Courage is a virtue that I’ve always admired and respected. Growing up I was deeply impressed and proud of my father’s strength and valor as a frontline combat soldier in World War II. By extension, I appreciate and respect all people—such as noble police officers, firefighters, and soldiers—who willingly put their life on the line for others.
Another Kind of Courage
When I experienced a dangerous illness several years ago, I learned just how much courage it takes to be a patient facing physical suffering. Many people struggle day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year with various health concerns but seldom see themselves as being “courageous.” Yet it takes real strength and fortitude to deal with the pain, fatigue, and uncertainty that often accompany chronic illness. Facing down physical ailments and coming to grips with suffering is definitely not for cowards.
Another thing that I learned is how a major health crisis impacts the entire person. The struggle extends beyond the physical to the mental, emotional, and spiritual areas of life. Illness isn’t just something that happens to the body. As Christian theology teaches, human beings are a union of the physical and the nonphysical (body and soul-spirit; Genesis 2:7).
Hitting the Wall of Suffering
Hospitalized for almost a month with a raging infection in my lungs and brain, I thought that, for the most part, I was very strong in facing this trial. Previously, I had spent a lot of time in my life thinking, praying, and preparing for challenges that I knew would one day come my way. Coming to grips with one’s mortality from a Christian perspective involves building up spiritual resources that will allow one to face suffering and ultimately death itself.
It was after being released from the hospital that I hit a wall. At that point I felt that I had used up all my resources in combating my sickness. I literally felt drained physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. The greatest difficulty at that point was not the physical aspects but rather the uncertainty of not knowing whether I would ever fully recover. Would I be able to go back to work and resume my career? Would I be able to support my family? The uncertainty of it all was agonizing.
The Support of Others
My wife and children were an enormous help to me during that time. They did all they could to assist and encourage me. And they taught me that suffering never happens to just one person. To a degree, everyone who cares for another person during a trial suffers with that person. And that is especially true of family members.
There were also many people from work and church that called, visited, sent cards and letters, and brought food for my family. Their expressions of love and concern comforted me, especially during times of doubt and uncertainty. My boss, Hugh Ross, called me and reassured me that my job at Reasons To Believe would be waiting for me when I recovered.
Opportunities to Express Empathy and Impart Hope
The suffering of others gives each of us unique opportunities to express our genuine concern and empathy. We can also impart the hope of the Gospel to people who are suffering (Romans 5:1–5).
While no one of good will wants to suffer or see others endure it, suffering is nonetheless a powerful instrument that God uses to bring forth his sovereign and good purposes (Romans 8:28).
For more on the Christian response to suffering, see chapters 13 and 14 of my upcoming book 7 Truths That Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012).