It was a Tuesday, at around 11 a.m., three days before my 40th birthday. My phone rang, and I guessed from the blocked number that it was my doctor calling to give me the results of a blood test I had taken the day before. I was right about who it was but was not prepared for what he was calling to say. He told me he thought I might be in the early stages of heart failure and that I needed to go to the emergency room right away. They were waiting for me.
I was right about who it was but was not prepared for what he was calling to say.
This is often how affliction comes to us—suddenly. It throws us. It scares us. It shatters our illusions of control. But after the initial shock has a chance to die down, we discover that affliction also awakens us to things we could not have seen otherwise. When I first learned of the severity of my condition, I was afraid. But along with the fear also came a sense of wonder and curiosity. I felt that I was at the beginning of an adventure—one I instinctively did not want to miss. I have since discovered that many in my position have felt the same sort of fascination.
The Power of Curiosity
Curiosity is a spiritual virtue. When God created this world and everything that is in it, He gave a human being the task of naming much of what he saw (Gen. 2:19-20). Our first parent had to look at, let’s say, a bear and consider its qualities—its size, ferocity, usefulness, complexity, color, and habits—and then give it a name. Curiosity is the work of giving names to things, and in the process, gaining understanding of those things.
We continue Adam’s work of naming when new things come our way, and that includes suffering. To many, affliction shows up as an unfamiliar beast—something untamed and dangerous, which it often is. But with it comes an invitation to look upon things we have never encountered and try to understand them, and ourselves, better.
I had a seminary professor who used to say, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Or to put it in the positive, we know only what we already know. We see this world and our place in it through the lens of what we already know. We can’t help it. The danger comes when we assume that what we already see and know is all there is. When we think this way, there is no use for curiosity. And we have no way to welcome the unexpected, though it will certainly come.
With affliction comes an invitation to look upon things we have never encountered and try to understand them, and ourselves, better.
Affliction arrests that sort of thinking. It has the power, I believe, to quiet the voices in our head that think they already know everything. Seeing through our suffering doesn’t show us a new world. It shows us more of the world we think we already know. For example, my affliction showed me, a generally healthy guy, just how fragile I can become and how quickly. It also showed me that my faith was not purely academic. It was intensely practical. Having to face my own mortality drew out of me things that had been there all along but had never been tested—like the love of my family and the true quality of my faith.
Interrogating my Faith
When I learned how severe my illness was, one of the things I was most curious about was what would come of my faith. I honestly didn’t know. What happens to people when a doctor tells them they are dying? Will they discover that their faith was nothing more than a house of cards too easily toppled by the winds of suffering? Would I? Will you?
Jesus tells us that in this world we will have trouble. Affliction does not come as a surprise to God. And Christ Himself is no stranger to it, either. He is a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3). When my trouble came, I wondered if Christ would overcome my doubt and fear, or if my season of needles, bacterial infection, open-heart surgery, neurological problems, MRIs, CT scans, syrupy IV treatments, rehab, and setbacks would expose me as a fool. Would my faith fold under the weight of my affliction? Would I feel alone and abandoned by God? I was genuinely curious. These questions were beasts as yet unnamed.
My True Confession
Here’s what I found. Through all the pain, uncertainty, and grief, God’s grace has been sufficient for me (2 Corinthians 12:9). His grace is a gift, as is the faith through which it comes, so I can’t take credit for either. But I can tell you this: They are at work in me. If this sounds like a boast, I suppose it is. It is a boast in God. I’m neither smart enough nor tenacious enough to construct this faith that has held. On my own, I would ruin it with conditions, demands, and nearsighted expectations.
Don’t misunderstand. I can fear with the best of them. And I routinely question and worry over things beyond my control. I lament and cry out and grieve deeply. But these actions did not dominate my season of sickness and suffering. Hope did. God did not leave me alone, abandoned, or betrayed. In my sorrow and in my tears, He comforted me. In my weakness, He showed Himself strong. I never felt His absence, even when I felt His silence.
I did not find God’s promises lacking. Out beyond the limits of what I could have imagined, I found they held. I believe them still. I believe that a cross and the empty tomb three days later proclaim to the cosmos that God Himself has engaged in our struggles, and that He has already prevailed (1 Cor. 15:55-57). I believe that all things will be made new.
Curiosity That Looks Like Longing
Affliction is bound to find us, and when it does, whatever faith we profess—along with all its convictions regarding the meaning of this life and the next—will be tested. Sometimes affliction comes suddenly and lasts only a moment. Other times, it comes and takes us out of this world. Often though, affliction shows up like an unsuspected wave, tossing us around in its currents for a season before washing us back up onto our familiar shores. What then? Do we thank our lucky stars that we survived and try to return to the life we knew before any of this happened? Is that even an option? And if so, at what cost?
Paying attention to the world and our place in it helps us better understand the heart of God.
Affliction shapes our lives. It comes for us all—in our own personal distress or in the sufferings of those we love. It has come for me, and I know it will come again. And it will come for you, too. The least we can do is pay attention. Paying attention to the world and our place in it helps us better understand the heart of God. He is present in both the calm and the storm, in the bitter and the sweet, in seasons of strength and weakness. And He often shows us things in one season that we simply could not see in the other.
Of course, I still worry about things that are beyond my control, but my faith has held. Fear has not defined this season.
What has? A curiosity that has begun to look more and more like longing.
But it is not a longing to be well, or strong, or in a more ideal situation in life. It is, as C. S. Lewis described, a longing not for better things but for the best possible. And thats a longing for something this world cannot deliver. It is a longing for crying, death, sadness, tears, and pain to cease. It is a desire to live in perfect peace with our bodies, our friends, and our God. It is a longing for this world to be made new.
Unmet desires in this life are intended to arouse a hunger for the next. Physical limitations are felt as an ache for a perfected body. Coming face to face with my mortality has awakened my appetite for eternity and renewed a sense of hope that, as Tolkien said, one day every sad thing will come untrue. Until then, we live in a world filled with pain. But it is also filled with wonder, and it is good to be alive.
Collage by MLC