I Want My Bride Back – Discovering Hope in Adversity
We are familiar with Paul's words in Philippians : "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead."1
What does 'the fellowship of his sufferings' mean, and how do we fellowship with Christ in his sufferings?
t was early 1976. Jane stood at the front of the church. She explained how the death of her sister Lynne, at twenty, had impacted her life. Lynne died from lung cancer, yet radiated a love for God throughout her illness. As we listened, many were deeply moved, but it was not only the story that drew my attention. Jane was beautiful! I thought, "That is exactly the sort of woman I would love to marry!"
Soon after, a mutual friend arranged for us to have a meal together and I was captivated. And so was Jane! A year later we married. As my glowing bride walked down the aisle of the church, I stood in awe. We took our vows together (for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health), and at the time did not realise how severely they would be tested.
Five years before our wedding, Jane had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. While she now enjoyed a period of remission, it would only be a matter of a few years before the disease would begin to progress again.
We were advised that having children could aggravate the condition, but decided the risk was worth it. Over the next six years our three wonderful sons were born: Joseph, Adam and Timothy. However, after this period the MS began to worsen, and finally confined my lovely, vivacious wife to a wheelchair in 1985.
That was the same year that I had a successful battle with lymphatic cancer, so it was a dark time for us both. Yet the insights the Lord has given through this ongoing journey have been lifechanging, and have enabled us to know him more intimately. Philippians 3:10, 11 has become very real: "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead." (NIV)
The fellowship of his sufferings
Many want to know him and the power of his resurrection, but are not so sure about the 'fellowship of his sufferings' part! What does this mean? How do we fellowship with him in his sufferings?
I supposed it meant we would know his closeness when we suffer, and he would comfort and empathise with us. This is true, but only half the story. Some years ago I became aware of what the fullness of this may mean.
For weeks I had been overcome with the sense of loss MS had caused. I remembered our wedding day and grieved that Jane could no longer walk, or hold my hand as we strolled on the beach, or minister with me. I had prayed for healing many times but this day, in my pain, blurted out, "Lord, I want my bride back!" What happened next shook me.
Jesus spoke. Into my mind came words that were so clear, they seemed audible. He sighed, "I know what you feel — I want my bride back too!"
Discerning the ache in his heart, I understood that Jesus graciously loves his church as she is, but wants us free from the disability of sin and powerlessness. Then we would be able to radiate him to a world that has lost its way, a world he deeply cares about.
I knew an intimacy with him in our mutual pain that I had not experienced before. He understood my distress and in some small way I understood his. This was fellowship in his sufferings.
Our pain can be a gift that allows us to glimpse God's heart, listening for the things that he grieves over. CS Lewis once said, "God whispers in our pleasures and shouts in our pain." Yet often, instead of hearing his voice, we are distracted with the loudness of the pain. Many walk away from this opportunity of intimacy, being so focused on their own suffering that they fail to feel his.
It is not that the Lord wants to minimise our pain or pretend it does not exist, for he is deeply touched with the feeling of our infirmities.2 But it is as American pastor, Gary Wiens, says, "Every situation of pain is an invitation into the heart of Jesus."
When we fellowship in his sufferings like this, we mature in the knowledge of him. This gives meaning to the painful things we may go through in life. But knowing him is to know the power of his resurrection as well. As these seem opposites, we may struggle and embrace one but not the other. It is in holding both of these together that we mature.
The power of his resurrection
The power of his resurrection is the awesome power of the Lord that will one day raise dead believers from the grave and give them glorious new bodies. These are bodies that will never sin or die or become sick. This is a wonderful hope for all Christians, especially those who are afflicted in this life.
But the power of his resurrection also refers to the Holy Spirit releasing his power to bring such things as salvation, deliverance and healing in this life. So for years Jane and I sought him for healing, but it has not happened yet. Disappointed, I wondered how God, who is all-powerful, could remain unresponsive to our cries.
With my background as a mathematics teacher, then a pastor and Bible teacher, I tried to figure God out in a clear, calculated way. I came to realise he will not be calculated or worked out! At times he chooses to remain mysterious, allowing us to live with the tension between his power to intervene in our lives and the stark reality of the daily pain of unchanged circumstances.
This is to know God at a deeper level. It is to accept that he allows paradoxes: two things that are opposites held together in tension yet harmony. He is the God who sustains us in adversity, giving value to our pain as we share in the sufferings of his Son. But he is also our healer.
It is possible to accept suffering and, due to the disappointment of not being healed, exclude healing from our thinking. Equally we may pursue healing and exclude the joys of intimacy with him in adversity.
As we hold both together, suffering and resurrection, we can continue to hope and trust for healing, if not in this life, then in the one to come, whilst journeying through our pain and adversity deeper into his heart. Then we progress to a place of wholeness, rest and intimacy with him. While Jane continues to trust for healing, I have watched her develop a grace and dignity in her circumstances that speaks to many people.
Our life a song
A little while ago I planned to spend a day in prayer, worship and study. As I anticipated this time of intimacy with the Lord, I remembered I would first need to help Jane get mobile for the day, and that would take some time. A wave of frustration swept over me.
As at other important times of instruction in my life, I again heard Jesus speak to me. He whispered, "Your service to Jane is worship to me." In that moment I realised he values all of life, not just the devotional parts, and that one's life is like a song of worship to him.
My musical knowledge is limited, but I know that songs in a minor key sound sombre and mournful. In contrast, songs in a major key sound more upbeat and joyful. The reality is that often our lives are like a song composed of both minor and major chords; minor chords of disappointment, pain and adversity accompanied by major chords of promise, hope and joy. If we allow them to be blended together, they create a melody that is true worship to the One who loves us so deeply.
1 Philippians 3:10, 11
2 Hebrews 4: 15
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