I pulled out one of her drawers to begin organizing. Menial tasks can have such gospel implication when done through the law of love. After I separated the pens in the junk drawer, I opened her day planner from 2017. She could still write then. Her handwriting, a memento I never thought I’d treasure.
Slowly I turned the pages, absorbing the complexity of her pencil and the quirkiness of my mom. She wrote down everything, although she was never truly organized and always late to appointments. She could still drive to appointments in 2017.
Close to five years ago, we recognized the changes. We didn’t make much of them. Instead, we whispered here and there about how mom acted differently. Then one day, she couldn’t find her balance after getting up from her chair. Then, she fell because the dizziness wouldn’t leave her alone. Her conversations changed and she would say comments completely out of context. We were perplexed.
Three years ago, my mom was diagnosed with Corticobasal Syndrome. That weekend it was hard for me to sing, “Great is Thy Faithfulness” during church. It’s a cruel disease – a rare disease – a neurodegenerative disease with absolutely no cure. The disorder affects 5 people per 100,000. So the question remained, why was my mom one of the five?
The cruelty is revealed in the mind. She knows she’s dying because often she’ll apologize for the way she acts. She recently told me to make sure I take care of my brother after she’s gone. She asked that I tell his future spouse to make him lasagna and Nana’s chocolate cake for his birthday, as she did every year. Recently, she turned to look at me in the car and asked if it was all a bad dream.
This disease is cruelty personified. It has warped the left side of her body. It’s disintegrated her brain. She is a stranger, and the worst part of all is that she knows she is. She has OCD tendencies and often believes the worst about people. Worst of all, now she forgets my birthday. And she never forgot my birthday. She was the only mom who had confetti on hand at all times.
But as I’ve walked this road with Jesus, I’ve begun to sing again. I sing now, robustly, loudly and passionately – I sing differently because my eyes have seen differently. Suffering is not a burden, it’s an honor. If only we would treat it as so.
Suppress the Surprise
Why is it that we are surprised when it comes? The diagnosis? The unfair treatment? The loss of expectation? When were you last surprised by the caliber of pain? The Bible reveals to us, men and women who never lived a life of comfort and ease. Rather, they pinned their badge of suffering on every morning and walked ahead proclaiming conflicting messages like, “To die is Christ, to live is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Or “Consider it great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials” (James 1:2).
To further our argument is our brother, Peter, the best friend that betrayed Jesus. He pens, “Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may also rejoice with great joy when his glory is revealed“ (1 Peter 4:12-13).
Some may argue that this statement only aligns with persecution, but its underpinnings ask one pertinent question, “When something hurts you – martyr’s stones or cancers death grip – what are you going to do?”
Rather than upholding suffering, we’ve instead created a culture of its filthiness. We sing most Sundays, “You can have it all, Lord” but when our budget is slashed, the diagnosis is ugly or the illness returns, we run. Are we lying as we sing lyric after lyric? Do we have a proper view of suffering? Or does our flesh rise up in self-protection mode acting as if we have any sway against the powerful breaking of a complex universe? I argue the latter.
No Plastic Smiles
Watching my mom die of a rare disease is excruciating. Walking through an oncology unit screams of a private pain. Looking into the eyes of a sick child is harrowing.
Joy in suffering does not equate to a plastic smile. Jesus certainly didn’t give us that impression. While in the Garden of Gethsemane, our example fell facedown and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass by me. Yet not as I will but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).
I pray that my mom’s suffering would pass me by.
I ask God for it all to be a bad dream.
There are days I can’t sing as boldly or passionately.
But I know I can still sing. I know there is honor in the suffering.
In Isaiah 53:11 we are told that after the suffering of his entire being “he will see and be satisfied.” Suffering in this perspective is like childbirth. It almost feels like pure torment for the time being, yet the gift that comes after allows women around the globe to persevere.
Jesus suffered well because saving mankind was enough for him. He didn’t hand the world a plastic smile. Instead, he handed the world his body.
From Humiliation to Exaltation
But when was Jesus exalted after he handed the world his body? Was it three days later after his glorious resurrection? Or is there something more in the story worth pondering.
R.C. Sproul argues Christ’s “humiliation ends at his burial. Because instead of being thrown unceremoniously on the garbage dump of “gehenna” outside of the city to be burned like all the rest of the corpses of those executed under the Romans. Intercession was made to Pilate and Pilate granted the request that Jesus could be buried in a grave of honor owned by a wealthy man. So all of a sudden his humiliation begins to turn a corner to exaltation at that moment.”
It’s a pattern: humiliation to exaltation, suffering to glorification.
As mere humans, we can lean in and be called into the pattern, too. Christ was exalted through his suffering. And because we are a people who claim, “By his stripes, we are healed,” we have also been exalted, not in self-glorification, but in a humbling manifestation that by Christ alone we move from suffering into glory. This is why we can wear illness like a badge of honor, rather complaining of its complications.
Because it's not the illness that defines us, its Christ’s exaltation; an exaltation that happened just after his humiliation.
My mom will more than likely die of Corticobasal Syndrome. She may never make another lasagna for my brother’s birthday. She probably won’t get out confetti to celebrate mine. In this broken life, we will inevitably find ourselves under the decrepit tent of suffering. Shoulder-to-shoulder we will feel the heat of the storm. But just as the tent will anchor to the dry ground, we anchor to the one who holds all molecules together.
It’s under the umbrella of suffering we remind God his promise to work all things out for good (Romans 8:28). As C.S. Lewis’s wife was dying of cancer, he said, “We are not necessarily doubting God’s will do the best for us. We are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.”
Suffering increases our sense of “best.” It heightens our delight of glory. Therefore, we give suffering its proper badge and joyfully find our place beneath the tent. It may feel crowded here, but it truly is an honor to suffer.