When the darkness of uncertainty and fear hangs over you, inasmuch as by grace it remains in you, don’t let go of the One you knew in the light. Keep holding on, if only, it may seem, by your fingernails. Know this: his hands are on his children’s fingernails — day and night. Pray for dawn and deliverance. (John Piper)
When my world began falling apart, I kneeled, wept, and begged for a miracle instinctively. It seemed like the normal thing to do: turning to the only One I knew who could change the course of our events. We received news that my 32-year-old sister had terminal cancer, and the images of internal organs looked bad enough already. I felt weak and afraid. In a matter of a day, everything I’ve learned about my God was about to be put to the test in the most painful season of my life. Suddenly, I began to search for fellow sufferers. The biographies and books I read, pulled up files of portraits of timeless saints whose reactions to their own adversities modeled genuine gospel faith. Names like Spurgeon who resolved to “kiss the wave” that threw him against the Rock of Ages. Because the pain grounded him firmly in Jesus, Spurgeon grew to be thankful for the trials and see them as providentially purposed for his good. Or Joni Erickson Tada, who contended that her paralysis was her greatest blessing, and being in a wheelchair made her stronger and bolder for Jesus. And of course, Paul came to mind, this giant man of faith who boasted even more in his weakness for in it God’s power was made perfect.
But who was I kidding! As I was thrown in my cold night, these names shamed me more than encouraged me at the time. Nothing about my painful situation made me want to be amorous towards it, embrace it, be thankful for it, or boast about it. As a Christian myself, I felt I was not even worthy to join the stands of such faithful names and many more. For instead of embracing my darkened season, I pleaded for deliverance from it. I begged God in tears to heal my sweet little sister. Screamed. Whispered. Murmured. For healing. A miracle. Restoration. A change of circumstance.
Miracles are hard to come by these days, it seems. I’ve often imagined the beautiful biblical stories of Jesus walking on the Middle Eastern streets, pulled and needed and surrounded, stopping to perform healings for all kinds of people. He performed miracles left and right, like a Red Cross experienced veteran, helping anonymous people, rich or poor, foe or friend. The crowds, it seems, loved him for what he did but very few knew who he truly was.
Didn’t Jesus care who some of these people truly were inside?And since he knew who surrounded him, why did he still heal the sick, raised the dead, and minister to the needy? Should he have denied miracles based on people’s merits and faith?
Questions like these ones, and more, have been stuck in my mind for a while now. Thousands of years later, and here I am, as I hold my Bible, I can’t help but clutch dearly onto the gospel passages of the powerful reality of Jesus’ miracles. Tears flow as I begin to form a vivid picture of Jesus walking on the streets, granting miracles and preaching sermons. Hiding in the crowds with my sister—limping and yellowed, a dying reed—I scan my surroundings for an evidence of his presence. With a modern medical system that is failing to find a cure for cancer still, I know my sweet Lord’s voice could send the cancer into the depths of the hellish realms where it came from. I imagine pulling her hand forward, towards where our sweet Lord stands in the street: if only he would look at her, then she would be healed!
I often let my imagination get the best of me, but the miracle I began praying for from day one of her diagnoses was sincere, heartfelt, and just as vivid as if I was there, with Jesus, walking on the same streets and sitting at the same tables.
We persevered in asking for healing. We believed her life could be spared. We hoped and prayed and cried out. Each day was capped by shields of unshakable hope: “Yes, Lord, we know you can!”
And why wouldn’t we believe? Our Jesus healed the lame, gave sight to the blind, healed the sick, walked on water, calmed the sea, kicked out demons, raised the dead! The résumé of our Lord stretched long and wide in our lives also: he carefully held us during a despotic rule in our home country; protected us during a bloody civil war at home; blessed us with immediate needs while our parents struggled financially; gave us favor in the eyes of the teachers; saved our souls; blessed us with Christian husbands who love us deeply; he blessed our quiver with children, and our homes with his leadership and love; we saw his hand on our lives from the moment we both came to America—carrying us, sheltering us, loving us, surrounding us with men and women—living-stones of his church, built around us.
For over 12 years, my sister and I grew intimately in love with a God whose entire character spoke favor on us through Jesus Christ. As we were remembering the concrete ways in which God showed up daily in our lives thus far, we but held tightly to his mighty faithfulness and intentional presence to rest upon even in this devastating season. In our deepest valley, God’s longest presence up to this point served us with a chronicled memoir to encourage us and draw us close to him still.
Months into the chemotherapy and ER visits, our “miracle” was weakening by day as our sorrowful eyes watched the progression of this wicked disease. We gaped in utter helplessness how the growing prongs of the deadly cancer was swallowing my sister’s organs. In a matter of 6 months from diagnosis, my beautiful, energetic, vivacious sister went from living her life in full as a stay-at-home mother of 4 little boys, to drawing her last breath on April 10, 2018.
I felt the weakest and the strongest on the burial day. I followed mechanically the cultural traditions of the funeral processions, numbed by pain and feeling a deep sense of deprivation: My sister’s gone! She’s gone! I vaguely remember voicing over and over, as I hugged necks of familiar faces. My heart and eyes were dried up, weak, beaten up, tired. In the casket laid the body of my dear sister, a testimony of a miracle never granted. A request denied. A prayer answered with a No. This is the biggest “No” God gave us this far. How can I reconcile God’s character and the denied miracle, casketed into a wooden box, hugged by white satin cloths? How will we explain this to our children? To my own soul?
The sun shone brightly on that day, the wind blew stubbornly, and the trees were getting ready to burst into buds of reborn life. An awakening nature about to hug a lifeless body. My face followed instinctively the shining warmth of the sun, convinced it peaked out from the clouds just for my sister’s farewell: sunny days were her favorite! As I raised my face upward, I remember thanking God—just as instinctively—for his presence even on that graveyard hill. Somehow to me the wind and the sun were small gifts of visible grace from a steadfast Jesus, placing his arms around us—tethering us to himself—reminding that even in death, his everlasting presence is victorious!
Have you ever wondered why Jesus still chose to walk the Jewish streets of his time despite knowing that most of the people only pulled him here and there for what he could do for them? I often do. He stood and walked through needy and hurting crowds as a glorious lamppost of a merciful, loving, and present God. Some took the miracles without the Christ who performed them. Some passed him by altogether. Jesus was present regardless if people acknowledged him or not.
Despite being used by some or ignored by others, his presence then stands as a reminder for me today that Jesus cares.
His feet chose the dusty, busy Middle Eastern streets and markets because often in the very heart of our mundane is when we need reminders of God’s presence. We are often quick to sympathize with the sick and needy in the stories—mainly because we are those ones ourselves. But how often do we turn our focus on Jesus—recognizing his faithfulness and presence as he stands (often alone) among a diverse crowd, facing all kinds of reactions? How would this reality of a steadfast Jesus shape our lives when our circumstances leave us divided and overwhelmed?
We are coming up on 3 months since my sister passed away and well over 8 months since we’ve been begging for a miracle for her life to be spared. No matter how deep or wide I go searching for answers, I have questions that most likely will never be answered on this side of heaven. Cheap spiritual platitudes will not comfort my wounded soul. I can’t over-spiritualize my lack of answers or limited knowledge. Why would God choose to not heal my sister? I don’t know! I truly don’t. Why would God choose to leave us morning and grieving a sweet wife, mother, sister, daughter, and friend for the rest of our lives? I don’t have full answers. His ways are higher than mine and no matter how high I climb, I still feel myself lower with each step.
But while I can’t figure out exactly God’s thoughts toward my family and my sister’s death, here is what I know for a fact: we begged God for a miracle for my sister, but God blessed us with his presence instead! This remains, to this day, one of my favorite lifelines I cling to as we grieve her absence. God showed up in the cove of our suffering in ways I never imagined! His presence in our season is what I’ve grown to cherish more than the miracle itself. People following Christ only for granted miracles is just as cheapening as people leaving Christ for denied miracles. For what kind of commitment is that if following is for gain only, and leaving for loss alike?
Throughout the chemo days and weeks following my sister’s death, I often felt as if my whole body was being thrown against rocks and waves. Like the crowds surrounding Jesus, I often felt torn and deeply broken. Disappointing results made no sense; the doctors’ limitations frustrated me; the cancer’s advancement discouraged me; my sister’s declining health hurt me; our unanswered prayers weakened me; our 8 children’s bewildered faces worried me; her death broke me; grieving her still exhausts me. How long can one frail body keep clashing against waves and rocks and not come undone?
My heroes of faith found their answers, it seems. I can almost hear their slogans ringing in my ears. Spurgeon’s, “Embrace your trial, for Jesus is carrying you!” Tada’s, “Bless your suffering for it makes you stronger!” Paul’s, “Boast in your weakness, then watch God’s strength on display!” While I’m not there yet, I’m certainly grateful for their wisdom in reminding me that my clashes with waves and rocks have not been in vain. That there is no vanity in my trials, that my pain is purposefully contained by a Sovereign God, and that the One upon which I’ve been falling is the very Rock of Ages—the overseer of my soul. No way would he let me come undone because his care for me is rooted in his character. God’s loving faithfulness is constant in blessings and in trials. Nothing in the Bible teaches me otherwise. In fact, Psalm 23clearly reminds me that God’s presence is certain especially in valleys of the shadow of death. But what I love the most about Psalm 23 is the intimate tethering of God’s presence to his character. His presence in our valleys and trials is a testimony of his character. The certainty of God’s presence in our lives is a result of his unchanging, eternal characte. The certainty of God’s presence in our lives is a result of his unchanging, eternal character. Before Psalm 23 is about God being with us in our trials, it is about the prominence of God’s character making his presence possible in the first place. Oh, what a beautiful reminder that even in trials, God’s character is the same as in our best days! That God gathers us to himself through joys and sorrows because of his steadfast character!
Why should I stop trusting in God’s character when rains fall hard as if he’d change along with our circumstances?
On the other side of the closed casket and the graveyard plot, our God’s presence in the 6 months-intense-struggle with cancer remains more comforting than the thought of a miracle. The rocks and waves of our trial didn’t crush me because I witnessed God’s encircling me with shouts of deliverance (Psalm 32:7). It was the circle of God’s singing victories around me that stood me up after learning the news about my sister’s terminal disease; it was his circle that kept me from completely losing my mind as nights seem endless and days unending; it surely held my broken soul as I was listening to my sister’s cries of her last life-wishes; it guarded my shaking body as I was holding her hand when she drew her last, long, deep breath; this divine compassing of my soul preserved my faith as I watched her cold and lifeless body the day of the funeral. I know now there was no breach in God’s circle and that it fully surrounded me for I am still standing.
I’m standing…while on my knees these days, begging God, like George Matheson once prayed, to teach me the glory of my cross; teach me the value of my thorn. Show me that I have climbed to Thee by the path of pain. Show me that my tears have made my rainbows. Oh, that my soul would choose to hold fast to the Lord’s goodness even as my sister’s body lays lifeless in the casket—a testimony of a miracle not granted. Lord, help me believe that the rain you send demonstrates your faithfulness unto eternity (Joel 2:23). Help me place the banner of your good character (the one we’ve grown to love and cherish in good days) right here on top of the graveyards and amidst the caskets. Help me to continue to cherish your evident good and faithful presence in our struggles more than the miracle itself!
[This post was first published on Prince on Preaching, 2018]