In my early twenties, a year after I finished college, my life plan went off the rails. What I thought was a minor ankle injury that would disappear in a week turned into a years-long slog through the land of chronic pain, depression, and anxiety.
Here was my life plan: get a Ph.D. in anthropology, write books about modern-day China, and—in the middle of all this—travel, backpack, hike, and dance as often as possible. The pain put me in either crutches or a walking boot intermittently, or simply forced me to limp, so items three and beyond from my list were off the table. The depression and anxiety enabled me to master the art of the silent scream at 2 a.m. while my husband slept and I lay awake, but they did not contribute to the clarity of mind required to complete items one and two.
What I thought was a minor ankle injury turned into a years-long slog through the land of chronic pain, depression, and anxiety.
In the worst of my fear-riddled, depressive dumps—it was February of 2011—a massive snowstorm pummeled the Chicago area. For once, these hardy Midwesterners I lived among called a snow day for all. No school or work, no Metra trains, no leaving the house. The exception was my husband, who ventured through 4-foot high snowdrifts to get to his office building, one block away. (I’m trying to remember if he earned his wastewater engineering firm’s legendary “Golden Plunger” award that year for being the only employee to show up that day.)
Alone in our shoebox apartment, I emailed some friends and asked them to join me in prayer and fasting. I was turning the snow day into a God-I’m-Banging-On-Your-Door-So-You’d-Better-Answer Day.
I spent a large part of that day lying on a green yoga mat that my husband had given me right before our wedding. I cried. I sang. I journaled. I prayer-danced, putting my weight on my good foot. In my self-made mental cave, I obsessively gripped onto what I feared I was losing, while shooting out questions like cannonballs at God, hoping they would explode Him out of His seeming inaction. When is this going to get better? Will it get better? What should I do next? Should I see a different doctor? Should I wait? Can’t you do something? Won’t you at least let me feel that you are near? And, of course, Why me? Why this?
As I ran out of ammunition, the silence settled heavy as the snow outside smothering the buildings of our town. I waited, but God was not in a hurry to answer my questions. The hours slid by as I lay there, shifting my weight from impatience to desperation to—in a very slow, creeping way—surrender to the silence. I felt chided, and I became more aware of my conceit. The questions I had asked were all about me, and what God would do for me. What if He was waiting to answer? Waiting until I asked Him a different set of questions?
Years later, I met a woman named Pat—now in her late 50s—who has lived with several chronic illnesses since she was a teenager. Her story spoke directly to the unanswered question marks hovering over my snow-pray day in 2011. Like me, she flung her Why questions at God. Gradually, though, her thoughts began to change.
“My focus is shifting more from me to God. It’s not about how I am feeling but about how God is longing to connect with me in this context,” she told me. Illness made her ask questions she never would have asked. It made her look in places she never would have looked. It gave her the opportunity, she said, “to be astonished.”
Here are some questions Pat now asks God, when the walls threaten to cave in:
What are You longing for me to know in this particular situation?
What aspect of Your nature do I need to receive in these circumstances?
And instead of, Why am I not able to do this thing that I thought I was meant to do?, she now asks, What can I do? How do I find meaning in what I can do?
I wish I could say that after my snow-pray day, and after learning from Pat, I was able to consistently adopt a different posture of heart—to ask God-focused questions more frequently. Some days I do. Other days I refuse to come out of my cave, and I hunker down to count my losses. But the invitation from God was and is always there. I am listening to your questions, Liuan, He says to me. Look up, look out, look around. My kingdom is at hand. Whether you can climb the Swiss Alps or only hobble down Main Street in Wheaton, Illinois, you can be a part of it. Try Me again—ask me a different question.