In this article, Pastor Chuck tells us of his experience of finding contentment in Christ, his all-sufficient savior, in the midst of a life-changing diagnosis. We pray that his experience might lead you to hope to find the same life-changing contentment in the middle of COVID-19.
In March of 2017, I had the privilege of traveling to Nicaragua with my youngest brother (he’s also a pastor). The purpose of the trip was to spend a week helping 40 pastors grow in their preaching. In many ways, it was a marvelous experience. It was also the week that launched one of the most challenging periods of my life thus far.
My health is a bit of a wildcard. Let’s just say doctors love to get their med students whenever I have an appointment. I almost always get sick when I travel, so as I started to decline in Nicaragua, it felt typical. But, as more and more symptoms piled up, this illness seemed different. Nearly that entire week went by with no sleep. Everything hurt. I was dizzy and had strange rashes on my neck and face. Several organs ached. It sounded like everyone was underwater. As we made our way to the airport to travel home, I could barely walk. My joints felt like someone poured lava in them.
Things went from bad to worse. After a couple of days with staff, deacons, and friends at the Gospel Coalition’s National Conference, I finally arrived home. By the next day, I couldn’t form thoughts, my speech was slurred, and everything was spinning even while lying flat in a dark, cool room.
Over the next several months, the doctors ran a myriad of tests. Specific tests even triggered a bit of interrogation from the CDC. They seemed to have me on speed dial. I remember at a single trip to the lab having 11 vials of blood drawn. Lumbar punctures, x-rays, perplexed doctors, and still more bloodwork were routine.
During these days, it took 40-50 hours to write a single sermon, since my thinking was so muddled. My wife and kids had front row seats to a total physical collapse that I couldn’t muscle through. People, music, travel, preaching, and books, all loves, greatly aggravated each symptom. I’d sleep for 10-12 hours only to wake completely exhausted. There were periods during which Jill had to wake me to eat, and the exertion of eating a meal made me need to go back to sleep. Through the blinding fog of physical symptoms, the ache of embarrassment, an overwhelming sense of fragility, and the concern that ordinary life might never return also afflicted me. One thing I’ve always been good at – pressing ahead through anything – was impossible. Everyone close to me was being impacted, and there was nothing I could do to help.
It took months, but eventually, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease known as Lupus SLE (Systemic Lupus Erythematosus). Over the next 18 to 24 months, many things I knew about life would be challenged. Lupus isn’t an illness I will have for a while and then get over: it is my lifelong companion, and since the disease is systemic, my entire body is affected.
Today, every day is different than it was before I got sick. Anything and everything (like sunshine) seem to make it worse. Daily trivial tasks now take a toll like only the hardest of weeks used to. I’m sick daily, but appear to be so only infrequently, which brings an emotional weight I never understood before. My kids have about half of their pre-SLE dad. Jill must do nearly everything around the house because I’m too weak. There are days I am far too sick to pray, let alone study, plan, play with the kids, or shepherd people in crisis. But other days I am pretty capable: the only predictable thing is a lack of predictability. Pain is ever-present. And the treatment is no cakewalk – three forms of expensive chemotherapy for life.
Nevertheless, without reservation or hesitation, I can happily say that this is the most content and joyful I’ve ever been. In fact, if I could trade what I’ve learned about God and life in him for the ease of not having SLE, I wouldn’t even consider it. No question about it – Jesus is better. This is a momentary trial: knowing Jesus in richer ways will last forever. The end of a trial is not near as sweet as the joy of experiencing the all-sufficient Savior. I’ll keep lupus for now because I long to treasure my Lord forever. Jesus is better.
Arriving at the above conclusion was not quick nor easy. After my diagnosis, I read 2 Corinthians 4-5 several times a day for months. These truths on the gospel, suffering, and eternal glory kept me tethered to the Lord during the months my emotions were erratic and untrustworthy, my thinking was foggy, and my future was not at all clear.
While the sovereignty and goodness of God were already settled convictions in my mind, the experience of new suffering and loss had to drive those convictions deeper in my heart. I am so thankful for the Scripture’s clarity on issues like providence and suffering. God is sovereign over suffering, and he harnesses it providentially for his good purposes. He gives grace daily so we can meet the challenges and opportunities of that day. Over time, I’ve found his new mercies and fresh grace to be sufficient.
As much as I love all of you and deeply enjoy being productive for the spread of the kingdom of God, this daily grace has taught me through the years that I am not what I do. If every ability is taken away, the joy of salvation still remains.
Far from devaluing them, this means that moments are precious. Little graces like laughter, being fully present as a brother or sister in Christ talks, meals with my family, another chance to open the Bible and savor Jesus together, a smile on a friend’s face, the marvel of God’s people singing to him and each other on Sundays, another day to do today whatever God gives the energy and health for – these are divine treasures to be richly enjoyed. And none of them are certain.
I could get sicker today and be confined to bed alone for months. What I am equipped for today could be impossible tomorrow. The effects of lupus on my brain could end life abruptly. And that’s okay! Why? There are so many reasons. Here are just three: 1) Being more aware of death has made life far better. 2) The nearness of God, not my usefulness for God, is my good. 3) I can suffer the loss of all things because, by grace, I will gain Christ. You see, the essence of life is not measured by our output, grades, earnings, or health: no, life is solely about being found in Christ. Christ is our life. He really is better.
There are certainly people who have far more difficult circumstances and diseases than me. There are also people with much different afflictions than I have. The point, though, is not to compare hardships. No matter the hardship, we each must deny ourselves, take up our own crosses, and follow Jesus. No one is immune from difficulty, and we all must learn obedience through finding God faithful as we suffer.
There’s much more that could be said, but for now, I’d like to leave you with Paul’s treatment on this subject. May these words lift your gaze off your trials and onto your sufficient Lord and Savior, for Jesus is better! “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal,” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).