelchair lifestyle—I used one until I had an operation at age six—I have gone to orthopedic surgeons for X-rays, shots of cortisone, and other treatments. I visited a physical therapist more than once. When all that failed, I turned to yoga, and then to expensive Pilates-linked workouts. I began exercising twice a day at home. Reluctantly, I bought a walker, followed by two mobility scooters.
All this time, money, and effort may have slowed my descent, but they did not halt it. No one quite knew how to help me—or, worse, I was beyond help. So, at the urging of my mother and sister, I found a physician with experience in helping adults and their unique challenges with CP. According to one estimate, those of us in this cohort use up to five times the energy walking around as our able-bodied counterparts. (Only five?)
Ankle-foot orthotics now have been custom-made to help me stand straight, and I’m in the midst of a new round of PT so I can use them (with a walker). It is extremely slow—and oft-painful—going, but I have seen some tentative signs of progress. Yet there are no guarantees.
Besides this specific “thorn in the flesh,” during this time I have faced job losses and relational heartaches. But in all this, I’m not particularly unique. Compared with others, I’m probably getting off lightly. Suffering is part of the price of admission to the Christian faith. Can any of us really expect a problem-free life when our Savior went to the cross on this sin-scarred planet? As the Apostle Paul said, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”
But, frankly, it’s much easier to tell the tale than to live it. In the midst of the pain, uncertainty, and, yes, fear of the past few years, I’ve prayed, cursed, fallen, gotten up, and fallen again. Sometimes I’ve had to remind myself that a loving God is still in control. Still, the experience has made my naturally selfish bent a little less so, and it has helped me to better empathize with and counsel others going through “trials of many kinds.”
Once a friend on Facebook was sharing the hard grace and agony of caring for a spouse succumbing to Alzheimer’s. He was groping for answers. Here is an expanded version of what I told him. While it is far from a complete program for those of us walking the path of suffering, I think it’s a good way to get your spiritual bearings and keep heading in the right direction.
- Don’t beat yourself up.
In the midst of depression, it’s easy to blame yourself. Self-recrimination, perhaps encouraged by the Enemy, is always whispering in your ear: Perhaps you did something to bring this on. Maybe you don’t have enough faith. Others are better and more blessed than you. Curse God and die.
Don’t give in. Yes, it’s true that you, like the rest of us, are a sinner deserving of hell. But it’s also true that God loves you unconditionally. He knows your frame, that you are dust. God may be disciplining you (and if He is, submit to it), but He will never beat you up. You shouldn’t, either.
- Don’t look too far ahead.
It’s easy to play the “what if” game. What if this continues to get worse? What if I run out of money? What if no one helps? The scenarios are endless. But deal with the troubles right in front of you and worry about the others—if at all—later. As the Lord Jesus said, “Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
Yes, we all must plan for the future to the best of our finite abilities, but let’s try—as much as possible—to do so in a spirit of faith and not fear. A loving, all-wise God is still on the throne. “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”
- Allow Jesus to minister to you day by day.
We have it on the authority of God’s Word that He will never leave us. Because He is with us, He will care for us, much as He did with two downcast disciples on the road to Emmaus. Like them, we may not recognize the Lord when He comes. So we must look for Him, and not be surprised when He shows up in disguise.
Jesus has cared for me in a multitude of ways. My wife’s faithful encouragement and help, the grace of a friend’s prayers, the unexpected provision of a job, a quiet sunset after an exhausting day, a joke shared among my boys, the steady and cheerful assistance of my physical therapist—all are signs that Jesus hasn’t forgotten me, even in my distress.
This knowledge produces something in me that is deadly to despair—gratitude. May it do the same for you as you traverse your own path of suffering.
Image courtesy of percds at iStock by Getty Images.
Stan Guthrie, a licensed minister, is an editor at large for Christianity Today and for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. His latest book is “The Seven Signs of Jesus: God’s Proof for the Open-Minded.”