24 April 2015
When faith gets shaken
When I was diagnosed with a degenerative knee condition that would require major limb construction surgery, many people tried to encourage me that having to spend six months to a year in recovery would give me plenty of time to rest. They said things like: "Think of all the time you'll have on your hands to pray and be in God's presence," and tried to reassure me that in the most painful times of their lives, they had known God the closest.
It wasn't like that for me. The physical challenges after the operation were tough. I had a huge metal frame circling my leg and kept in place with pins through the bones. It was agony to move and th efirst time I tried to go upstairs to bed I broke down and wept, not knowing how I was going to make it through the weeks and months of pain and immobility that lay ahead. But the hardest thing wasn't the physical problems – it was feeling so spiritually numb. I had no sense of God's presence. In the darkest moments I wondered if God had left me. I knew it wasn't just the operation that was making me feel so low. It was an accumulation of years of working with broken people in desperate situations, years of limping on, worrying about my health and dealing with health problems in my family. I felt guilty for the impact my operation was taking on my wife, my family, and the team at XLP. The accumulative impact of all of it caught up with me and weighed heavily.
My prayers became short and desperate: "Please say something God. Anything." I took comfort in the words of Henry Nouwen who in 1995, a year before his death, wrote about prayer. Rather than describing an amazing intimacy with his creator as you migh thave expected from this spiritual giant, he described a painful lack.Though he had learnt much about prayer through painstaking research, he said he felt few emotions when praying: "I have lived with the expectation that prayer would be easier as I grow older and older and close to death. But the opposite seems to be happening.The words darkness and dryness seem to best describe my prayer today."
The picture he painted wasn't entirely bleak. He also said: "Are the darkness and dryness of my prayer signs of God's absence, or are the signs of presence deeper and wider than the senses can contain? Is the death of my prayer the end of my intimacy with God or the beginning of a new communion, beyond words, emotions and bodily sensations?
"In the midst of the darkness he found light. He had hope that God was still with him and that no matter what was happening it could lead him to a greater intimacy with his heavenly father.
I tried to focus on these things and hold on to the truth that God hadn't left me. But day to day I was still in constant pain with my leg and additional pain in my back from the weight of the frame. I was dealing with symptoms of IBS and eczema brought about by stress, not sleeping well, and feeling helpless as I couldn't even stand up alone.
My wife, Diane, and I both felt at a loss for how to cope. At one particularly bleak moment she stepped out of the room to take a minute on her own to cry out to God. She told Him it was too hard and that she couldn't do it anymore. As she prayed she saw a picture of a tunnel and immediately thought of the phrase 'the light at the end of the tunnel'. But as she looked she couldn't see any light in the distance; the tunnel looked too long. As she looked again she saw the light was around her, at the start of the tunnel not at the end. In that moment she knew God had given her our survival strategy to get us through the difficult months ahead: we had to be fully present in the moment. We couldn't look to how life might be in a day, a week, a month or a year; if we looked ahead waiting for the light, we'd miss the fact that God was already with us, right where we stood. Over the last year I learnt about real courage, peace, anger, guilt, surrender, hope and God's Love.
Patrick is the founder of XLP. His new book When Faith Gets Shaken looks at how we keep going when it feels like life has fallen apart and we're not sure where God is. You can download a free chapter or order your copy from whenfaithgetsshaken.com