by Jacinda Lilly, pastor, Coast Vineyard
The first time I heard the phrase “Walking with a limp” was from John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard movement, when he said, “Don’t trust a leader who doesn’t walk with a limp.”
His point of reference came out of Jacob wrestling with God in the form of an angel in Genesis 32. At the end of Jacob’s all-night struggle, God touched the socket of Jacob’s hip and damaged it so that from that time onward Jacob walked with a limp. This encounter with God changed him in other ways too. He got a new name and moved into a new phase of his life. He was now fit to lead.
There is a remarkable quality that can come from the lives of people after they have wrestled with God and life and the resulting limp is an order to themselves and a sign to others that God has humbled them.
We have some pithy little statements that we throw about, like “When life sends you lemons, make lemonade.” It makes tough times sound so easy, but life isn't always so simple and lightweight phrases do little to recognise the challenges we wrestle with.
In 2012 I wrote a paper to complete my masters study on one idea that I considered essential for a healthy spirituality. My focus was on the theology of suffering. In hindsight I have to laugh. I think God wanted to take me into a deeper and richer experience of what I wrote about because the following year turned into one of the most challenging years I’ve experienced in a long while.
In February 2013 my husband Matt and I started a church plant in the Hibiscus Coast. Two and a half months later I was diagnosed with a number of overlapping conditions that meant I had to stop my teaching job and spent the next 10 months struggling with severe fatigue and other physical symptoms that significantly affected my ability to function well. At my worst I started each day with 10 pills and slept or lay down for big chunks of every day. This was not the glorious start to our church plant that I’d been anticipating and added a really big load to our family and in particular Matt as he managed working two jobs and caring for me and our girls.
Forget walking – I could barely stand at times. This season became another opportunity for me to wrestle with some hard things and again acknowledge my great need for God and for others – to walk with a limp.
All of us experience seasons of wrestling, testing, discipline and sifting (Hebrews 12:1-13). We may wrestle with health issues, financial stress, depression, relational difficulties, brokenness, failure, loss and grief, and desert-type seasons in our spiritual journey. If we don’t anticipate and expect it, we will be surprised and confused when it comes. There are some key thoughts for us to consider as we prepare ourselves for these seasons.
Perspective is everything
Our perspective of the place of sickness, pain and challenges in our lives probably needs some thought. We are well served if we take some time to develop healthy theology around pain and hard things in the life of following Jesus. As John Wimber frequently said, “If our theology doesn't work in real life then we need to rethink our theology.”
When we experience difficult seasons it doesn't mean God isn't present or has stopped loving us. It doesn’t necessarily mean we lack faith or have brought this upon ourselves through doing something wrong. Following Jesus doesn’t exclude us from encountering pain and challenges in our lives – in fact we are told in scripture to expect it.
A robust theology equips us with the knowledge and expectation that when pain comes, God walks with us through it.
These difficult realities are part of living in the now/not yet of the kingdom and of God’s commitment to us as His children so that we grow up into Him. Our perspective is important because it affects how we respond to hard things. Will we see these seasons as a reminder of God’s lordship and loving activity in our lives that can lead us to greater intimacy with Him or will we see it as evidence of His absence and lack of love which leads to bitterness, fear and isolation from Him and others?
CS Lewis reminds us that, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Pain and suffering can help us put things in perspective, value what is truly valuable and be a transformative tool in God's hands.
Are we prepared?
Our culture does little to prepare and equip us for hard things. We live in a culture designed to maximise our comfort and pleasure, celebrates these vanities and distracts us from what is real and lasting. If we take a look at what we’re sold by the media, we should expect life to be as easy as possible – filled with things that entertain and delight us, that ensure we live hassle free lives.
From this perspective, pain is something to be avoided or ignored as much as possible. In reality, however, this is not how people actually live. We may be cushioned from the impact of suffering and pain for long periods in our lives but inevitably we are forced to come face-to-face with the harsh and often crushing realities of real and unavoidable heartbreak. God doesn’t allow us to become too comfortable – He knows that too much isn’t good for us. Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, encourages us that going through "trials and temptations can be a blessing when they undermine our pride and our reliance upon ourselves and teach us to put our trust in God's mercy and goodness."
So where do we go to learn how to wrestle with life’s challenges well? How do we equip ourselves to face and deal with life's pain and suffering in a way that enables us to retain our sense of dignity and our faith in God, where eventually we can emerge from the valley of the shadow of death in good shape? How do we prepare ourselves to be able to do this when our hearts, minds, spirits and bodies are crushed under the weight of pain and suffering that can sweep into our lives without warning? We look for a place of hope and truth ahead of time.
We need a pre-emptive strategy. When you visit ancient towns and cities, particularly in Europe or the Middle East, you often see large fortified city walls protectively surrounding the area. These were an essential piece of fortification and safety for these cities and their people during times when they were under siege.
What we often fail to consider is that these walls were built during times of peace, when life was good. We need to build well when life is good. This is the time to invest in our key relationships – with God and others. This is the time to dig deeply into prayer, worship and scripture. It’s here that we find examples, from Jesus and his disciples and others in scripture, of suffering and wrestling in ways that bring hope and life and are firmly anchored in the goodness of God. When life is good, that’s the time to cultivate life-giving habits that will help sustain us when we are stretched. We must anchor ourselves in truly believing that God is good and that He loves us.
Then, when we are in the thick of things and life is just plain tough, there are a few things that can help us.
It’s only for a season
God knows we need constant reminders of His goodness and involvement in our lives, so He has given us many in scripture and in the way He has orchestrated the rhythms of nature and history.
I have found Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 incredibly encouraging, where we’re told there all things in this life have a season – they don’t last forever. There is “a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance” (v4). Nature reminds us of this truth also. We would not experience the bursting of life in spring without the seemingly lifeless winter season. No matter how long a season of suffering can feel – or indeed is – this season will pass.
We can choose
While we don't generally choose to suffer, we can choose how we respond to it. In a commentary on Jeremiah 18:1-6 it is noted that, "Only in our co-operative surrender does God have the freedom to mould us in His likeness. We do not stand outside of our being created; there is a decision, a will, a choice to be made."
If then we choose to be willing participants in the process that suffering takes us through, what could we discover? If we choose to expect to find God in the dark and desolate places of our suffering will we discover that hope and meaning is found in the midst of our suffering?
Viktor Frankl is his book Man’s Search for Meaning would say this is possible and even essential for us to navigate periods of suffering well. "The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life."
Frankl tells us just how vitally important our response to unavoidable suffering is where we choose to change ourselves when faced with suffering that we cannot change. This is when our suffering can become a tool in God's transforming work in our lives. For Christians, it is as we remind ourselves of the purposes of God in the midst of our suffering and take hold of the comfort that He never leaves us or forsakes us that we find meaning, hope and endurance for our most difficult times.
We are not alone
Suffering will come but we are not alone. Once we come to a place of knowing that God is with us regardless of how we feel or what we’re going through, we can also acknowledge our need for others. When we are going through the hard things in life, it is tempting to withdraw from others and hunker down – but that works against us. We need to look for and ask for help from anyone who can support us in our hard seasons. This may be our doctor, our counsellor, our immediate family and it most certainly should include our church family.
It was so difficult to tell our launch team that I was struggling so much with life and health and yet people’s loving response and ongoing practical and prayer support really kept me going. We need one another. We aren’t built to live alone. Ecclesiastes 4:12a, “By yourself you’re unprotected. With a friend you can face the worst.” We need to take the risk of allowing people to truly know us – when life is good and when it isn’t.
We aren’t disqualified
We need to remember that we’re in good company. God has made a practice of using broken people. If you think about it, they are all that are available to Him. No matter what our struggles are, none of us is disqualified from loving Him and serving Him and His people with whatever we can bring to Him.
In our situation during our church plant, I’d stay in bed on Saturday and Sunday morning so I could turn up at our gathering with our launch team on Sunday afternoon. Much as I wanted to be able to bring vision and energy and excitement to our emerging gathering of people, many times all I could bring was just being there and having others carry a lot more a lot sooner than I would have planned.
Interestingly, our launch team grew, an atmosphere of being real and caring for one another emerged and God demonstrated His ability to grow the church regardless of our personal circumstances. This has deepened my ability to rest into Him and know that He is God and I am safely and lovingly held. God is truly good – all the time.
Let’s not be afraid of walking with a limp. It’s a reminder of our encounters with God and with the realities of life. Let’s choose to embrace the transformative process that God uses in our hard times and grow deeper into being His people marked by humility and faith.
“In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith — of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire — may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.”
1 Peter 1:6-7