From a history of repeated real or imagined failures to a love of money, we have exposed, and will continue to expose, things that make us reluctant to fully embrace ministry. We will find, however, nothing worth the price surrendering the challenge of Christ-likeness.
If Jesus suffered for us when we didn’t deserve it, how can we refuse to suffer for him when he does deserve it?
To snuggle into the will of God is to be enveloped in the fiercely protective love and infallible wisdom of the Omnipotent One. Outside that warm cocoon lurk genuine reasons for fear, but inside the Almighty’s perfect will, fear – no matter how intense – is ultimately an illusion. The pain is transitory; the fulfillment, eternal.
In 1950 Siamese twins were born. Separation was impossible. They shared the one bladder, lower intestine, rectum and reproductive system. Of their three legs, two were functional. Masha controlled one, Dasha controlled the other. Yet though they shared organs and even the same disease-carrying blood, they contracted illnesses separately. When one was stricken with measles, for instance, the other was perfectly well.155 If you think that’s bizarre, read on.
Willie Burton, pioneer missionary to the Congo, prayed for Chief Lubinda’s withered arm. As he prayed the arm healed. Moved by this spectacular proof of divine power, the chief pleaded with the missionary to bring the gospel to his people. But it was impossible. ‘God’s miracle worker’ was too sick to go.156
Sickness and disability seem to bar so many of us from service that I cannot avoid the issue, though unraveling the easy cases would take a spiritual Sherlock Holmes. Desiring to simplify the complexities of life, we tend to ram the many reasons for affliction into just one or two categories and then wonder why our answer doesn’t work with everyone.
By re-weaving several threads in this book we will produce a simple but revealing tapestry.
You will recall, at his royal command performance, Moses’ rendition of If I had a stammer. That song and dance didn’t go down too well. Like his speech impediment, some disabilities are toothless tigers. Mrs Scudder was denied mission board support because they were sure she could not withstand the harsh conditions in India. She went despite their protests, and remained for sixty-three years.157 We could cower before our limitations, unaware that we are being terrorized by a set of gums!
On your behalf I have researched the lives of hundreds of people. Of all the things that moved me, I was perhaps most powerfully struck by those who faced crippling health problems and won. I refer to people who won, not in the sense of quickly regaining health, but by achieving amazing things in the face of infirmities that would have rendered other people helpless. Earth owes much to tough people in weak bodies; people like Livingstone, Brainerd, Finney, Hudson Taylor, ‘Praying Hyde,’ Catherine Booth, ‘Granny’ Brand and a multitude more. A strong spirit brings more glory than a strong body.
So some afflictions can be ignored. Others are oppressive obstacles that must be blasted by the explosive power of faith. But some are a friend.
God can make disability a ministry launching pad.
‘Why was this man born blind?’ the disciples probed the Son of God.
‘That the works of God might be manifested,’ came the reply.a Then Jesus healed him. Instantly, a flood of ministry opportunities engulfed the beggar. It seemed everyone wanted to hear his story.
Healing is a striking testimony to God,b but this thrilling opportunity has one drawback: to receive a miraculous healing you must first be sick. And the longer and more chronic your illness, the more powerful the testimony.
But ill health can launch us into service without such fireworks.
‘You have heard of the endurance of Job,’ wrote James as he sought to spark his readers.a From a ministry perspective, the most productive part of Job’s long life was the time of his illness. Even today Job lifts us. We know he understands.
Some people suffer so greatly that all they need do is remain remotely Christ-like to achieve more for God than a thousand sermons. You’ll find that unbelievable until touched by someone whose flickering love for God continues despite intense suffering.158
Leslie Lemke, whose story I related earlier, personifies another route to ministry. Severe handicaps have heightened his ministry by focusing the world’s attention on the musical gift God has given him.
Then there’s the pruning principle.
It is said George Matheson’s blindness sharpened his spiritual sight.159 Pious nonsense? Fanny Crosby wouldn’t think so. She claimed that if offered the chance to regain her sight she would refuse. Fanny believed she would not have been such a prolific hymn writer if forced to cope with the distractions presented to seeing eyes.160
Call me a skeptic, but Fanny was blinded soon after birth. How accurately could she guess the ‘disadvantages’ of sight? Was she over-zealous in wanting to see blessing in tragedy? Surprising confirmation of her view flows from a secular source. In Creative Malady, British medical professor, Sir George Pickering, explored the lives of five famous people whose work, he believes, benefited from psychosomatic illnesses.161 Pickering also noted that one of his students was unexceptional until tuberculosis confined him to a sanatorium for a year. The man read and thought and emerged a changed person who extended the boundaries of human knowledge. The professor tells of another colleague whose great intellect apparently benefited from the ‘enforced solitude’ of illness. For similar reasons, when Pickering was cured of a painful arthritic condition, he admits his relief was mixed with sadness.162
New Zealand artist, Rei Hamon, discovered his unique ability when as an injured logger he began filling the empty hours by making little dots on paper. Similarly, for Geoff Goodfellow, back pain boarded up previous openings and turned a poetry-hater into one of Australia’s most popular poets.
People are amazed at what physicist Stephen Hawking has accomplished despite his chronic limitations. Yet the world-famous scientist achieved little before contracting motor neuron disease. There were too many other things to do, and no apparent urgency. Hawking, like so many people before him, seems to have excelled because of his handicap.
So there are at least four ways in which the wall of affliction can become a door to service.
¶ Your ailment could be used to display the healing power of the risen Lord, blazing new avenues for witness.
¶ It could highlight your godliness, inspiring others and demonstrating the reality of God, even if, like Job, you lack special talent.
¶ Or, like black velvet behind a diamond, it could draw people’s attention to your talent, as it has done for Leslie Lemke, quadriplegic Joni Eareckson Tada and many others.
¶ It could seal off distractions, funneling your efforts into those skills the Lord wants you to excel in.
Irrespective of whether it is hepatitis or a broken leg, chicken pox or cancer, sickness is sometimes the physical manifestation of a mental problem.
If, for instance, we fear God’s call, sickness can be an agonizing but effective way of avoiding commitment, without the need to consciously rebel. Be it social or family or work pressures, competitive sport, exams or whatever, if an individual finds something sufficiently traumatic and yet feels obliged to do it, medical illness is an escape hatch the unconscious mind is likely to seize.
Another possibility is that we are unconvinced of our right to vibrant health. Again, this may be conscious or unconscious, spiritual (e.g. guilt), or non-spiritual (e.g. parental messages received as a child). Whatever the cause, a weakened will to resist illness can make us vulnerable to almost any illness. As we saw from twins Masha and Dasha, there is more to illness than the chance exposure to disease.
It may be liberating to prayerfully and gently let God examine our hidden motives, but in the lives of other people, we should play amateur psychiatrist no more than we would become a back-yard surgeon. Consider Amy Carmichael, who spent twenty highly productive years in India with seldom a pain-free moment and practically never venturing out of her room.163 I dare not touch even her memory by wondering whether Amy sought healing with sufficient intensity; whether, for instance, her subconscious found sickness a way, albeit a tortuous one, of avoiding distraction, thus empowering her to focus on more critical work. Since God has vowed to mound all things for good in the lives of his darlings, it is hardly surprising if we could see certain advantages in Amy’s tragedy. So rather than flirt with the devil, who delights in turning the screws on suffering Christians, I exalt Amy as an inspiration to all who are afflicted by limitations that will not budge. As distressing as infirmity is, we should follow her lead of refusing to use painful limitations as an excuse for opting out of divine obligations.