As a Catholic newbie, I think the biggest mistake I make is trying to figure out God. I sometimes can't help asking myself (and Him) why things happen the way they do.
To be fair to myself, it is human nature to ask, to wonder, to want to learn. Even though my pastor reminds us on Sundays of “the mysteries of faith” (chanted in his delightfully off-key voice), the mystery-solver in me just can't seem to let some things go. And by some things I mean the bad things; especially the bad things that happen to good people.
I've been thinking a lot about Sue, a woman in my parish who has four children, and who has the worst illness I think I've ever heard of. Sue has ALS. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is very rare, affecting fewer than 20,000 people a year. It is a devastating disease in the way that it attacks the body, and there is no cure.
I haven't seen her since she was diagnosed in December. I've been thinking about her a lot recently, though, and wondering if she thinks the way I do. Is she asking God why-why she must suffer so horribly? Sue is Catholic, and I wonder if her faith is being tested or if it's what gets her through it all.
Sometimes I picture myself in Sue's situation, and I test my faith in an imaginary way. If I told you that I could be 100% buoyed by my relationship with Christ and the promise of eternal life while fighting a terminal illness, I'd be lying.
Over the summer, I ran into a friend at a party who gave me a quick update on Sue, which birthed in me an almost manic need to write Sue a letter. I thought constantly about the letter I wanted to write and agonized for weeks about the words I'd choose. Clearly, phrases like “you'll beat this… you're strong... you have the best doctors” wouldn't work at all, and standard get-well-soon sentiments just don't apply when you're fighting a losing battle with ALS.
Could I find the right words in the Bible? I seriously considered googling “Scripture verses for sick people.” Then I decided one night as I lay sleepless, deep in thought about Sue, that Lisa Brenninkmeyer (founder of Walking with Purpose) would have the right words for my letter.
The next morning I turned to the Walking with Purpose Bible study Opening Your Heart (authored by Lisa), and specifically to Lesson 15, which is about the role of suffering in our lives. I expected to be able to pluck Lisa's favorite Bible verse related to suffering right out of Lesson 15, and scrawl it onto a notecard for Sue.
In her wisdom, Lisa writes in the introduction to Lesson 15:
“I don't know about you, but when I am in the vise grip of suffering, I don't really want to hear someone whose life looks a heck of a lot easier than mine quoting Romans 8:28: 'We know that all things work for good for those who love God…'”¹
Fair point. I read on.
“When we encounter suffering, nothing robs us of peace like expectations.”²
We expect to understand God, Lisa says, and when we don't, confusion shreds our faith. We expect God's definition of happiness to be the same as ours, but when things go wrong, we wonder if He cares. And we expect to see evidence of God when we need him, but often, he remains invisible.
Opening Your Heart Lesson 15 is five days of learning, Bible study, and reflection. After taking in this lesson a second time, and clearing my heart and mind of all those expectations, I came out of it with a tremendous sense of peace. And I wrote a card to Sue and put it in the mail.
I should tell you that I didn't find words for Sue in Lesson 15, but I found peace and comfort for my heart, and a clear mind to come up with the right words all on my own.
I told Sue she was an amazing mother, that her four kids were terrific (which they really are), and that I was praying for her.
PS: After I finished writing this blog, a well-known truth from Scripture landed in my email in-box. I find it so comforting and feel compelled to include it here:
It is the Lord who goes before you; He will be with you and will never fail you or forsake you. So do not fear or be dismayed. (Deuteronomy 31:8)
¹ Lisa Brenninkmeyer, Opening Your Heart (July 2018), 173.
² Lisa Brenninkmeyer, Opening Your Heart (July 2018), 174.