Recently I was privileged to have been asked to contribute a guest post on my story for the “God and Suffering: Our Story” series on the wonderful Thorns and Gold blog. The Thorns and Gold blog explores themes of suffering, faith, and hope, and is certainly worth following. Here, though, is my own guest contribution to that blog:
Ten years ago my life changed completely when I was diagnosed with a degenerative spinal condition and required major back surgery. This story would be a far more interesting if I could write about an injury playing rugby for my beloved Wales or while skiing at the Winter Olympics. Alas, no. It was an injury sustained playing badminton in the local sports hall that led to the investigations that discovered prolapsed and degenerative disks. Within three months of the initial injury, the pain in my lower back and my legs was excruciating and unceasing. I was unable to sit or stand for longer than a few minutes. I was stuck, quite literally, lying on a sofa all day, unable to go to work or to socialise outside of the house.
Six months later I was lying in a hospital bed in the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in London and I opened my Bible on Psalm 22. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest”. My eyes filled with tears as the words echoed the emptiness and frustration I was feeling. Physical pain, combined with the mental anxiety of facing a long-term, chronic condition, led me to ask questions most of us face at some point in our lives: What’s the point of this suffering? Why doesn’t God stop suffering? Is life really worth this pain?
During a lengthy recovery, which included hospitalisation for two months, my view of these big questions of theodicy began to change. I saw that the mystery of suffering was far less important than the mystery of love. On returning to ministerial work in churches in Cardiff, Wales, I came to realise that the most joyous smiles often mask terrible pain and tragedy – bereavement, divorce, illness, disability, addiction, or chronic pain. At some point in our lives, each of us has to face suffering. Whilst none of us are given the option of rejecting suffering, we are blessed with the choice of the path that we take through the dark night of our pain.
Through my own experience of suffering I realised that, while I couldn’t change the pain I was feeling, I could change my attitude towards the situation. Slowly, but surely, I began to re-wire my ways of viewing the world, as I embarked on a journey of forging meaning from the apparent meaninglessness of suffering. This was certainly not an easy process, and involved soul-searching, tears, and prayer. I was convinced, though, that the one thing that we have left through any amount of suffering, great or small, is a choice of how we react to what we are enduring. As an Arabian saying reminds us: ‘The nature of rain is the same, but it makes thorns grow in the marshes and flowers in the garden’.
For all of us, opening our eyes to moments of God’s light and grace, even in our times of suffering, have a cumulative ability to transform, illuminate, and bring us hope. Held as a hostage for many years in a dark room in Beirut, Brian Keenan recalls how he made a candle from small pieces of wax and string from his clothing fibres. ‘Quietly, calmly a sense of victory welled up in me’, he later wrote, ‘and I thought to myself without saying it, “They haven’t beat us yet. We can blot out even their darkness”’. Light, of course, does not avoid darkness. Rather, it confronts it head-on. ‘The light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it’ (John 1:5).
Ten years on and I am still unable to sit or stand for long periods. Much of my life is, therefore, spent pacing around rooms (even during meetings) or lying down (while I prepare lectures or sermons). I also use icepacks, heat patches, and a tens machine on a daily basis. Through the whole experience, though, my view on suffering has changed radically. No longer do I regard suffering as something that stops life from being lived. Instead, I aim to find hope and meaning in those small, seemingly insignificant areas of life that I took for granted before my injury – in nature, in friendship, in family, in laughter, in the arts, in memories, and so on. Most of us, after all, are like flies crawling on the ceiling of Sistine Chapel – we are unaware of the depth of beauty and joy all around us.
I can truly say, then, that God has been vividly present in my pain. Not that he wants us to suffer, either directly or indirectly. Rather, he is present in our suffering, helping to redeem and transform it. As the Old Testament shows us, God suffers alongside the persecuted, imprisoned, and victimised. ‘In all their distress, He too was distressed’ (Isaiah 63:9). Likewise, Jesus’s sorrows on the cross show us that God truly understands our dark times. As such, he can meet us in our afflictions, bringing meaning and hope at the most unlikely times. God is love, and just a glimpse of that love can powerfully illuminate the darkness that we are going through. ‘And here in dust and dirt, O here,’ wrote Welsh poet Henry Vaughan, ‘The lilies of His love appear’.
Those times when the still small voice of calm seems mute may well be frequent for us, but my own experience is that, even in that silence, we can actively listen for his voice. By doing so, we affirm the importance of love, joy, hope, and meaning in our dark times, rather than dwelling on the horrible reality of suffering. Even though it may not feel like it at the time, our trials and tribulations are, therefore, turned into triumphs of our will and spirit. After all, like diamonds, which sparkle all the more brightly the more facets are cut, our lives reflect God’s light all the more brilliantly when we have many cuts.
See also my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering and the following blog posts:
“Love reminds us why”: God and the mystery of suffering
‘The path of peace’ (Luke 1:79): Can our faith help us when we face depression, anxiety, and stress?