On October 20, 2020, my wife and celebrated a unique anniversary. It was the 4th anniversary of the day I gave her my left kidney. Whenever I have the chance, I enjoy telling folks that as Adam proclaimed of Eve, bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, I like to add, Heidi, is the kidney of my kidney. We are celebrating God’s faithfulness for allowing the kidney to stay functioning. Still, more than this, we are celebrating God’s faithfulness in the midst of and despite the very painful journey that led to the need for such a donation in the first place.
My wife has an extensively long history of medical complications that began when she was two-years-old, having, by God’s mercy, fought off leukemia. The cancer treatment, though it has steadfastly killed the cancer, set a cascade of complications and “comorbidities” that pronounced themselves in her late 20’s and into our married life.
I wish I knew the exact number of days, but I feel fairly certain that it’s been at least a cumulative 18 months of inpatient hospitalizations throughout our marriage. In addition to all the two-week stays, 10-day stays, one month stays here, and there; she had two notable hospitalizations that involved two organ transplants. The first one was a little over a month after getting married. We married on 6/29/2013, and Heidi was hospitalized Aug ‘13 thru Feb ‘14, which led to a heart transplant on the dreary but grace-filled night of Jan 6, 2014. While I was thankful for the heart, I realize that someone had to die to make her continued life possible.
The second long term hospitalization was July-Dec ‘16. This led to a kidney transplant, which was originally scheduled for July 5. Still, due to unexpected broad-scale organ failure, she required emergency surgery, not only saving her life but leading to a permanent ostomy. The hospital refused to do the kidney transplant, so God provided another hospital a few months later, where we could complete the transplant. After the donation, I endured a bowel obstruction. Without realizing it, I was discharged only to return about 36 hours for emergency surgery to “unkink” my bowel.
In December, before the heart transplant, Heidi’s parents and I would rotate, spending the night with Heidi in this hospital. She was quite ill, attached to a double bivad device by that point. In April or May of 2015, we learned she had kidney failure and would need regular dialysis. We tried at-home dialysis for a brief time, but that turned out to be a bit too overwhelming. Unfortunately, she was mildly allergic to the dialysis process, which made dialysis increasingly grueling.
The hospital, doctors, nurses, medications, appointments, pharmacies, and billing offices would become closer friends than either of us anticipated. When we are in the thick of the battle, literally trying to stay alive, it’s hard to give thanks and praise for God’s faithfulness. Medical complications, such as Heidi’s, are fraught with so much pain and loneliness. My wife had been a full-time special education teacher when we met and was quite adept in her job, I might add but could no longer work due to her complications.
God’s Faithfulness in Suffering: Reflections of the Heart
Three things circulate in my heart and mind over the years during these medical complications.
(1) This is part of God’s plan.
I know this to be true in my head, but my attitude can often fluctuate in such a way that it isn’t commensurate with this. I can be prone to apathy over the extended period of continual assaults, the ensuing effect of long hospitalizations, and persistent nearness to physical death. A kind of numbness overtakes when physical pain doesn’t ever seem to end. I see Paul’s words anew, “though our outer self is wasting away…” but sometimes there is difficulty seeing and believing how “…our inner self is being renewed day by day.” Sometimes the flesh cries in despair: Why is wasting away so physically painful?
But I believe in a sovereign God who rules and reigns over these circumstances and helps us see how we respond to suffering matters just as much as the suffering itself. It matters whether or not in our suffering how we respond to sin in our lives. If we believe the first half of these big theological truths (i.e., God is in control, this is part of this plan, etc.), we have to believe the second half. That is where this pain is taking us. The most straightforward summary would be this: our suffering is custom designed to take us into a pathway of life where we are more and more conformed into Christlikeness. As the writer of Hebrews then reminds us, “in your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your own blood.” As hard as it may be sometimes to realize, suffering inevitably clarifies subtle affections with sin.
In our suffering, we desire relief so badly that we will sometimes do whatever it takes to catch glimpses of that relief rather than resisting temptation to sin. This is where suffering becomes doubly horrible. First, the flesh is wasting away (if that weren’t enough trouble on its own), but we must now also fight sin while we suffer. I think this is what Paul means by being renewed day by day. God will not spare one aspect of our existence if it means making us more like Christ. He will allow for the killing and wasting away of the flesh if it becomes a pathway for doing away with and killing sin, our earthly residue, and a lasting barrier to Christlikeness. So thanks be to God who defeated death so that when we do pass from this life, we can leave confidently resting in God’s grace, knowing in advance, this was part of his plan for our lives.
(2) God is with us.
Suffering not only forces us to reckon with our sin in very specific ways but, in doing so, helps clear the fog from our spiritual eyes that often prevents us from seeing God’s mercy on display in real-time. This is a pathway to fighting many of the quieter sins of apathy, passive-aggressiveness, and demandingness in our spirit where we might cry that pernicious cry: I don’t deserve this, or this isn’t fair. So, God’s kindness leads us to repentance, and the effect of that repentance is seeing His hand at work. God’s hand is always at work on behalf of his children, his beloved. There is never a moment when you are actually bereft in your pain. In the end, it only feels like it.
I am not saying this to diminish that real physical sensation of being alone. You might actually be alone from friends or family because others will inevitably fail you in some way. Even if they don’t “fail” you per se, they will prove in themselves to not be enough for the thirst in your soul for God. So, God’s promises are true; he will never leave us or forsake us. He will NEVER do to you what he actually did to his son. He did forsake his Son (Matt 27:46 Mk 15:34). That moment when he forsook the son was absolutely imperative not only in addressing the matter of sin and judgment but so that he could make due on his promise to never leave or forsake those who are his own. “Therefore, let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” (1 Pet 4:19).
(3) Tangible manifestation of God’s mercy points us to heaven.
As we grow in accepting the reality of God’s plan in our lives; grow in fighting sin, grow in entrusting our souls to Jesus, grow in our believing that we are not actually alone, the more we can adopt this refrain in pain: the tangible manifestation of God’s mercy. For instance, all the little-to-big things that are needed in sustaining a person’s life on this side of heaven are counted in this mix: Dialysis machines, heart or kidney transplants, surgeons, pain medication, kind nurses, ostomy bags, wheelchairs, feeding tubes, oxygen machines are all tangible manifestations of God’s mercy in real-time. When I first met my wife, she was on a 24/7 IV pump for a medication called milrinone that was helping her heart stay in optimal condition. Milrinone pumps are tangible manifestations of God’s mercy.
But taking this a little deeper to the heart, anytime you are able to give thanks, to fight temptation and sin, to pray a prayer in desperation, to read a verse, recall a verse, have someone pray for you, think of the Lord Jesus these are also all tangible manifestations of God’s mercy pointing us to heaven.
The God of the Bible is a God who acts in history and deals with his people on the most personal and intimate levels. The God of the Bible, from his throne in Heaven, calls us by name. The God of the Bible is real, and there will be a real day when he comes on his white horse to execute final judgment. The name written on his thigh is Faithful and True (Rev 19:11). The same God who cares about your pain and suffering, who is concerned about your sanctification, who provides for you, will also act in a way that finally and forever secures our future so that pain and suffering will never be part of your storyline again. “He will wipe away every tear from their eye, death shall be no more, neither there shall be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:4). The experiences of God’s mercy, in real-time, in the midst of our pain, are hints at a future that someday, it won’t be like this any longer. There will be a day when we see Jesus face to face, which will be the greatest mercy of God toward us.