I live with a condition (I despise the word disease) known as sarcoidosis. It came up on many people’s radars a couple of years ago, when it was discovered that sarcoidosis had contributed to the death of the comedian Bernie Mack. Trust me when I say that this condition has taken a tremendous toll on me, physically and emotionally.
As a child, I was quite sickly. In fact, 30 years ago there was very little known about sarcoidosis, and my parents were told that I might not live to see my 13th birthday. As an adult, I have suffered with chronic pain and unexplainable illnesses that at times have been psychologically unbearable. Sarcoidosis is a debilitating condition that can attack any organ in the body and cause inflammation accompanied with tremendous pain. The truth of the matter is that I have lived the bulk of my life with some sort of pain. It has not been easy, but I have come to see my condition as my “thorn,” and the only thing that has kept me for these 40 years has been my family and the grace of God.
I share my experience with sarcoidosis because, for me, pain has been unavoidable. No matter how hard I try, dodging or ducking the reality of my plight is not an option. My condition is part of my life, but it is not the whole of my existence nor does it define my life. There are persons who spend their entire lives trying to avoid pain at all costs. Truthfully, who can blame them? If I could avoid pain I think I would, but that is not my lot. It might seem strange to some, but my condition has actually made me spiritually stronger and has even drawn me closer to God. Again, I know that for many this does not make sense, but God has met me in my place of pain. I have been amazed by how many of my most profound encounters with God have come at the most painful and challenging times in my life. It is astounding how fear, hurt and anxiety can give birth to spiritual clarity; a clarity that at times can only be midwifed by calamity.
When we experience hardships and difficulties we often cry out to God for deliverance–but what happens when God hears our cries and doesn’t deliver us out of our painful predicament? For some, this might be a sign of God’s anger or displeasure, but this may not necessarily be the case. What if our painful predicaments and experiences actually help cultivate our character? There are some lessons that can only be learned in the crucible of pain. While we would all love for joy to be the master tutor, we are often most available to receive instruction when our backs are against the wall. I truly believe that!
We often think that when we are going through a crisis it is God’s responsibility to work a miracle and pull us out–but what if the real miracle is not divine deliverance, but divine presence? What if the real breakthrough is the awareness that we do not suffer alone, and because of God’s presence, the crisis does not overtake our lives? I believe that it is the presence of God in the midst of our pain that makes the pain bearable.
The apostle Paul once wrote: “When I am weak, that is when I am strong.” Paul may have understood that in our moments of dismal discomfort, somehow, we are strengthened by God’s empowering presence. When we are experiencing unexpected crisis and are blind-sided by challenging circumstances, God’s presence can give us strength to endure and persevere.