“A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” Proverbs 17:22
I’ve dealt with stomach issues since I was 13 years old. I’ve been largely bedridden for nearly 3 years. I deal with unbearable pain and debilitating symptoms including arthritis, inflammation, muscle weakness and spasms, tremors, fever, chills, nausea, chronic sore throat, severe acid reflux, blurred vision and floaters in the eyes, sensitivity to light and sound, extreme migraines, vertigo, insomnia, neuropathy, daily headache, brain fog, stomach pain, severe food intolerance, extremely low energy (chronic fatigue, adrenal fatigue), Gastroparesis (paralysis of the stomach nerves and muscles severely hindering digestion and causing food to sit in the stomach causing nausea and pain), Raynaud’s (discoloration of the fingers and toes due to poor circulation, pain especially in response to temperature), Costochondritis (inflammation and pain of the rib cartilage), Interstitial Cystitis (bladder pain and inflammation), POTS (heart racing, sudden blood pressure drop, hyperventilation, fainting spells, burning itchy discolored legs all occurring when I stand for only a few minutes), odd spells where I cannot focus my eyes, slur my speech and have trouble moving my arms and legs (possible seizures or strokes), and many more. Therefore, it would be a lie to say that I don’t suffer greatly every day or to claim that I don’t also face anxiety, depression and discouragement because of my physical ailments, because I most certainly do. Every day is a battle, but I make it through with a smile on my face more often than not because of prayer, faith, hope and a determinedly positive attitude.
When I first became extremely sick with Lyme disease I thought, okay, I’m sick and hurting, but I will pray constantly and claim victory over my disease and God will heal me. I prayed and held firm to my faith and confidence in healing and still do today, but healing hasn’t come. One by one, I had to let go of the things that made me happy: my job helping a sweet elderly lady, my summer job and passion for working with kids, spending time with my nephews (and now niece), exercising, traveling, baking, my love for counseling at church camps, most social activities of any kind, attending classes then being a student altogether – my hopes of graduating college postponed semester after semester, worshipping and participating in activities regularly with a church family, even the seemingly mundane things like grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, driving, washing my own hair – all slipped through my fingers. With each realization of, “I can’t do this activity anymore,” my heart broke all over again.
At every turn, I was watching the people around me move forward with their lives while I felt completely frozen. Those feelings escalated when I learned that my husband and I may never be able to have children because Lyme can be transmitted during pregnancy and birth and can lead to serious complications. As I was realizing that my own hopes for pregnancy and childbirth may be dashed, all three of my sister-in-laws became pregnant at the same time, due a month apart. It was so difficult for me to process the heartbreak I was feeling while also expressing genuine excitement for my loved ones, as I was truly overjoyed to be an aunt again. With each milestone of their pregnancies, I celebrated and also grieved. There were and still are days when I’m on the floor sobbing, but I cling to hope and peace that though it may not be when or how I had always pictured it, the Lord will provide us with children if it is His will. He will restore my health if and when it is His will, and the lessons I’ve learned will make me stronger and better able to relate, teach, share and love than I possibly could have before. I know that God’s plans for my life are far greater than I could ever dream, and I trust Him always, especially during the tough days. My faith in His promises leads to renewed hope, and in hope I find peace, and peace leads to joy. With joy, I have the strength to dust myself off, put a smile on my face and keep on fighting.
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” Romans 5:1-5
In the society and culture we live in today, far too often it is demonstrated for us and therefore we find ourselves dependent upon our life circumstances and situation to be happy; if we’re in pain, we cannot be happy; if we’re struggling financially, we cannot be happy; if we’ve lost someone dear to us, we cannot be happy; if we dislike our job or career, we cannot be happy; if our marriages or relationships aren’t constantly exciting and romantic comedy-esque, we cannot be happy; if we don’t have the latest fashions or technology, we cannot be happy; if we’re single, have few friends or feel insecure amongst our peers, we cannot be happy. We are addicted to comfort and ease, and we have confused God’s blessings and promises with the idea of luxury and circumstantial happiness. That is extremely dangerous for believers because it leads to a life lacking contentment, misunderstanding our calling as Christians, and ultimately, a highly flawed faith.
I say this because scripture does not promise us lives free from pain and suffering. We’ve all seen and most of us used the popular hashtag #blessed running rampant on social media sites. It’s true that we are blessed and should certainly be thankful and boast of God’s goodness. Yet, if we believe that our circumstantial comfort and happiness equals God’s presence in our lives, then when we face true struggles, our faith will be shaken at its core. We are left to wonder what happened and even to question why God has abandoned us. Furthermore, we walk around with a highly skewed view of the world. What of Christians in third world countries who are sick and starving or facing persecution? Naturally, we assume we must be favored more highly in the eyes of the Lord because he has clearly blessed us far more; that is a dangerous misconception.
Our western idea that health, happiness and comfort are “blessings” and mean that “God is taking care of us” aren’t scriptural. Yes, God always gives us what we NEED especially during suffering; however, our idea of what we think we need and what God knows we need and thus provides for us typically differ. For this reason, it is crucial that we remember not only to pray and place our requests before God, but also to remember that first and foremost, we want God to fulfill His will and purpose in our lives above our own. A friend of mine from college shared a quote with me that I find immensely powerful, it’s from The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry and reads as follows, “Jesus isn’t magic. Jesus is human. Jesus is the very incarnation of God; He’s God with us – to bring us not magic but accompaniment, not “healing”… but salvation … any healing that is more than a temporary solution – that is, in other words, transformation … demands deep accompaniment. It demands that another enter into my world and bear my suffering, not magically take it away but to die with me if needed … The cross reveals this Jesus: not a magical one but a suffering one, not a God who takes away pain but a God who joins us in it.” The toughest but most valuable lesson I’ve learned through my illness is this: there’s often no magic fix or instant healing that takes away our struggles completely, but what we’re given is more than enough for anything we face! In fact, it’s a far better gift to have a savior who suffers alongside us, who understands and comforts, but who also teaches and empowers us through our suffering; we have a savior who transforms our souls rather than merely changing our circumstances. Jesus suffered for us and with us, and what he offers is ETERNAL healing, a promise which far outweighs any struggles we can possibly endure on Earth.
“For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:6-18
I can confidently attest that a cheerful heart is most certainly powerful medicine; and it is truly my greatest help in my fight with disease. Joy held securely in the heart can overcome a multitude of physical, mental and emotional stressors. I firmly believe that the best path to understanding true contentment is through the development of perseverance and hope in suffering. When we grieve and ache but learn to see God’s blessings and discover joy in the midst of pain, we gain a blessing that far outweighs all the comfort and ease in the world. I have gained confidence knowing that no matter what obstacles I face, the Lord will see me through and His grace and promises are more than enough for me to overcome my circumstances. It’s perfectly healthy to cry out to God and fall to our knees in agony when life gets tough, believe me, I do this quite often; but we cannot stay in a place of despair, for we have too much to celebrate. I hate my illness; yet, I’m thankful for it because I have come to know my savior in a much deeper and more profound way. If fickle happiness is dependent upon happenstance, then joy is like a stream, constant and free-flowing. The joy of the Lord withstands impossible odds, and it is the source of unshakable strength. In moments of struggle, seek joy; fight for it; cling to it; embody it. God is good ALL the time. All the time, God is GOOD. Unlike happiness, joy is a gift. Unlike happiness, joy is a choice; today, I choose joy.