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An Answer Appears

Long again.  Sorry…

Continuation.

High school passed unremarkably.  The morning after my prayer I did not awake in the throes of pain and agony.  No cancer began marching throughout my body.  Nothing really changed.  After a few days passed, I placed the incident in memory past, along side a couple other questionable prayers to God.  Whether God heard my prayer or not, I wasn’t overcome with a desire to remind him.  Like patience and humility, these are prayers you bring to Him occasionally, but it is hardly the time for persistence. They are dangerous enough spoken once.

_______________

Neurologists offices never have a decent selection of magazines. No Outside, no Rock and Ice, not even an old Newsweek.  I’ve yet to find a legitimate reason, perhaps they believe their clients are simply not in a reading mood.  Terrible, because this is the highlight of visiting a doctor.  The rare opportunity to read magazines I wouldn’t be caught dead with in a grocery store checkout line.  I reconciled my loss and flipped through a copy of Neurology Today.

The nurse called from the reception area and walked me to the exam room, informing me the doctor will be in shortly.  Long ago I learned to interpret the charming deception of this line.  For a doctor, the word shortly spans the entire distance between 15 minutes and complete eternity.  I had heard this doctor was exceptional, so I learned patience, wiling away the time flipping through the pamphlets scattered about the room.  Pleasant sounding articles like managing your chronic daily migraines.

In walked my doctor, thankfully relieving me of the rather dreary literary options.   The first thing I noticed was his clothes.  Disheveled and ill fitting, they flopped about him like a man who found attention to style a wild and dangerous distraction.  I reminded myself C.S Lewis in all his brilliance had little regard for style.  This was all fine, hoping instead this doctors focus settled upon the study of my primary concern, migraines.

After the first few questions, even this was in doubt.  Eventually he asked me to describe the nature of the pain.  I walked him through the same rambling and detailed outline I had provided to every doctor.  The response was nearly universal.  Physicians carry the unique ability to appear entirely interested in your response while listening to nothing.  Eventually they answer with well, you look healthy, I’m sure it will pass.  Knowing this, I added an extra line to my recitation, mentioning how distasteful the pain had become.  Hoping for a firm emphasis on the severity of the issue I even briefly wondered if missing a few meals and not shaving for a week would provide a visual representation of how I felt.  Oddly though, the words alone appeared to work.

He responded with friendly exasperation, Well no s#*$, of course it sucks.   Startled, I asked myself if I’d ever heard a doctor swear before. A few sentences later, the F word rolled out of his mouth, as natural and unencumbered as a sailor.  Really?  Did he just say that?  The colorful language was all well placed of course, but it did little to reduce the disarming affect of hearing the top migraine specialist in Washington drop swear words as liberally as a drywaller.

Any sensible patient would grab his jacket and walk out, demanding a refund at the front counter. But something about this doctor seemed different.  I gave him a chance, though more from desperation than wisdom.  The alternatives were not especially attractive.  Physicians morbid enough to dedicate their lives to the study of migraines are difficult to find and I’d spent months waiting for this appointment.  Thankfully over the coming weeks and months, I found a deep brilliance resided within his wild, off the cuff demeanor.

The questions continued.  Tell me, when did the headaches first begin?  I had to consider it for a moment, I’d never really thought it through.  They just appeared.  Well, I told him, I suppose around 16, though I couldn’t be exact.  Other inquiries followed, questioning the finer details of the headaches.  Is it more like a pounding hammer or more like a squeezing pressure? I cannot recall the last time I was pounded in the head with a hammer, so it’s difficult to say.  I offered him something vague and useless like, it’s a little bit of both I guess.

The answer hit me slowly, bouncing around between the improbable and foolish as I walked away from the clinic.  Soon it was undeniable.  Those cursed headaches started right around the same time I brought that ridiculous prayer to God.  Oh c’mon, are you kidding me?  Really, this is how it works?  Anger, disappointment, complete amusement, I couldn’t pick the correct response.  I wanted them all.  For a moment I entertained the option of viewing it with a sense of comfort.  Perhaps this God really is in control.  While pleasant, this perspective dissolved quickly.

Like nearly every significant trial I’ve encountered, my reaction vacillated wildly. On good days I felt awash in His grace, rejoicing that God deemed me worthy to suffer for His glory.  Life laid out before me, He walked me through the many ways this trial would bring me closer to Him.  He showed me the people I would encourage and support because of empathy.  I saw pride and arrogance finally losing it’s grip in my weakness, slipping away because it had nothing left to grasp. I watched the ambition for worldly pleasures suffer greatly and peel away at the hands of this pain.  This is why I had prayed.  This was good and from the Lord.

But there were other, more common responses as well.  Painted in darker hues, shadows crouching behind the lies I began to believe.  The most damaging were those I never acknowledged, left clawing about in the periphery far away from the light.  I knew they existed, but confrontation required more than I possessed. It was the devil’s favorite battle, the one he had me convinced was not taking place.

I had many doubts about God.  Yet I never doubted His power or sovereignty.  I couldn’t fathom a world where God lacked the resources to achieve His goals.  One would imagine this as a source of great peace. But this first requires an unshakable belief in His goodness.  Without it, His sovereignty became something to fear, a tyrannical king casting joy and despair at the whim of his fancy.

I imagine Job felt similarly, though I felt sheepish drawing any comparison.  I found Job’s bitterness came not merely because his life was filled with tragedy, but because the calamity went far beyond natural bad luck.  The unseen hand of a mightier power was clearly orchestrating his destruction.  I cannot explain why, but I felt the same.

I heard many partial answers, but nothing dealt with the nagging reality set before me.  Some Christians told me I needed to redefine my definition of goodness on His terms. Ok.  Great.  What does that mean?  I didn’t even know His terms.  And what I do know of them, they don’t match anything a human has found satisfactory.  God clearly gave us a sense of right and wrong, of joy and death, of justice and unfairness. Yet real life did not seem to match these divisions imprinted on my soul.  I looked further.

Others asked me to open my eyes to the tremendous blessings in my life.  I couldn’t throw this out as easily.  My life was filled with undeniable gifts many Christians never taste.  But the comfort was fleeting, I just questioned God on behalf of those less fortunate.  What of the schizophrenic or manic depressive?  I searched their entire life and found little reason to rejoice in God’s control.

Calvinists petitioned me to consider Adam’s original sin and draw every pain and suffering back to this dark event. I heard words like imputation and infralapsarianism.  It made sense intellectually, but I found little comfort.  I wasn’t there.  Or if I was, no memory lingered to provide a sense of guilt for humanity’s foolish mistake.  If I was to suffer the consequences of this first indulgence, I would prefer my own chance at resisting.

Charismatics brought their own angle.  They turned it around and questioned my belief, assuring me the pain would go away if I just had more faith.  This I attacked with vigor, asking why God didn’t heal amputees.  Why did He only heal conditions that could just as easily heal themselves?  The Holy Spirit used an odd sense of discrimination.  Did the magnitude of suffering in the world really stand ready to disappear under the simple request of more faith? I saw little evidence.

A few, perhaps the wisest, asked me what my life would look like without the pain.  Would it be a life worth living?  Would the glorious reunion of heaven lose its brightness if not preceded by a dark and strenuous crossing?  This was difficult to set aside.  The very reason I prayed in the first place was because life felt hollow and trite in its superficial ease.

But there were others who suffered.  I asked God for an explanation of those whose agony spilled far beyond any opportunity of sanctification.  What of the child I heard of on the evening news, the young boy locked in a closet his entire life?

I learned to live by exceptions.  Every argument, every well developed explanation eventually crumbled beneath an undeniable exception.  I felt a dark pride in finding someone whose life escaped the promise offered to me.  Left alone, this wreaked havoc on my relationship with God.  Psalms, Proverbs, even the promises of Jesus grew pale and dim under the barrage of the logic of exception.  Whittled to the barest remnant, faith collapsed from a burning bush to a flickering coal.

The answer came from Job.  Though in truth, it really wasn’t an answer.  I poured over the book, looking for God’s explanation to the poor man.  Nothing.  If anything He looked quite pissed at Job for doubting Him in the first place.  Yes, He restored and blessed Job again, but I found far more of the book dedicated to God’s passionate defense of His divinity.

I understood why so few pastors preach through the entire book of Job.  It was brutal.  But it is what I craved. Like a rebellious child secretly desiring the rules and boundaries of a firm parent, I needed a God who stood far above me.  An answer to the pain would provide momentary comfort, but a God who reminded me He was the answer was far more enduring.  New questions would come, I would surely find more unanswered contradictions.  But if I simply believed God was truly God, the mystery was acceptable.  My faith no longer hinged upon the understanding of each moment, but through humility conceded the entire struggle to Him. He was, after all, God.

I still struggled with complete reconciliation.  But I learned to give God more grace.  Not true grace, of course, He is in little need of my mercy.  No, I simply learned to withhold judgment of His goodness until the story was complete.  This was to become my very definition of faith.

Comments

Comment from Elizabeth K
Time December 15, 2008 at 12:36 am

This is a really great story, no doubt because of all that you experienced in order to write it. Your descriptions and creative adjectives draws in the reader; I found myself laughing as well as on the verge of tears.

While reading this I too wanted to know the answer to life’s main dilemma. And then I was surprised at the end, although I also thought, “Oh, of course.” Maybe faith (and accepting the mystery) is something that every Christian needs to be reminded over and over again since we all must face loss or injury, etc. at some point in time.

Suffering really does hurt physically/emotionally… but I am so glad that God can make beauty from ashes.

Comment from Heather
Time December 15, 2008 at 1:00 am

James,

Don’t apologize for the length, you drew the reader in to your thoughts and it was well written. I really enjoyed your discription of the time with the doctor, so colorful. Your words are not only encouraging but sobering-ensuring we are not just putting God and His actions into some catagory to fit our personal views of theology. I’ve said this to you before, but when you are truly sick, in pain, or something happens out of our control, theology goes out the window and it becomes just you and God- it’s quiet freeing.

I’m looking forward to reading more!

Heather

Comment from Melissa
Time December 16, 2008 at 11:27 pm

Wow….. well, I have a question (ultimately, questions are never ending for me…. much like a young child). You say the migraines, the prayer, the desire to suffer for the Lord started in high school; so, how long has your journey of discover of faith taken? Obviously, as Christians, our faith is constantly tested… which isn’t what my question regards. I guess I’m just curious how many years you struggled with anger and doubt toward the Lord. The Lord allows each of us our own journey to Him….. teaching us, molding us, and forming us into what He needs.

Comment from jrmallory
Time December 22, 2008 at 12:59 am

Thanks! I’m glad you made it through the whole thing. It was just too hard to condense it and really get the story across.

Yeah, the story would be much cooler if I ended with a really profound answer from God. I figure if God didn’t deem Job ready for the real answer, I am unfit as well. Though It will be near the top of the list when I meet Him in heaven.

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