“The praises of the sick and the broken
excuse the silence of the healthy and whole.”
Rabbi Moshe Hakotun
What does it mean to have hope when life isn’t exactly running smoothly? Being sick and broken tests the faith we say we have when days are sunny. Isn’t just enduring and getting through the tough times the best we can do? What’s this about praising on top of it? Sorry Rabbi Hakotun, but having a transcendent perspective amid limitation seems just a bit far fetched.
This summer, I read a book called Joy in Our Weakness: A Gift of Hope from the Book of Revelation. The author, Marva Dawn, helps us deal with suffering by using Revelation as her text. She has lots of physical ailments. I couldn’t even hold a candle to what she has to live with — diabetes, constant intestinal pain, increasing blindness, a deaf ear, a crippled leg, and on top of everything, a cancer diagnosis. Finding joy in weakness isn’t theory for her. I was in a sump of despair about persistent headaches, and yet here was someone brimming with hope and gratitude even when dire circumstances did not change. Either she was completely deluded, or she was on to something. Despite my resistance, I decided I better give her message of God’s hope a chance and cracked open the book’s cover.
All my life, I’d heard how “God’s strength is made perfect in weakness” but to translate this riddle amid unwelcome circumstances is difficult. If I was honest, I didn’t want a transcendent perspective in weakness — I wanted the weakness to go away! It seemed to be making me ineffectual for the very service I thought I was called to. Where was the sense in that? What could the book of Revelation, surely the most confusing book of the Bible, have to say to me?
John, the author of Revelation, wrote the book for people who also had circumstances they wanted just to go away. Their lives had been changed by the coming of Jesus. His life, death and resurrection meant that things were no longer the same. But, when they looked at their present lives, they still saw much suffering and death. Jesus might have risen from the dead, but they and their friends were being persecuted and even killed for their faith. They were up against the beast of the Roman Empire, having to confront the oppressive rule with their new values as Jesus followers. Surely suffering was the end of the story.
Yet in the word pictures of Revelation, they met with a God who didn’t portray himself as a strong lion, but as a suffering and slaughtered Lamb who was the hope of the world! Through the crazy imagery and
stories, the people were encouraged to believe that suffering was not an end in itself, but the path that Love walked on to the way to God’s kingdom. They met with a Suffering Servant, Christ, who reigned in the midst of suffering and experienced the presence of God, who would be with them in the same way. This became the central message for a beleaguered people. It’s certainly not easy to see in the moment, then or now, and I’d never say it glibly, but God can make times of trial into something good.
Despite my opposition, Marva held my attention. I kept turning the pages. In the stories she shared, I met the friends she had dedicated the book to, a quadriplegic and another with kidney disease and dependent on lengthy dialysis. Through them, Marva saw that people didn’t have to be defined by their suffering but could instead be changed by the reign of God in their lives.
These two men, Linden and Tim, along with Marva, became my guides. They bore witness that our times of weakness or trial can help us recognize the true meaning of faith in the Suffering Servant.
Those suffering in the book of Revelation asked the same question echoing through the ages, “How long?” When we hear the constant stream of bad news in our world and in our neighbourhoods, we join the lament. “How long oh Lord? How long until this suffering ends?”
Marva Dawn points out that true biblical patience can turn our lament around by asking another question, “Who is God in the midst of this?” “Such patience does not mean waiting until things change, but learning to wait because of who God is even when things don’t change.” What wins the day is not the oppressions that drag us down, but the character of a God who loves when the battle is grimmest.
As I told my friends about the book, what kept bubbling to the surface were the stories which fleshed out the theory. The one I repeated the most was of the time Marva Dawn was in despair over her health issues. “I don’t have time for this!” she complained. “This is taking years off my life.” How often had I had the exact complaints with headaches! Her friend Linden, a quadriplegic, quietly answered, “I try to see that God is the Lord over my body too.”
Or the story of her horror when due to the latest complication of her diabetes, doctors thought her foot might have to be amputated. In response to her panic, her friend gently suggested that whatever God wanted her to do in life, if worst came to worst, maybe she wouldn’t need a foot to do it. This might seem like cold comfort, but what it suggests is that perhaps God can use us more effectively in our limitations than if we were dependent on our own powers. These quiet voices of Marva’s stories might seem small, but a new perspective slowly began to take the place of the despair I had been feeling.
For me, the pivotal point in the book came as the author took a deeper look at the verse I knew all my life, “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” The verse comes from 2 Corinthians, where the Apostle Paul describes his suffering from the thorn in his flesh. Three times he asked God to take it away, and three times, God answered that God’s grace was enough.
Marva suggested that my childhood verse could use a better translation. Looking more closely at the original Greek, she offered this in its place: “Our power is brought to its end in weakness.”
Over the next weeks, like a mantra, I kept turning this phrase over and over in my mind and heart. “Our
power is brought to its end in weakness”. Power. My power, the lion power I thought I had when I was well and everything was going according to my plans, was being brought to an end, like a slaughtered lamb. And what did I have in its place? Weakness. Dependence. The kind of weak dependence that brings a person to their knees, hoping for Someone who understands and can let the light into a dark corner. Our ego power is brought to its end in weakness, but God’s power is stronger than what would bring us down. A lamb can be stronger than a lion. The victory has already been won, even though it often looks otherwise.
Instead of kicking against reality, I was learning that struggling with illness and limitation could help me learn to become a trusting child of God, dependent on God’s vast imagination which knows how to turn even the worst news into something new. Revelation 7 talks about a God who still “tabernacles” or tents with us in every circumstance. When we endure circumstances that might not change, we can point to our God who still tabernacles with us. A God who stays with us and whispers, “It’s not the end of the story. Keep reading.”
Reading Marva Dawn’s book was a perfect counterpoint to the well-worn grooves of cynicism in my heart as I remembered God’s abiding friendship. Our troubles may be too big for us, but they are never too big for God to carry for us. (And oddly, since I’ve read this book, I can’t help noticing the headaches are not visiting as constantly.) Who is God in the midst of suffering? Like the best marriage partner, God is with us in both sickness and health, bringing out the best in us.
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” 2 Corinthians 4:8-9