I like to tell people that I became a short person at age 30. Because it was around that time that I went from walking around at a 5’8” height to sitting—usually in a wheelchair—almost full time.
Shortly after turning 16, I discovered I’d been living with a rare condition commonly known as a tethered spinal cord since birth. In tethered-cord patients, a fatty mass grows at the base of the spine, anchoring the spinal cord at the bottom (a normal spinal cord is only anchored at the top). The non-cancerous fatty tumor not only puts pressure on the spinal cord, it also chokes out the spinal nerves that become imbedded in it. The prognosis for most tethered-cord patients is gradual loss of feeling and paralysis in the legs, as well as loss of bladder and bowel control.
This diagnosis changed my life almost overnight from the care-free existence of a teenager to a serious reality of surgeries, therapy, and shopping for durable medical equipment. By the time I was 18, I had endured two serious spinal cord surgeries and, due to irreversible nerve damage, was walking with a cane and a leg brace.
It was at this point in my new, confusing reality that Lester, an older man whom I barely knew, stopped me in my tracks with a life-altering question. I still remember where I was—standing in a side hallway of my home church—when he asked, “What good are you finding in this situation?”
I don’t know why Lester approached me. Maybe the question he posed to me was one he asked everyone. Maybe my mask of false cheerfulness wasn’t fooling this faithful brother. In any case, at the time, his question sparked anger in me. But now, I see how the Holy Spirit shaped this encounter into a profound moment in my spiritual journey.
Looking back, I can see that Lester’s question pierced my heart because it got at the root of what I was actually grappling with: not just my diagnosis but also my faith. And I can see how my unexpected crisis of health in my teens propelled me from a comfortable, untested, intellectual knowledge of God into a time of bitterness that ultimately strengthened and deepened my faith in God.
Giving up on being a “good Christian”
Prior to my diagnosis, I considered myself, and was considered by friends, to be a “good Christian.” I was raised in the Church; I could think intelligently about matters of faith and give the right answers in Sunday School. But my faith was without the foundation of a relationship. I had a lot of head knowledge, but I didn’t know what it meant to rely on God. Deep down, I believed everything I excelled in was due to my effort and giftedness.
As a result, my spiritual response to reality as a “disabled person” was bitterness. I can still recall the intense anger I felt when I opened get-well cards with Scripture verses in them. And I still tried to keep my independence and control over my life; I let everyone know I wanted to walk, drive, and get back to my “normal” life again as soon as possible.
I don’t remember a specific moment of letting go of my bitterness and turning back to God. But I think it was because of God’s faithfulness to me and His mercy in keeping me connected to good influences and the Church—including people like Lester—that I started to, over time, give up much of my anger. It was only then that I could begin to see good in my situation.
For example, I am, at the core, a very driven, competitive, type-A personality. But my disability limits how much I can do in a day and how much I can do myself. Every day, I must rely on other people to help me with tasks like grocery shopping, cleaning my house, or reaching things too high up for me to grab. Every day, I struggle with pain or low energy, and I find myself praying for God to give me enough strength to get through the next task or even the next hour! And during the times when my body forces me to rest, I find I am still enough to hear the quiet voice of God, and I am available enough to pray for the needs of others.
Embracing what is good for my soul
God is showing me that, right now, my physical limitations are good for my soul. Could God heal me completely today? Yes, and He may someday. But I’m increasingly finding that God desires to use my disability to refine me and to allow others to encounter Him. Crisis events can change the trajectory of our life, but it is the daily decisions, the working out of our faith, that really determine the depth of our relationship with Christ.
So each day, as soon as I wake up and run smack into my limitations and my pain, I immediately face a choice: Do I approach my day with a spirit of bitterness and complaint, or an attitude of surrender and expectancy? Increasing nerve pain coupled with decreasing leg strength constantly introduces me to new realities that tempt me to choose the former. And many days I do! But in the moments that I surrender—acknowledging to God that He has allowed me to be here, and He will meet me here—I have a tremendous opportunity to grow and give to others.
As author Ann Voskamp writes in her blog,
[. . .] the good things in life are not so much health but holiness, not so much the riches of this world but relationship with God, not so much our plans but His presence—and He withholds no good thing from us because the greatest things aren’t ever things. He doesn’t withhold Jesus from us. And no matter where we are, we can always have as much of Jesus as we want.
A position of privilege
When I pray about my healing, I have to be honest with God about what I would do if I were healed. And I have a strong sense that if I were healed tomorrow, I would first go out and buy several pairs of trendy shoes to fit on my un-braced feet, and then I would quickly fall back into a life of self-sufficiency and pride. Everything I accomplish would again seem proof of my energy and talent, and my old everyday reality of dependence on God in everything would quickly fade into forgetfulness. I have no doubt that I would soon start living my life again at high speed, with fewer moments of simply sitting still and listening to the quiet voice of God.
Joni Eareckson Tada once wrote of her accident and subsequent disability, “God engineers circumstances. He used them to prove himself as well as my loyalty. Not everyone has this privilege.” After almost 20 years of dealing with my own chronic health condition, I can honestly say that I agree with Joni. More than any powerful sermon or decades of quiet time, my health struggles have helped me to love God better, depend on Him more, and live my days watching for His blessings.
For this time, and for both His glory and my good, God has placed me in this position of privilege. His gift to me through an imperfect body is a tangible awareness of a reality that is true for all humans: We can do nothing without God.